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Lincoln and the Navy

Union Sailors

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Speaker: Craig Symonds

 

More than a half century ago, T Harry Williams published a book called 'Lincoln and His Generals'. It remained in print for decades and though it is now out of print, is still available on line. It stands up very well both as historical literature and as an analysis of Lincoln as commander in chief. Since then, others have tackled the issue of Lincoln's role as war president-he was, after all, the only president to preside over a war of this magnitude, a total war that involved nearly every American one way or another, and one which transformed the country. Even Franklin Roosevelt, who presided over a war that involved greater numbers in uniform, never faced the kinds of fundamental questions about the nature of the republic and the meaning of citizenship and liberty that Lincoln did.


And yet, despite the hundreds of books written about nearly every aspect of Lincoln's life and presidency-including some that are simply invented concerning his early romances, his marriage and his sex life and other such ilk-no one has taken a serious look at Lincoln's relationship with, or management of, the Union Navy. This gap in Lincoln literature has existed for so long because the Civil War was principally a land war, and scholars who focused on Lincoln's role as commandeer in chief naturally emphasized the army, treating the Navy mostly as an afterthought.

 

Nevertheless, Lincoln's relationship with the Navy not only illustrates his emergence and development as a commander in chief and as president, it illuminates his management style and political skill.

 

One of Lincoln's foremost goals as war president was avoiding conflict with the powers of Europe; he was determined to fight only one war at a time-to avoid any circumstances that might bring Britain or France, or both, into the war. He knew that on the other side of the Potomac, a foreign alliance was at the very top of the Confederacy's list of diplomatic objectives. Both sides remembered that in the previous generation, the original thirteen colonies won their independence from Britain thanks in large part to the American alliance with France, Spain and the Netherlands. Consequently, Lincoln walked a fine line in dealing with the powers of Europe: insisting on the one hand that they acknowledge the blockade and remain at arm's length from the rebellious South, while on the other he tried to avoid any confrontation that might push them into the arms of the eager Confederates.

 

Alas for all this careful diplomacy, the over-enthusiasm of a few naval officers occasionally provoked a crisis that threatened to wreck all his efforts, and no officer was more troublesome in this respect than Charles Wilkes. Even before the war, Wilkes had built a reputation as a troublesome officer. As a mere lieutenant in command of a five-ship exploring squadron in the 1830s and 40s, Wilkes had bullied both his officers and his men. As a result, when the Civil War broke out, he was chairman of the Lighthouse Board. But the Navy needed all of its officers once the war began, and in the fall of 1861, Wilkes got command of the steam frigate San Jacinto.

 

Almost at once he tipped over the apple cart. On November 9, 1861, only seven months into the war, and only weeks into his new command, Wilkes stopped the British packet steamer Trent off the north coast of Cuba in international waters by firing a shell across its bow. He sent a boarding party over to confront the astonished British skipper and to demand that he surrender four of his passengers: The Confederate emissaries James Murray Mason and John Slidell and their secretaries. The British captain refused to do it-he knew his rights-but Wilkes took them anyway. Using symbolic if not actual force, his officers laid hands on each of the men and walked them over to the Trent's side and down into the cutter of USS San Jacinto. Wilkes then informed the captain of the Trent that he could continue on his way and Wilkes took his new prisoners back to the U.S.

 

His action was hugely popular in the northern States, but it presented Lincoln with a very delicate diplomatic and political problem. He had to decide whether to congratulate Wilkes, hold Mason and Slidell as prisoners, and thereby risk war with England; or repudiate Wilkes, apologize to Britain, and risk disappointing the public enthusiasm.

 

In effect, the Trent Affair was Lincoln's Cuban Missile Crisis. Though Lincoln's crisis was triggered by an over-eager American naval officer rather than a hostile foreign power, the ensuing crisis was similar in that both Lincoln and Kennedy had to steer a course between apparent capitulation and catastrophic war. In both cases, neither side wanted war; in both cases, neither side wanted to back down. As Kennedy's Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, famously put it, "we were eyeball to eyeball" until somebody blinked.

