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Lincoln and His Admirals

By Craig L. Symonds. 430 pp. Oxford University Press, 2008 $27.95

We know a great deal about President Lincoln’s relations with his generals, but much less about his dealings with his admirals and his Navy Department. Craig L. Symonds, a professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy, has filled this gap with a compelling tale about Lincoln’s dealings with the navy and the prickly men who ran it.

Lincoln faced the same challenge with his admirals as he did with his generals: goading them into action. The Civil War was a period of enormous technical change and officers of the old navy were leery of newfangled vessels such as monitors and ironclads, which were slow, dirty, and unreliable.

To compound matters, whereas Lincoln had some concept of fighting on land, he had never been to sea and was, in fact, prone to seasickness.

The navy’s first priority was to blockade the ports along the Confederacy’s 3,500- mile coastline, to prevent both the import of war materiel and the export of Southern cotton. Although never airtight, the blockade eventually involved more than 500 ships, and doubtless discouraged many a would-be blockade-runner. “In its sheer size and ambition,” Mr. Symonds writes, the blockade “was the greatest naval operation ever undertaken by the United States.”

The nature of the war called for close cooperation between the army and navy. On occasion, this was achieved, usually when there was good personal rapport between cooperating commanders. Mr. Symonds cites the 1862 amphibious campaign against Roanoke, Virginia, and the Vicksburg campaign as examples of commendable interservice cooperation.

However, there was always a potential for land-sea rivalry.

When Adm. Louis Goldsborough was asked to place himself under Gen. George B. McClellan’s command in an emergency, the admiral replied that “he would never under any circumstances place himself under the orders of an officer of the army.”

One result of military stagnation in 1861 and 1862 was that Lincoln felt obliged to become active as commander in chief. In Mr. Symonds’s judgment, the president “played an important role in coordinating the river war out west; he had personally helped orchestrate the capture of Norfolk….Most important of all, he had redefined the nature of the war itself by striking at…the institution of slavery.”

Just as it took Lincoln years to come up with competent generals, it was trial and error with the navy. Only Adm. David Farragut, who captured New Orleans in the navy’s greatest strategic victory, gained and retained Lincoln’s confidence. Nevertheless, the president kept the friendship of even those he fired, like admirals Samuel Du Pont and Charles Wilkes. Mr. Symonds writes, “Lincoln’s willingness to listen sympathetically…and his ability to salve wounded egos with kind words convinced both disappointed admirals that the president was their friend.”

Mr. Symonds has provided more than a splendid study of the Civil War at sea; he offers fresh insights into Abraham Lincoln as commander in chief.


Originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.