Review of Craig L.
Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals. New York: Oxford
Univ. Press, 2008. Pp. xiv, 430. ISBN 978-0-19-531022-1.
How effective was President Abraham Lincoln as
overall commander of the Union Navy during the American
Civil War? This is the question Craig Symonds (U.S. Naval Academy,
emeritus) asks in Lincoln and His Admirals. Neither scholars
nor buffs have shown much interest in Lincoln's handling of naval
affairs. Symonds, who has published widely on American Naval and
Civil War topics,
to correct this by modeling his book on T. Harry Williams' Lincoln
and His Generals,
which assessed Lincoln's success as commander-in-chief of the Army.
Both historians, rather than retelling narratives of military
campaigns, concentrate on Lincoln's interaction with his military
commanders and his aptitude for putting the right men in the right
positions for success.
The book's first section, "1861: Getting Under Way," begins with a
sketch of the dire state of the U.S. Navy at the outset of the war.
But Lincoln's choice of Gideon Welles as Secretary of the Navy and
Gustavus Fox as assistant Secretary began a nearly miraculous
transformation of a very deficient navy into a first-rate power practically over night. In choosing these two men, Lincoln showed
early on his acumen for finding able administrators.
Symonds does not spend much time detailing
strategic or tactical concepts of the naval war, but does follow a
He discusses how the United States built a navy quickly and
efficiently, facilitating the Union blockade of the Confederate
coast that proved so instrumental to victory. Another pressing piece
of naval business in 1861--designating an overall commander--was
complicated by the fact that the rank of admiral had not yet been
introduced to the service. "Commodore" was the highest rank American
naval commanders could attain, and a commodore was merely the
highest ranking captain in a sailing squadron.
Lincoln himself at times formulated strategic plans.
Lincoln began to think
about Union grand strategy almost from the first day of the war. On
April 25, 1861, the day the 7th New York regiment marched into
Washington to ease fears of a rebel coup de main, Lincoln mused
aloud to his secretary John Hay about how the administration could
regain control of the crisis. "I intend at present," he declared,
"to fill Fortress Monroe with men and stores; blockade the ports
effectually; provide for the entire safety of the Capitol; keep them
quietly employed in this way, and then go down to Charleston and pay
her the little debt we are owing her." At the time, Lincoln was
still thinking of the conflict as a kind of police action to pacify
an out-of-control minority, but still his musings did contain the
germ of the holding-and-hitting strategy that subsequently became
the Anaconda Plan (101).
In the second section, "1862: Charting a Course," Symonds details
the development of the ironclad warship and the tightening of the
naval blockade of the Confederacy. Operation Anaconda, first
proposed by General Winfield Scott, began constricting access to
Confederate ports, both coastal and then in interior river-ways,
slowly dividing the Confederacy into smaller and smaller sections,
each vulnerable to the Union's land and naval forces. Success hinged on
joint army-navy actions that would force the Confederacy to defend
In 1861, the plans
made by Welles and Fox to blockade Charleston and Pensacola directly
met with mixed results. In 1862, however, a combined army-navy
operation captured Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, severing most of
the Confederacy's access to the eastern seaboard. At New Orleans,
Confederate guns failed to prevent the Union navy from advancing up
the Mississippi River. In that same year, Congress authorized the
appointment of (rear) admirals (and two years later, of a vice
admiral, David Farragut). On paper, Lincoln's naval war was
progressing well. However, behind the scenes, Secretary of
State William Seward gave orders counter to those of Secretary of
the Navy Welles, nothing new in wartime interdepartmental rivalries.
Symonds criticizes Lincoln's laissez-faire approach to dealing with
his cabinet members as detrimental to the war effort when an
effective use of executive power was called for. Moreover, despite
growing success against blockade runners operating out of the
Mississippi River and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Lincoln
still had not found a commanding admiral.
In the book's third section, "1863: Troubled Waters," Lincoln's
naval policies have seemingly stalled during the middle part of the
war with both the army and navy entrenched around Vicksburg, as the
Confederacy clung to hold its last, vital portion of the
Mississippi. Confederate coastal fortifications continued to resist
Union naval bombardment, and blockade runners steamed in and out of
Charleston, South Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina. Admirals
like Farragut and David Porter proved daring operational commanders,
but both were reluctant to assume overall strategic command.
Lincoln could not afford to let allow his admirals behave like his
army generals. The constant bickering among flag officers and the
too frequent refusals to attack the enemy became too much for
Lincoln. In the absence of a, so to say, admiral-in-chief, he
passed his executive decisions directly to his command officers.
For example, Lincoln replaced Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont with
Commander John A. Dahlgren to direct naval attacks against
Charleston. He showed his growing frustrations with his officers by
promoting Dahlgren from commander to admiral, bypassing the rank of
The Charleston operation itself proved disappointing--the failure of
Union forces to take the city by bombardment was less due to
Dahlgren's inadequacies as a military commander than to the navy's
inability to act in concert with the army to secure the forts
surrounding Charleston, depriving the Union of a proper toehold from
which to check blockade runners. By year's end, the
naval war was once again showing promise--Vicksburg, and with it
control of the Mississippi River, was in Union hands.
In section four, "1864: Full Speed Ahead," the
first phase of Operation Anaconda, conceived to control Confederate
coastal and inland waterways is nearing completion. In the second
phase, aimed at rivers and byways, the Union navy experienced
difficulties during its Red River mission, meant to crush
Confederate resistance in Texas and Louisiana, as well as in gaining
control of the many inland waterways of North Carolina, despite
having captured much of the state's coastline in 1862.
As hundreds of new officers took on challenging roles,
Lincoln's war efforts were still plagued by the lack of forceful
leadership in the coordination of army-navy operations. The solution
came with his promotion of Ulysses Grant to overall military
commander; Grant now made the executive decisions. Thus, when
Lincoln and Welles began to reconsider the prospects of capturing
Wilmington, Lincoln simply referred the secretary to Grant (349).
In the fifth section, "1865: Final Harbor," only scattered pockets
of Confederate resistance remain. The only Confederate port still
open to blockade runners was Wilmington. The final nail in the
coffin came with the fall of Fort Fisher at the mouth of Cape Fear
River, which forced the Confederates to abandoned Wilmington.
Operation Anaconda had proved successful.
A consistent, and consistently directed, Union naval policy was too
long a work in progress. Lincoln had found capable administrators in
Gideon Welles and Gustavus Fox, and his naval commanders eventually
became adept in carrying out their respective duties. But in the
end, it was the appointment of Grant to overall command that solved
the problem of exasperatingly inefficient army-navy operations. In
his most recent book, Symonds has provided a superb study of this
evolution of Union naval command during the American Civil War.
 See, e.g., Navalists and Antinavalists: The
Naval Policy Debate in the United States, 1775-1827 (Newark:
U Delaware Pr, 1980) and The Civil War at Sea (Santa
Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2009).
 1952; rpt. NY: Vintage, forthcoming (Jan
 See Spencer C. Tucker's Blue & Grey Navies:
The Civil War Afloat (Annapolis, MD: Naval Inst Pr, 2006)
for an in-depth analysis of strategic aspects of the war.
 See N.A.M. Rodger's, The Wooden World: An
Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (1986; rpt. NY: Norton, 1996), which is still helpful in understanding eighteenth- and
 See John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North
Carolina (Chapel Hill: U North Carolina Pr, 1963; rpt. 1995), on efforts
by both the South and the North to control the state's