In the conversation below, two noted Lincoln historians, Craig L. Symonds and James M. McPherson (Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Abraham Lincoln) discuss the often-neglected role of the Union Navy in the Civil War. The discussion centers on the introduction of a new kind of warship with iron sides and revolving gun turrets called the U.S.S. Monitor, designed by engineer John Ericsson. Ironclads, or monitors as they were called, were used in the Union blockade of Southern ports. Though both Lincoln and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles embraced the new ships, Admiral Samuel Du Pont did not. DuPont's failed attack on Charleston not only brought and end to his career but also earned him derision for his failure to adapt to new technology. Both authors share the prestigious 2009 Lincoln Prize for the year’s best books on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. McPherson’s Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief and Symonds's Lincoln and His Admirals were the winning books.
A Conversation Between Two Lincoln Historians: James M. McPherson and Craig L. Symonds
McPherson: We know from [the diary of] John Hay that Lincoln put himself through a cram course of readings in military history and strategy during the fall and winter of 1861-62, mainly so he could deal more intelligently and forcefully with such generals as McClellan, Halleck, and Buell. Did Lincoln do anything comparable to overcome his admission that he knew "little about ships"?
Symonds: Not really. A lifelong autodidact, Lincoln focused on learning as much as he could about war in the first months of the conflict, but he saw from the beginning that the land war was far more important than the naval war. While he read all that he could about the theories of war, he did not undertake a similar regimen concerning naval strategy, in part because there were fewer such books. He was fascinated by new weaponry, played a role in getting the Navy to adopt Ericsson's Monitor, and he consulted both Seward and Bates on the legality of the blockade, but for the most part, he relied on Gideon Welles, and especially the Assistant Navy Secretary, Gustavus Fox, to provide him with whatever professional knowledge or technical information he needed.
McPherson: Historians hold a wide range of opinions about the effectiveness of the blockade and how important a role it played in ultimate Union victory. Where do you stand on this question?
Symonds: I guess it depends on whether the glass is half full or half empty. The blockade was never impervious, and at times seemed quite porous. As many have argued, the South was able to import through the blockade the weapons and supplies it needed to sustain its armies in the field for four years, though it did encounter serious shortages in specific areas such as steam engines, engine parts, and railroad rails. Exports were a different story. Cotton exports plunged from 2.8 million bales in the last year of peace to only 55,000 bales in the first year of war. That undercut the Confederacy's ability to establish credit overseas, contributed to inflation and civilian unrest at home, and generally undermined the Confederate economy. The loss of southern revenue from cotton exports was greater than the amount the North spent to establish and maintain the blockade. Given that, I think the blockade was worth the investment. If it succeeded in shortening the war by, say, six month, it probably saved many thousands of lives.
McPherson: Along with Gideon Welles and Gustavus Fox, Lincoln was critical of Samuel Francis Du Pont for lack of aggressiveness and pertinacity in the failed attack on the defenses of Charleston on April 7, 1863, and compared Du Pont to McClellan. Was this fair?
Symonds: There are many things in war that are not fair. Du Pont was very likely correct in asserting that Charleston could not be taken by a purely naval attack, as Gideon Welles repeatedly encouraged him to do, and he was effectively fired for demonstrating that his view was correct. [Historian] Kevin Weddle calls Du Pont "Lincoln's Tragic Admiral," a victim of Welles' determination to protect the reputation of his beloved monitors. But Du Pont's fall from grace was due not merely to his failure to capture Charleston. It was also due to two other factors: one was that Lincoln had become scarred by his lengthy and frustrating relationship with McClellan during the 1862 campaign, and by 1863 he had began to view Du Pont through a prism defined by that experience. When Du Pont called for reinforcements, or bemoaned the obstacles in front of him, it was McClellans' voice that Lincoln heard. The other reason for Du Pont's fall is that he never fully explained to the President precisely why he objected to a navy-only attack. Instead he only hinted at it by detailing how strong the enemy defenses were and how limited his own forces were. He never clearly laid out an alternative with the kind of strong advocacy that showed his willingness to carry it out. Even then, I think Lincoln would have stood by Du Pont but for Du Pont's own foolish behavior when he insisted that the government must publish his official reports (including compromising information about the vulnerabilities of the monitors) in order to counter hostile newspaper articles about him. In the end, Du Pont's reticence and touchiness were responsible for his tragedy.
McPherson: Did Lincoln show unjustified favoritism toward John A. Dahlgren when he promoted him to Rear Admiral and gave him command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron even though Dahlgren had limited experience in seagoing command?
Symonds: Dahlgren was unquestionably Lincoln's favorite admiral. He much appreciated Farragut's success, but he liked Dahlgren, often went to the Washington Navy Yard to visit with him, and eventually he asked Welles to promote him to admiral, even though Dahlgren had virtually no important sea service. Most of the navy looked upon Lincoln's decision to promote his friend from commander to Rear Admiral in one step as personal favoritism. It was favoritism, but whether it was unjustified depends on how well Dahlgren performed in command. Though Charleston never fell, Dahlgren was an active and effective commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and despite suffering poor health that might have ended the career of a less determined man, Dahlgren worked hard and earned the confidence of his officers throughout the long and wasting siege.
McPherson: From 1862 on, Acting Rear Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee wanted to attack the defenses of Wilmington to shut down the port to blockade runners. When the time came in 1864 to carry out the attack, however, Welles, Fox, and Grant convinced Lincoln that Lee was not the man to command it, and replaced him with Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter. Was this treatment of Lee justified?
