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Lincoln and His Admirals 1st Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195310221
ISBN-10: 0195310225
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Editorial Reviews

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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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (October 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195310225
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195310221
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 1.5 x 6.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #967,649 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Grover Hartt, III on November 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In the deluge of new books about the sixteenth president appearing in anticipation of the bicentennial of his birth, Lincoln and His Admirals stands apart. It begins to fill the void resulting from the frequent neglect of the naval aspects of the Civil War. For this reason alone, the book is worthwhile.

The book, however, is more than merely worthwhile. It is a comprehensive account of the events and personalities involved in this crucial phase of the Civil War that is told in a fine narrative style. Symonds provides a compelling story of how Lincoln's initial reluctance to command was replaced by an increasing confidence that led to his personal role in many great and small details of naval administration. This "sea change" was the product of Lincoln's perceptive intelligence and his relentless determination to preserve the Union.

Symonds includes informative portraits of many naval officers now almost lost to history and judiciously tallies their strengths and weakness. It did seem odd to me that he has comparatively little to say about Farragut or his torpedo-damning ascent of Mobile Bay. I was also surprised by the omission of the duel between Alabama and Kearsarge -- only the outcome is reported. Perhaps the author concluded that these events are already well-known. My only other criticism is that the first portion of the book would have been improved by relating the less familiar events afloat to those ashore that are much more widely known. At one point, I thought a timeline would have been helpful, but later, the author links the war at sea with the land war very well.

Finally, I have to say that this very good book has a very good dust jacket. In the foreground is a vivid image of the encounter between Monitor and Merrimack (or Virginia), but looming above it is the ghostly face of Abraham Lincoln. It is a perceptive introduction to this highly recommended book.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is impressive for a number of reasons. First, it is an academic work that is highly readable and will be of equal interest to readers be they scholars or general history fans. Think, James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom," on the water.

More importantly, Craig L. Symonds manages to say something new about Abraham Lincoln, which is darn impressive. This book examines the President's role as commander-in-chief to the U.S. Navy. Lincoln's relationship with the navy has been largely ignored over the past century and a half, and it is easy to understand why. The major battles between North and South were fought on land and those engagements determined the fate of the nation. Symonds shows us, though, that Union naval dominance influenced the course of the conflict. At Fort Sumter Lincoln was initially unsure of how to use his naval power. As the war continued, he directed that the Army and Navy work together in what are now called "joint operations." This coordination became important in the capture of New Orleans and Vicksburg.

Symonds did not write an operational history of the naval war, but these actions bled into areas other than the military. The blockade of the southern coastline raised important questions involving matters of trade and diplomacy. These issues often involved disputes between Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Secretary of State William H. Seward, which Lincoln had to adjudicate. It is a testimony to Symonds' skills as a historian that he develops both sides of the issue and presents Wells and Seward as understandably human characters.

Lincoln faced many of the same issues with the admirals that he faced with the generals.
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Format: Hardcover
If this book is not a finalist for a major award in Lincoln and Civil War history, we will have a gross injustice. This intelligent, interesting, readable book is one of the most original informative Civil War histories I have read this year. The author is retired from the U.S. Naval Academy after 30 years of teaching. During that time, he won both the Naval Academy's "Excellence in Teaching" award (1988) and its "Excellence in Research" award (1998). This shows in his ability to construct a sentence that contains a lot of information without boring or losing the reader.
His portraits of the players are excellent. We never lose sight of the fact that they have not read the history book and do not know what is happening. Each crisis has the feel of current events unfolding as we read. Lincoln's management style is fully developed and we understand what a masterful politician he is. The fighting between the departments of State, War and Navy are fully developed and completely understandable. While the book is written from the Navy's perspective, the author never takes sides and faithfully reports the whole story.
Most Civil War history ignores the Nay's role. This book gives us a detailed history of naval operations and the development of combined Army Navy actions. Lincoln never had a quite day as President. He had just sat down when the problem of supplies at Fort Sumter dropped on him. The author provides a detailed account of the decision-making and the problems associated with that action. His account of the Trent Affair could be one of the best accounts in existence. The same can be said of his Red River Campaign and his discussion of the impact of cotton on the war.
This is not a book of blazing guns!
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