Lincoln And The Navy

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Everyone was up early the next morning. As Rodgers prepared to support McClellan, the amphibious expedition aimed at Norfolk got started. Some 5,000 soldiers marched down from Hampton to embark in canal boats at the Fort Monroe docks. Stanton agreed to let Wool lead the attack personally. Lincoln, Stanton, Chase, and General Viele went along as well. The president was very Much caught up in the moment: one soldier recalled seeing him “rushing about, hollering to someone on the wharf.” The landing itself was haphazard as troops splashed ashore and congregated above the beach. Chase and Viele went ashore with the troops, while Lincoln and Stanton remained aboard ship and returned to Fort Monroe.

Confusion reigned as the troops moved cautiously inland. Appalled by the chaos, Chase forcefully questioned Wool, who declared that the confusion stemmed from officers who were fearful about violating the chain of command and therefore were hesitating to act on their own initiative. Fed up with such punctiliousness, Chase ordered Viele “in the name of the President of the United States” to take command of the advance and march toward Norfolk. Briefly delayed by a destroyed bridge, the Union soldiers soon encountered an abandoned enemy camp, its barracks still smoldering, which contained 21 abandoned heavy guns. Cheered by this bloodless victory, the troops pressed on. A few miles short of Norfolk, they encountered a deputation of civilians, including the mayor, who had ridden out in a carriage to surrender the city. Only later did any of the Union command team begin to suspect that the mayor had staged this elaborate ceremony of capitulation in order to gain time for the Confederate army to evacuate the city.

Secretary Chase returned to Fort Monroe that evening at 11 p.m., much to Lincoln’s relief, with the news that Norfolk had fallen. The president offered congratulations all around, although he may have harbored doubts privately as to whether the expedition would have occurred at all without his prodding. Certainly Chase believed that the campaign’s success was due entirely to Lincoln’s efforts. Though the rebels had planned to abandon Norfolk in any case once they had evacuated the Yorktown line, the experience confirmed Lincoln’s growing view that professional expertise might be less valuable in war than a clear head and an energetic spirit.

The next morning (Sunday, May 11), as Lincoln was preparing to return to Washington, Goldsborough came in with astonishing news: the rebels had blown up the Merrimack . With Norfolk in Union hands, the big ironclad had lost its base and, drawing nearly 22 feet of water, could not escape up the James to Richmond. Its crew managed to reduce its draft to 18 feet, but the river pilots told its new commander, Josiah Tattnall, that he needed to lose another foot, and Tattnall was out of time. Unwilling to turn his ship over to the Yankees, he ordered it destroyed, accomplishing what neither the Monitor nor the Vanderbilt had been able to do. It is possible that with a few extra days he might have found a way to lighten the Merrimack by that extra foot. Instead the fall of Norfolk, a product of Lincoln’s personal intervention, doomed the Confederacy’s most formidable vessel.

“So has ended a brilliant week’s campaign of the President,” Chase wrote home. “The sailors all unite in saying he is ‘a trump,’” wrote the reporter for the Washington Star , and “they also express the opinion that the success of the movement is due to the energy infused into it by ‘Uncle Abe.’” For his part, Lincoln did not claim any credit for the role he had played in the campaign; he merely wanted progress.

Alas, Lincoln had begun to wonder whether the kind of progress needed could be achieved with men such as Wool and Goldsborough in command. On both land and at sea, the president saw that, sooner or later, changes would have to be made.

Adapted by the author from Lincoln and His Admirals by Craig L. Symonds. © 2008. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, Inc. (www.oup.com/us). All rights reserved.