Thursday, May 3, 2018

Admiral-In-Chief: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Invasion of Norfolk, Part I

By A.J. Orlikoff
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

This illustration published in 1907 depicts an attack against Confederate-held Sewells Point on May 8, 1862 by U.S. Navy vessels such as USS Monitor (in the lead) and the experimental Revenue Cutter E.A. Stevens (also known as the USRC Naugatuck) (following immediately behind).  The steam sloops Dacotah and Seminole, and steam frigates San Jacinto and Susquehanna are also depicted as having taken part in the bombardment against Confederate troops of the Columbus (Georgia) Light Guard and the Norfolk Light Artillery Blues. The circular structure in the middle distance to the right represents Fort Wool, despite the fact that its final design was a crescent at best, with Fort Monroe beyond, also looking much larger and closer than it would have looked to those manning the batteries, under a battle flag with a design that did not exist that early in the war. (Naval History and Heritage Command/ NH 58756)

On the afternoon of May 7, 1862, a tall figure stood upon the ramparts of Fort Wool in the middle of Hampton Roads. The figure watched as a powerful naval strike force, spearheaded by the ironclad Monitor, advanced towards the Confederate batteries at Sewells Point. Just that morning, the man who now watched as the ships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron moved into position had quickly appraised the strategic situation in Hampton Roads and prodded the naval commander, Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough, to utilize his powerful naval assets to conduct a “demonstration” against the Confederate works. With the rare opportunity to watch an operation he had ordered in person, the figure watched as the U.S. Navy flotilla, with powerful 11-inch guns, opened fire on the Sewells Point defenses. 
Fort Wool (formerly known as Fort Calhoun and known informally as the Rip Raps) on a man made island sitting roughly equidistant between Fort Monroe and Willoughby Spit, was the closest U.S. Army territory to Confederate-held Norfolk during the spring of 1862, making it a good vantage point for President Lincoln.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
The "Rebel Batteries" of Sewells Point as they appeared in Harper's Weekly on November 8, 1861.  A print of this appears in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum gallery. (Marcus W. Robbins via
Their fire was devastating as the Confederate defenders desperately tried to fight back. As the man on the ramparts watched, cannons to his left and right joined the furious cannonade as the Confederate batteries were silenced. As the smoke cleared, the Navy strike force shifted their fire to other Confederate batteries a half mile away from Sewells Point and the man on the ramparts was surely gratified that his strategic wisdom to strike the Confederate batteries had been sound. The man on the ramparts was Abraham Lincoln, Commander-in-Chief and President of the United States, and he was determined to make good use of his time in Hampton Roads in May of 1862.
Although it was common to have to sit still while being photographed during the Civil War, Alexander Gardner's photograph of this meeting at Antietam, Maryland, in October 1862 between President Abraham Lincoln and Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan captures the stilted relationship between the two men.  The following month, Lincoln would remove McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac, and two years later, McClellan would run against Lincoln for the presidency.  (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division via Wikimedia Commons)
Lincoln’s arrival in Hampton Roads, which resulted in the naval operations which led to Norfolk’s capture by Union forces, ironically had nothing to do with a desire to spur the U.S. Navy into action. Rather, Lincoln had arrived to confer with Union General-in-Chief George B. McClellan on his now notorious over cautiousness and lethargy during the Peninsular Campaign of 1862, when the vast Army of the Potomac was stalled by a much smaller Confederate army in Yorktown. Lincoln, having arrived at a time when McClellan deemed it inconvenient to meet with the Commander-in-Chief, was not one to sit idle and he almost immediately decided to take control of the naval situation in Hampton Roads while he waited for McClellan to meet with him.

This engraving published in the July-December 1861 volume of Harper's Weekly depicts 13 merchant steamships acquired by the U.S. Navy between April and August 1861 and subsequently converted into warships, plus the steamer Nashville (far left), which became a Confederate cruiser. U.S. Navy ships, as identified below the image bottom, are (from left to right): Alabama, Quaker City, Santiago de Cuba (listed as St. Jago de Cuba), Mount Vernon, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Florida, De Soto, Augusta, James Adger, Monticello, Bienville and R.R. Cuyler. (HN 5936/ Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
The U.S. Navy, over its illustrious history, has benefited from a number of ardent navalist presidents. Presidents John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt were famous naval champions who consistently fought for and touted the benefits of a strong U.S. Navy. However, many leave Lincoln out of the discussion of navalist presidents even though Lincoln was as much a naval champion as any president. In fact, Lincoln presided over an era of unprecedented naval spending and activity with the U.S. Navy exploding in size from 42 ships in commission at the beginning of the war to 671 by the end of the war, an increase in size by a factor of 15. This naval buildup was no accident as the Union “Anaconda Plan,” the grand strategy devised by the old General Winfield Scott and approved by Lincoln, relied heavily upon the Navy to blockade the Confederate coast, close its major ports, and isolate portions of the Confederacy by controlling the major rivers. To Lincoln, the U.S. Navy was a vital instrument in the military symphony designed to quell the rebellion.

This contemporary stylized map by J.B. Elliot illustrates the general concept of the U.S. Navy's Anaconda Plan, conceived by the Army's senior general at the outbreak of the Civil War, Winfield Scott. (Library of Congress Geography and map Division)  
Lincoln was certainly an unlikely naval champion. From an inland state and with, by his own admission, no naval experience, Lincoln nevertheless took to naval affairs almost immediately after taking office, though admittedly by necessity with the question of supplying Fort Sumter. However, by all accounts, Lincoln was greatly personally interested in the fleets, strategies, and technological aspects of the U.S. Navy. Lincoln was particularly fascinated by naval technology and one of his favorite activities during the war was to visit his friend Ordnance Chief Captain John A. Dahlgren at the Washington Naval Yard to personally view the latest naval technologies and weapons.

The then Captain Dahlgren, pictured here on the USS Pawnee next to the cannon that bore his name, was a technological visionary who served as Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance until his promotion to Rear Admiral in 1863. He was a close friend of Lincoln's and both men had immense respect for each other's abilities. (Library of Congress)

One of Lincoln’s greatest qualities as both a Commander-in-Chief and as an individual was his capacity to rapidly invest himself in and learn something that was unfamiliar to him. As a result Lincoln, by the time he was watching the bombardment of Sewells Point from the ramparts of Fort Wool in May 1862, was an adept naval strategist in his own right and he was resolved to take the fight to the enemy in Hampton Roads. With the Confederate batteries silenced, Lincoln watched as a puff of black smoke became visible from around the bend of the Elizabeth River. The CSS Virginia, terror of the Confederate Navy and the Monitor’s old opponent at the Battle of Hampton Roads, was coming to do battle. 

An Alfred Waud sketch of the Rip Raps (Fort Wool) in 1861. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
As seen from off Old Point Comfort in 2016, Fort Wool looms in front of the Ocean View section of Norfolk.  The top of the Westin Virginia Beach Town Center can be seen in the far distance middle left. (M.C. Farrington)  

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