 

Lincoln did not react at once. Showing both remarkable patience and nerves of steel, he played out the crisis to almost the last possible moment, aware as he did so that the passage of time would dampen the emotions of the moment on both sides of the Atlantic. The longer he could delay bowing to necessity, the weaker the consequences would be in terms of public disappointment. Lincoln did nothing until he had to. He did not even mention the Trent in his December message to Congress, nor did he plan to make any response until after he received the British letter of protest which, when it arrived in mid-December, proved to be nothing less than an ultimatum that gave him only seven days to reply. Even then, he sought some resolution that would allow him to pacify the British without giving up Mason and Slidell and risking a public outcry at home.

 

At a Cabinet meeting held on Christmas morning, Lincoln sought some way out short of complete capitulation-third party mediation, for example. But in the end, he accepted Seward's cleverly-worded response that effectively congratulated the British for finally adopting the position that the U.S. had articulated back in 1812-that neutral ships were not subject to search by a belligerent-as result of which, Seward wrote, the U.S. would "cheerfully" release both Mason and Slidell. It worked. The British were pacified, and the passage of time muted the public reaction at home.

 

It was Lincoln's patience, his sensitivity to both the nuances of international law and especially public opinion that allowed him to survive this crisis. Britain at once halted its war preparations, and despite some subsequent support of the Confederate Navy by British shipbuilders, the British government never again came close to intervention. As the US Ambassador to England, Charles Francis Adams, put it in a letter to his son, "The Trent Affair has proved thus far somewhat in the nature of a sharp thunderstorm which has burst without doing any harm, and the consequence has been a decided improvement in the state of the atmosphere."

 

This was not the end, by the way, of Lincoln's troubles with Wilkes. Within the year, Wilkes was at it again, getting in trouble with the British, and exceeding his orders, and eventually he was court martialed-again -and suspended from the Navy. Lincoln reduced his sentence from three years to one, but after that, Wilkes never again saw active duty in the Civil War.

 

Lincoln also found it necessary to intervene with naval operations on the inland waterways. When the war began, the inland rivers were considered the domain of the army, not the navy. According to tradition, the navy's authority stopped at the high tide mark. The navy had jurisdiction over warships on the Potomac, the James, and other tidal rivers on the east coast, but the western rivers were-by both tradition and by law-the army's concern.It was clear to all that the western armies would need gunboat support in their operations along the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mississippi Rivers. Alas, constructing and commanding river gunboats required specialized knowledge that few army officers had, and even fewer were interested in volunteering for such a duty. The Navy, therefore, agreed to send a naval officer to Cincinnati to help the army prepare a riverine force for the western campaign.

 

In the nineteenth century of course, there was no Department of Defense, no Joint Chiefs, no one who could answer these questions or assume responsibility for joint operations. The only personin the entire country who had joint command of both the army and the navy was the president himself, and because of that Lincoln had to make decisions he would have preferred to leave to the military and naval experts.

 

At first, Lincoln did not involve himself with this jurisdictional dispute. He had never wanted or expected to have to act the role of military commander, and he hoped his commanders out west would resolve the problem without his intervention. In the end, what forced him to step in was the confusion between the services concerning a specifictype of river craft known as Bomb Vessel. These were flat, raft-like boats each of which carried a single 13-inch mortar amidships, and they were being neglected because neither service was willing to pay for them or accept responsibility for them. Frustrated, Lincoln ordered the Navy Department to find out what was going on. The Assistant Navy Secretary, Gustavus Fox, wired Foote to tell him "The president desires immediately a full report ...and full particulars relative to the mortar boats, (the) number in commissions, number of mortars mounted, number of mortars ready to be mounted, etc." As if to punctuate his request, he added: "Acknowledge this."

