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Lincoln and His Admirals

by Craig L. Symonds, Oxford University Press, 2008, $27.95

The historiography of the Civil War is dominated by studies of the participants, tactics, weaponry and strategies of the war’s various land campaigns. Veteran historian Craig L. Symonds, a former U.S. Naval Academy professor, has taken a major step in redressing that imbalance with his latest book Lincoln and His Admirals, an excellently written and judiciously argued evaluation of Union military strategy from the perspective of fresh and salt water operations.

The key role Abraham Lincoln played in helping the North win the war is finally being recognized. Symonds details Lincoln’s evolution into “the greatest commander-in-chief in American history” by focusing on the president’s oversight, and sometimes implementation, of U.S. naval operations. Lincoln began to realize the importance of sea power during the attempts to relieve Fort Sumter in the winter and early spring of 1861.

The application of the naval blockade that followed the onset of hostilities was central to Lincoln’s overall strategy for Union victory. Indeed, the president initiated a stunning expansion of U.S. sea power. From 76 vessels in April 1861, the Federal Navy had deployed 100 ships by the end of the year. By the end of the war, more than 500 were committed to the blockade, the largest naval buildup in American history until 1941.

Lincoln chose wisely when he selected Gideon Welles as his secretary of the Navy. Welles was intelligent, diligent and efficient, although Symonds criticizes him for occasionally being unnecessarily abrasive.

Welles’ key subordinate was Gustavus Fox, who so impressed Lincoln during the Sumter crisis that the position of assistant secretary of the Navy was created just for him. Lincoln seems to have had quicker success in identifying naval officers with the dash, imagination and ability he deemed necessary to the North’s success than their Army counterparts: David Farragut, for example.

Since no combined chief of staff existed during the war, and Army officers could not issue orders to the Navy (and vice versa), Lincoln was often forced to use his powers as commander in chief to coordinate joint land–water operations. The president directed the supply of gunboats and mortar barges on the Western rivers when neither the Army nor Navy would accept responsibility for their construction and operation.

The subsequent success of the Union victories on the Tennessee, Cumber land and Mississippi rivers owed much to Lincoln’s energy. His most direct intervention in waterborne operations occurred shortly after the March 1862 battle between the Monitor and Virginia.

Upon visiting the Nor – folk area, Lincoln nudged Flag Officer Louis M. Golds – borough into shelling the Rebel fortifications. Lincoln even identified a promising site to land troops for a march against Norfolk that forced the Confederates to abandon the Norfolk Navy Yard in early May, scuttling Virginia in the process.

Symonds notes how the separate command structure of the Federal forces that necessitated Lincoln’s intervention was often surmounted by the cooperative personalities of the principals involved: Ulysses Grant and his counterparts at Fort Donelson, Shiloh and Vicksburg and John Dahlgren and Alfred Terry at Charleston, for instance, were successful partnerships. The efforts of David Dixon Porter and Nathaniel Banks to work together along the Red River in 1864, however, was a fiasco.

Lincoln and His Admirals is a smoothly written, tightly observed analysis of an important aspect of the Union war effort. It is an important contribution to our understanding of Northern military success and the evolution of Abe Lincoln as a triumphant warlord.


Originally published in the May 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here