by Bill Doughty
Esteemed Lincoln historian (and Navy Reads contributor) Eric Foner said this about Craig L. Symonds’s “Lincoln and His Admirals”: “Despite the numerous volumes on Lincoln and the land Civil War, this is the first full study of Lincoln's relationship to the war at sea, and it reveals him mastering the nuances of naval warfare.”
The War of 1812 has been called the second Revolutionary War and the real birth of the United States Navy; the Civil War was an internal revolutionary rebellion over slavery, in which the Union fought for a “new birth of freedom” for all. It was also a watershed event for the Navy. By the end of the Civil War, the Navy proved its worth as a littoral and open-ocean force with global implications.
Symonds’s brilliant “Lincoln and his Admirals” shows strengths and weaknesses of military and political leaders, the Army-Navy relationship, and the president’s intense interest in the strategy and management of the Navy, through Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.
Symonds explores the relationship of Admirals Farragut, Porter, DuPont, Dahlgren and Wilkes, not only with Welles and Lincoln but also with Generals Grant, McLernand and Halleck, among others.
Ego, politics and power are revealed behind the curtain of history. Symonds shows how Lincoln sought to understand before being understood, as “a neutrally patient navigator.” “Lincoln remained a reluctant commander in chief, and once he had a command team in place that he trusted, he backed away,” Symonds writes.
“Welles’s tendency to chastise, however, was as instructive as Lincoln’s to soothe,” Symonds writes. Lincoln’s natural empathy and political skill helped him deal with a fiery cabinet and strong-willed military leaders.
Sometimes flawless, occasionally dysfunctional, the joint efforts of the Union Army and Navy were an important reason the North prevailed. Lincoln could see the effectiveness of combined operations when there was a willingness to operate outside of narrow and arbitrary lines of authority. He valued collaboration and cooperation, he encouraged innovation and new technology, and he rewarded aggressive, decisive action in battle.
Read “Lincoln and his Admirals” to understand not only the Navy’s achievements in saving the Union but also the strategies and tactics of good leaders who see bigger themes.
According to Symonds, Lincoln showed “determination to put the good of the country ahead of personal ambition. He expected his admirals -- and his generals -- to tolerate inconvenience and disappointment for the good of the cause. The broader goals of Union and victory were more important than anyone’s personal trials, including his own.” Through it all he continued to support modernization of the Navy.
The Navy had 588 warships by the end of 1863, according to Symonds, with 75 of the ships armored and with more and bigger ironclads coming. Some of the ironclads featured 11-inch and 15-inch guns.
Anticipating the arguments of Alfred Thayer Mahan a generation later, Lincoln wrote, “Our country has advantages superior to any other nation in our resources of iron and timber, with inexhaustible quantities of fuel in the immediate vicinity of both, and all available and in close proximity to navigable waters.” Although “other governments have been making large expenditures ... with a view to attain naval supremacy,” it seemed likely to him that “this government is destined to occupy a leading position among maritime powers. After he wrote this passage, however, he (or perhaps [Secretary of State] Seward) decided that the British might construe it as too direct a challenge to their maritime supremacy, and he deleted it, replacing it with a slightly less confrontational sentence: “The events of war give an increased interest and importance to the navy which will probably extend beyond the war itself.”
In the summer of 1863 Lincoln wrote this in a public letter to James C. Conkling, showing his appreciation for the Navy team: “Nor must Uncle Sam’s Web-feet be forgotten. At all the watery margins they have been present. Not only in the deep sea, the broad bay, and the rapid river, but also up the narrow bayou, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been, and made their tracks.”
(CNO Adm. Greenert unveiled the latest iteration of the Navy’s Professional Reading Program at the Ford Center for Education and Leadership in front of a sculpture of 6,000 books about President Lincoln. His program and list of books are focused on history, tradition, and leadership/management, tailored around his three tenets (warfighting first, operate forward, be ready) We’ll continue to showcase the influence of Lincoln this year, along with books from and related to the CNO’s reading list. In the previous blog post, Symonds shared a list of top five books with Navy Reads.)