Winter 2009 | Volume 58, Issue 6
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.
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.
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.