Sunday Salon – Review of “Lincoln And His Admirals,” by Craig L. Symonds

The Sunday

Craig Symonds, Professor Emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy where he taught naval history and Civil War History for thirty years, and the author of ten previous books, examines Lincoln’s presidency through the lens of the naval side of the Civil War, a perspective often neglected in Civil War scholarship. He accomplishes several goals.

One is to show the importance of naval operations for the Civil War. Another is to provide evidence of Lincoln’s growth as a leader during his four years of presidency. A third is to enlighten readers about “Lincoln’s admirals,” since they are relatively unknown compared to “Lincoln’s generals.”

When Lincoln assumed the presidency, he had no knowledge of navies or navy matters, yet had to oversee the development and deployment of the largest naval force in American history to date. The very week Lincoln took office, he was beset by the crisis facing Fort Sumter – located in the middle of Charleston Harbor – which needed to be either resupplied or surrendered. He had to borrow New York City tugboats to help supplement America’s tiny marine arsenal to resupply the fort. But by the midsummer of 1864, the U.S. Navy had more than six hundred warships in commission. Symonds observes that this scale of naval development would not be eclipsed until the world wars.

Symonds quotes Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first-term vice president, as saying that “eulogists make the mistake of constructing a Lincoln who was as great the day he left Springfield as when he made his earthly exit four years later.” This does Lincoln a disservice, Symonds claims, by understating the enormous strides he made while in office.

Lincoln was forced to become a student of naval warfare just as he had to become a student of land warfare. He effected a blockade of the South, wrestling not only with its legal technicalities, but also with the logistics of doing so without enough ships. He also had to deal with intermittent international crises involving foreign governments. Some of these governments, intent on the profits that would come from trading with the South, resisted interference at neutral ports. Others wanted contracts honored with the South for such goods as cotton and tobacco that had been executed prior to the outbreak of hostilities.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox

Lincoln had to cope with constant internecine conflicts not only among his admirals, and those aspiring to be admirals, but also between “Mars” and “Neptune” in his cabinet (as he referred to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles). (Tellingly, Gustavus Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, wrote in a letter, ”I feel that my duties are two fold: first, to beat our southern friends; second to beat the Army.”)

Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, was, as Symonds characterizes him, “by turns blunt, challenging, cantankerous, and tiresomely earnest. He was protective of his commander in chief and jealous of the influence exercised on him by others, especially Secretary of State William Henry Seward.” In fact, conflict between Welles and Seward eclipsed that between Neptune and Mars (i.e., Stanton). Seward was constantly “interfering” in naval matters because of his (and Lincoln’s) overriding interest both in keeping Britain and France out of the war, and in avoiding a new war with either of them. Lincoln often played the role of judge between his jousting secretaries, requiring written answers to his “interrogatories” to justify their positions.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles

One source of animosity between not only Welles and Stanton but which also involved Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, was the scramble for captured or abandoned cotton, or “white gold.” Since fortunes could be made from the cotton, not only did Navy, War, and State fight over custody of the cotton, but the three services stole captured cotton from each other.

Another problem was that there was no protocol in the American military for a combined command of army and navy operations. Achieving cooperation was difficult, and fraught with resistance and counter accusations. Yet many big battles in the Civil War depended on joint land and river maneuvers. Lincoln often had to get involved, even directing the movement of ships and the dispatch of supplies. Not until Ulysses S. Grant took over as General-in-Chief of all the armies of the United States did Lincoln find a leader with both the ability and the respect to handle the competing branches of the services.

Ulysses S. Grant

One interesting complication concerned “the contrabands,” as escaped black slaves were called. Union army leaders could not provision or protect all the escapees they were attracting. Many were quietly added to the navy’s ships. The Army thought that having armed ex-slaves about would be threatening to civilians. But blacks serving on ships were virtually invisible. Moreover, white sailors were happy to assign the drudgework of maintaining the vessels to former slaves. Welles insisted the blacks so employed earn pay. [In January 1, 1863, in the Final Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln declared that “such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”]

Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren

Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren

Most of the portraits that Symonds paints of the navy leaders are not flattering. Charles Wilkes, for example, “entered the war with a well-earned reputation for cupidity and obstinacy, and lived up to it during the war.” David Dixon Porter was “brash, self-promoting, and not always truthful.” Lincoln came to think of Samuel Francis DuPont as “a nautical George McClellan.” Lincoln’s favorite admiral, John A. Dahlgren, was judged to have gone insane. [In all fairness, it was also thought from time to time that General William T. Sherman had gone insane.] The reluctance of some of the naval officers to fight “compelled [Lincoln] to become involved in the planning and execution of particular campaigns, even directing an amphibious landing on the Virginia coast to capture Norfolk.”

Much of the book chronicles the unrelenting carping and complaining among admirals and aspiring admirals, bemoaning their equipment, expressing jealousy over appointments and assignments, and seeking retribution for various slights. Some even enlisted various political champions to plead their cases personally to Welles or the President.

David Dixon Porter

David Dixon Porter

But Lincoln was fond of the navy and its ships and technology, and on his last full day of life, he took Mary down to the Navy Yard to tour the ironclad Montauk. Afterwards, he told the officers he was going to Ford’s Theater that night, and they should feel free to join him as his guests. As Symonds remarks at the end of his book: “Many of them accepted at once. It promised to be a festive evening.”

This book is a welcome addition to the category of “niche” books on Lincoln. The navy’s role was greater than most people assume, and the way in which its growth parallels and illustrates Lincoln’s growth provides an interesting perspective on this great man, about whom we can never read too much.

Published by Oxford University Press, 2008

Note: Co-Winner of Gettysburg College’s 2009 Lincoln Prize

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3 Responses to Sunday Salon – Review of “Lincoln And His Admirals,” by Craig L. Symonds

  1. Margaret says:

    This looks great! I love naval history, but have to admit my knowledge of it when it comes to the Civil War is less than adequate. I’ll definitely add this to my list as I’m on a bit of a Civil War streak right now. I just finished Two Brothers: One North, One South and was really impressed with how meticulous the research was, and how the story was told.

  2. I love Civil War and Lincoln books, but I would have to say the most informative naval history I ever read was Nelson’s Trafalgar (my review is here.) It is full of amazing facts about life aboard ship!

  3. Vicki Erickson says:

    Lincoln’s hero spirit Is alive and well in Somerset Calif.
    That is The Lord rules over the spirit of Lincoln and
    certain men in his blood line, the saints in
    modern day history that the Lord has made.

    He was a very religious man for your information.

    Only a few men have his qualities and I married one.

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