A former history professor at the Naval Academy examines Lincoln’s growth as commander in chief through his relations with the United States Navy.
Lincoln’s invention of a device to lift boats over river shoals belied his early confession to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that “I know but little about ships.” The Civil War forced the 16th president to know a lot more, and Symonds (Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History, 2005, etc.) 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. At crucial times throughout the war, Lincoln asserted himself as advocate or arbitrator, sorting out quarrels among the dutiful but rebarbative Welles, who deeply resented interference in his department with Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Lincoln also oversaw the officious Gustavus Fox and subtly shaped the careers of senior officers like ordnance expert John A. Dahlgren and the initially successful, finally disappointing Samuel Francis Du Pont. Symonds limns these and many other striking personalities and examines the signal naval incidents of the war, including the unsuccessful effort to resupply Fort Sumter; the Kearsarge’s sinking of the notorious Confederate raider Alabama; the blockade of Southern ports; the Trent affair; the historic battle of the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack; David Dixon Porter’s gunboats mastery, which helped capture Vicksburg; and David Farragut’s heroics at Mobile Bay. But the focus remains on Lincoln—how he mastered people and the problems touching the Navy and his direction of the river, harbor and ocean war that proved every bit as crucial to Union success as the more celebrated battlefield victories.
For scholars and the general reader alike, an insightful and highly readable treatment of a neglected dimension of Lincoln’s wartime leadership. See also James M. McPherson’s forthcoming Tried By War (2008) for a broader portrait of Lincoln’s role as commander in chief.