 

By stepping into the vacuum of authority in the western theater, Lincoln became commander in chief in fact as well as in name. He dealt personally even with minor issues. When Foote asked if the mortar boats should have a steamer to accompany them for the accommodation of the crews, Lincoln told him to "go ahead." When Foote needed ammunition, Lincoln directed the army's ordnance chief "to supply whatever ammunition may be required." When the army balked at paying the salaries of soldiers who transferred to the gunboat service, Lincoln ordered the War Department to pay up. Wise reported to Foote that "Uncle Abe, as you already know, has gone into that business with a will.... The wires have not ceased vibrating ... nor will they until the thing is done."

 

Lincoln's involvement here was not a product of any ambition on his part to assume command; he assumed the burden because no one else would. Though Bates and Fox suggested that it might be best simply to turn the gunboats over to the navy (which did happen later), Lincoln instead showed by example how to overcome the traditional barriers between the services. As Wise put it, "He is an evidently practical man, understands precisely what he wants, and is not turned aside by anyone when his work is before him. From the beginning of this mortar business, he was perplexed to know how to get matters straight, but when he put me on the track I made it clear to him, and since then the machine has been flying along with not a break down or any risk of a break-up."

 

On one occasion, Lincoln even took personal charge of a joint operation. During a visit to Hampton Roads in April of 1862, he stood on the deck of the steam frigate Minnesota while Rear Admiral Louis M. Goldsborough pointed out the various military points of interest. When Goldsborough pointed to the rebel battery on Sewall's Point, Lincoln asked him why the Navy tolerated the presence of those batteries-why dud they not silence them? -Goldsborough had no good answer for him. Lincoln had come down to Hampton Roads to prod McClellan into action, but he said that prodding would be necessary in other quarters as well.

 

The next day, Lincoln stood on the ramparts of what was called the rip raps, a man-made island roughly half way between Union-held Fort Monroe and Sewall's Point, and watched as Union warships pounded the rebel battery. That was gratifying enough, but true to his character, Lincoln immediately sought a way to exploit this small success. He took a tug out to the USS Monitor and deferentially asked its captain if he would conduct a reconnaissance of the rebel shoreline to see if the rebel works had, in fact, been abandoned. Then, heading back to the Minnesota, he asked Goldsborough and John Wool, the senior army officer, if it might not be possible to land a Union force on the Virginia side of the roadstead to approach Norfolk from the rear.

 

Wool hesitated. There was no good landing site, he declared; the troops had not been trained for it; there was still the rebel ironclad Merrimack to worry about. Perhaps it would be better to send a force to the North Carolina Sounds to approach Norfolk from that direction.It must have seemed to Lincoln that nearly all his officers-of both services-favored an indirect approach when a direct approach was available.

 

In the end, Lincoln himself conducted a reconnaissance of the rebel shore, found an appropriate landing site, and passed the information on to General Wool. As a result of that, a combined expedition was set up for the next day. Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, and Treasury Secretary Salmon P Chase, all went along as well. The troops splashed ashore on the designated beach and headed inland. Once ashore, however, the uncertain lines of authority led to more confusion and delay. Annoyed, Chase took charge and ordered a general, "in the name of the President of the United States" to take command and march toward Norfolk. The troops found the city evacuated by rebel forces and it fell bloodlessly into Union hands. It would not have happened at all, however, if Lincoln had not assumed joint command and ordered it.

 

It is both fitting and ironic that Lincoln spent part of his last day on earth on board a navy vessel. During a carriage ride he took with Mary on the afternoon of April 14-Good Friday-of 1865, Lincoln headed, perhaps by habit or by instinct, down to the Navy Yard, where he had often gone to visit with his friend Dahlgren, or merely to escape the pressures of his office. There he found the Passaic-class Monitor Montauk, just returned from the capture of Fort Fisher below Wilmington, North Carolina. Lincoln asked if he could tour the vessel, and the officers delightedly escorted the first couple about the ship. One of the officers present recalled that the president "seemed very happy," and his mood spread through the ship's company. Feeling expansive, Lincoln told the officers that he and his wife were going to Ford's Theater that night to see the play "Our American Cousin," and he spontaneously invited "as many of the officers and crew as could be spared" from their duties, to join him as his guests. Many accepted on the spot. It promised, he told them, to be a festive evening.