Symonds: Like Du Pont, Phillips Lee was a competent officer who was at his best managing the multivariate activities of a far-flung squadron. Unlike Du Pont, he never had the chance to prove himself in a major battle and thereby win promotion to the permanent rank of Rear Admiral. Because the authorizing legislation stipulated that promotions to admiral must be won in battle, Lee repeatedly asked Welles for permission to attack Wilmington, North Carolina. Not until 1864 did Welles accede, and when he did he sent Lee off to the backwater of the Mississippi Squadron and brought in the brash David Dixon Porter to carry it out. Lee felt himself a victim of Welles' favoritism for others. But in this case, it was U. S. Grant as much as Gideon Welles who was responsible. In Grant's view, Lee had not been sufficiently aggressive during the move up the James River, and he wanted someone else to command of the attack on Wilmington. When Farragut declined the command, Welles gave it to Porter. Lee's anger at this treatment is understandable, but Welles and Grant had concluded that while Lee was an effective manager, he was not the man for a full-scale attack. In the end, Lee never did get a chance to prove himself in the kind of engagement that might have won him the promotion he sought. Read more
"Lincoln and His Admirals is that rare thing, an important Lincoln book of genuine originality."--Michael F. Bishop, Washington Post Book World
"Scores of books have detailed Lincoln's struggles with reluctant generals during the Civil War, but few have examined his relationship with naval leaders. Craig Symonds, professor emeritus of history at the Naval Academy, sets out to change that in 'Lincoln and his Admirals'...Symonds delivers a fast-paced, crisply written account of the naval war and Lincoln's patient handling of Welles, Fox and the men who served them, including such famous admirals as David Glasgow Farragut, David Dixon Porter and John Dahlgren."--Seattle Times
"Craig Symonds took the challenge, and the retired Naval Academy professor has produced a study as fascinating as it is revealing...Symonds has the rare ability to bring history alive through individuals who made it...Symonds has given us one of the year's best additions to Civil War history, whether or not you are a landlubber."--Roanoke Times
"Readers already familiar with Lincoln's experiences with the army will find much to commend in Symonds' eye-opening Lincoln and His Admirals, as McPherson attests in a dust-jacket comment on the book. The book, he says, finally gives the Union navy and its commander in chief the credit they deserve for their important role in winning the Civil War."--St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Symonds, a prize-winning historian who taught at the U.S. Naval Academy, brings us yet another new way of looking at Lincoln - as a commander in chief who, by his own admission, knew "little about ships." Lincoln's relationship with his generals is one of the better-known side storiesof the Civil War. Symonds reminds us that Lincoln had to keep his eye on the seas, rivers and admirals as well. "--Newark Star Ledger
"The Civil War forced the 16th president to know a lot more, and Symonds expertly demonstrates how he learned about ships, strategy, new technologies and, above all, about dealing with the fractious personalities to whom he delegated naval operations... For scholars and the general reader alike, an insightful and highly readable treatment of a neglected dimension of Lincoln's wartime leadership."--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Superbly researched... Symonds has written an excellent work that describes both Lincoln's growing confidence and competence as a naval strategist as well as his relations with various naval commanders... This will be a fine addition to Civil War collections."--Booklist
"Lincoln's role as commander-in-chief during the Civil War is most often assessed through his dealings with his Union generals; thus, Symonds's expert and accessible work on the naval side is a real boon. He gives us a meticulous and graceful interpretive narrative, rich with primary-source anecdote, of Lincoln's relationship with the U.S. Navy and his evolution as a naval strategist... Essential for all Lincoln collections."--Library Journal
"We utter the names of Lincoln's admirals, such as Farragut and Porter, far less often than the names of his Generals, good or bad. And Craig L. Symonds' Lincoln and His Admirals is one of the relatively few books on the role of the maritime, studies focusing on Lincoln and his admirals being rarer still."--Baton Rouge Advocate
"We know a great deal about Lincoln and his generals, but until now very littleabout Lincoln and his admirals. With a compelling portrait of personalities and a sharp analysis of strategy, Craig Symonds offers a gripping narrative that finally gives the Union navy--and its commander-in- chief--the credit they deserve for the important part they played in winning the Civil War." --James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom
"Symonds is one of the finest American military historians in this generation."--Gabor Boritt, Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies and Director, Civil War Institute, Gettysburg College
"This is an epic story-the quintessential, mal-de-mer-prone landlubber morphing into the admiral-in-chief of the mightiest armada on the planet. Spinning the yarn with resourceful scholarship and narrative verve, peerless naval historian Craig Symonds succeeds in creating an entirely new portrait of Lincoln: not only as healer of the land, but conqueror of the sea."--Harold Holzer, Co-Chairman, U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission
"Craig L. Symonds has filled a gap by giving us a superb account of Abraham Lincoln's relationship with the navy and the people who ran it. Beautifully written, the narrative is also lively and informative. He eloquently describes how Lincoln's judicious temperament complemented his irascible 'Neptune, ' Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles along with the calumny, envy, personal conflicts, and thirst for promotion that permeated the deep sea and riverine forces. This is the most complete and edifying story of Mr. Lincoln and his 'webbed-feet.'"--Frank Williams, Chief Justice, Rhode Island State Supreme Court and Lincoln Scholar
"Lincoln and His Admirals is simply superb and Craig Symonds' analysis of USNavy leadership during the Civil War is magnificent! The Lincoln-esque gems placed throughout the book made reading it a delight. The chapters on the Fort Sumter crisis and the Trent affair are incisive and the best discussions of these dramas I have ever read. Symonds brought back to life our Civil War admirals and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and shared their triumphs and their setbacks as they richly deserved."-- David Sutherland, President, Indianapolis Civil War Round Table (2001-02 and 2007-08)
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