Lincoln And The Navy

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As the president watched, a larger puff of black smoke “curled up over the woods” behind Sewell’s Point. Almost in unison, those watching from the ramparts declared, “There comes the Merrimack .” Sure enough, the iron monster came glacially into view, so slowly that before it had fully cleared the Point, Lincoln and his party were already back onboard the tug en route to Fort Monroe. The wooden U.S. warships raised anchor and began to move away, under strict orders—Lincoln’s orders, in fact—to avoid battle with the Merrimack and to leave it to the Monitor and the Vanderbilt plus the two or three other vessels that had been modified with heavy rams. The Monitor held its ground, offering battle, and soon there was “a clear sheet of water” between the two ironclads. But at that point, as Chase noted, “the great rebel terror paused—then turned back.”

The silencing of the Sewell’s Point batteries was gratifying, but rather than bask in this limited success, Lincoln at once sought to take advantage of it. After reviewing the soldiers in their campsite near Hampton, he was back on the tug heading to the Minnesota when he asked the captain to lay him alongside the Monitor . There he deferentially asked Jeffers if “there would be any military impropriety” if the officer got his ship under way without orders from Goldsborough; if not, would he please conduct a reconnaissance of Sewell’s Point to see if the works had in fact been abandoned and then “report to him the result.” Back on the Minnesota , Lincoln suggested to Wool that if the rebel works ashore had been vanquished, it might be possible to land troops there and assail Norfolk from the rear. Wool was hesitant, claiming an absence of satisfactory landing sites and the still-real threat of the Merrimack . A few officers suggested that Ambrose Everett Burnside’s army could be reinforced in North Carolina to march on Norfolk from the south. It may have seemed to Lincoln that nearly all his officers—of both services—favored an indirect over a direct approach.

That afternoon, however, Secretary Chase returned from a cruise on the Miami to tell Lincoln that he and General Wool had found “a good and convenient landing place" on the south shore of the roadstead, safely away from the Merrimack 's anchorage. Lincoln called for a chart, spoke with a local pilot, and identified an even closer landing site. He told Chase that he "wished to go and .see about it on the spot.” Thus the president of the United States and two of his cabinet members led a naval reconnaissance of the Virginia shore. Lincoln and Stanton boarded the small tug along with “some 20 armed soldiers from the Rip Raps,” Chase following in the larger Miami . With a shallower draft, the tug could get closer inshore. Several horsemen appeared on the beach, and, concerned for the president’s safety, Chase asked by signal if the Miami should open fire. Lincoln said no, and the tug soon drew out of range.

Back at Fort Monroe, Wool agreed to conduct an amphibious landing near Sewell’s Point, though he preferred the beach that he and Chase had visited to Lincoln’s selection. The president deferred to Wool, who issued the pertinent orders, and aides took off to designate units and arrange for transports.

At the same time, Lincoln sought to support McClellan’s push up the peninsula, which, after all, had prompted his trip here in the first place. As it happened, the rebel army had evacuated the Yorktown line the day before Lincoln left Washington, and McClellan was now several miles up the peninsula orchestrating a pursuit. Because of “the present state of affairs,” McClellan declared that he was too busy to leave his command and see the president, although he did query Lincoln about the possibility for “the Galena and other gunboats to move up James River” and out-flank the defenders.

Lincoln put the question to Goldsborough that night. Even though the flag officer came ashore after the president had retired, Lincoln had left instructions that he be woken regardless of the time. Propped up in bed, Lincoln emphasized the importance of supporting McClellan’s advance: it was urgent that the Galena, and perhaps the Monitor too, be sent up the James as soon as possible. Goldsborough hesitated, commenting that in order to do that he would have to bring other vessels around from the York River to maintain continued superiority in Hampton Roads. At this, Stanton, who was also present, lost his temper and “in the most impatient and imperious manner insisted that it should be done instantly.” Acting as a soothing intermediary, Lincoln merely reiterated that the mission was urgent, and he saved Goldsborough’s face by asking which officer he thought should command the expedition. Goldsborough named John Rodgers, captain of the Galena, who was promptly sent for. Asked by the president whether he were willing to lead the James operation, Rodgers of course replied in the affirmative. Lincoln thanked both officers for their support, and Stanton left to inform McClellan by telegraph that the flanking movement was under way.