Lincoln And The Navy

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In May 1862, two months after the ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack ) fought to a draw in Hampton Roads, Virginia, President Abraham Lincoln traveled south from Washington on a revenue cutter to visit the Army of the Potomac, intending to prod his recalcitrant general, George B. McClellan, into action. The president took with him Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and Gen. Egbert Ludovicus Viele, who had recently returned from the capture of Fort Pulaski off Savannah.

Lincoln’s destination was Fort Monroe, the largest and most powerful of the forts constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers between 1819 and 1834 as part of the Second System of coastal fortifications. The fortress had remained in Union hands despite its location in Virginia because Maj. Gen. John E. Wool had quickly reinforced it while the lame- duck James Buchanan administration had dithered over Fort Sumter. Since then the massive fortress at the tip of the peninsula formed by the York and side of the Confederacy, for it protected the Union anchorage in Hampton Roads.

Lincoln and his party spent the night aboard the USS Minnesota , flagship of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, from whose broad deck the next morning, May 7, 1862, he viewed the fort and the half-dozen imperious warships at anchor, plus the intriguing form of the Monitor 's “cheesebox on a raft” stump of a turret. That turret, only 22 feet across, was the only part of the Monitor that showed from a distance, making the warship seem insignificant next to the others, including the huge side-wheel steamer Vanderbilt , recently reinforced with an iron-plated ram to enable it to contend with the feared rebel ironclad that Lincoln and all other Union officials continued to call the Merrimack . That vessel’s rampage on March 8 had destroyed two Union warships and greatly frightened the capital, leading some (including Secretary Stanton) to believe that the dreaded ironclad would steam unchallenged up the Potomac and lay waste to Washington.

The Blockading Squadron’s commander, Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, pointed out to the president the pertinent military features of the roadstead, including the scene of the famous ironclad action and the rebel batteries that were clearly in sight at Sewell’s Point. Lincoln studied these and asked why the Navy tolerated their continued presence. To this, Goldsborough had no good answer, and he agreed to organize a “demonstration”—a kind of reconnaissance in force—to test them. Lincoln had come to Fort Monroe to motivate his reluctant general, but he saw that a certain stimulus was likely to be needed in other quarters as well.

While Goldsborough went off to set things in motion, the official party made a round of visits. After breakfast ashore, the president boarded a tug and went out to see the Monitor . The six-foot, four-inch Lincoln was an incongruity onboard the little ironclad. His manner, too, was different from that of most visitors. Whereas others gushed (“like a bottle of soda water,” said one visitor), Lincoln was quiet, thoughtful, and asked practical questions. His guides were surprised and impressed that “he was well acquainted with all the mechanical details of our construction.” He shook hands with all the officers, including its new commanding officer, William N. Jeffers, and before he left asked that the crew be assembled. He walked past them, looked into their faces, and then thanked all for their service. As he left, they raised three cheers.

That afternoon the president and his entourage again boarded the tug and went out to the Rip Raps Battery, a small manmade island about a third of the way between Fort Monroe and Sewell’s Point, to watch the demonstration. Just before noon the great ships were in motion. The steamers, led by the Seminole , upped their anchors and moved, very slowly it seemed, against their objective. They began firing 11-inch shells, the white gun smoke mixing with the black clouds from the stacks. When one of the shells carried away the enemy flagstaff, some brave soul in the rebel battery climbed onto the ramparts with another Confederate flag that he waved until another shell from the Seminole put an end to his defiance. The little Monitor also got under way, joining its big guns to the bombardment: “A belch of smoke, followed in a few seconds by a report like distant thunder.” A few of the guns at the Rip Raps added their voices. As Lincoln watched, “the small [rebel] battery at the extreme point was silenced,” and the Union gunners shifted their fire to another battery about half a mile nearer Norfolk. Given the ease with which the Navy’s guns silenced the enemy’s shore batteries, Lincoln may have wondered why Goldsborough had waited until now to attempt the attack.