Sunday, November 9, 2008

Symonds: "Lincoln and His Admirals"

[Lincoln and His Admirals by Craig L. Symonds (Oxford Univ. Press, 2008). Hardcover, maps, illustrations, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 381/445. ISBN: 9780195310221 $27.95]

Craig Symonds's new book Lincoln and His Admirals is not a history of naval operations nor is it a comprehensive look at the U.S. Navy in the Civil War at the strategic level. It's primary focus is the often tangled relationship between President Lincoln, his cabinet (with an obvious spotlight on Secretary of Navy Gideon Welles), and the admirals1 spearheading the navy's war effort. More triangular in nature, in contrast to a more tightly disciplined linear order of command authority, these relationships -- at least early on -- were characterized by cabinet secretaries overstepping their bounds, the president sometimes taking direct charge of naval operations2, and ambitious officers taking their concerns directly to the president or ignoring explicit directives altogether.

Symonds's descriptions of the personalities of the naval officers and assessment of their relative strengths and weaknesses are in line with convention. Perhaps the greatest amount of space is devoted to the partnership between Lincoln and Welles (and by extension Asst. Secretary Gustavus V. Fox). While the navy secretary had an aggressively prickly nature combined with a largely black and white world view, Lincoln was a far more practical politician and deliberate decision maker. According to the author, the pair forged an effective "good cop, bad cop" means of dealing with difficult admirals. Overall, Lincoln came out better in terms of sustained relationships, with even dismissed officers believing they had the president's support all along, leaving Welles the messier fallout.

The study has a clear emphasis on the Atlantic seaboard. With only brief forays into the riverine war and Gulf operations, the book might surprise readers with its only passing discussion of the war's most famous naval officer, Admiral Farragut. Symonds's narrative is at its best discussing U.S./British relations and in its treatment of South Atlantic Blockading Squadron commander Samuel F. Du Pont. In description and analysis, both sections are largely confirmatory of the best recent scholarship3.

Readers steeped in the modern literature of the Civil War navies will recognize Symonds's study as a work of synthesis rather than a source of significant new revelation, but, as a high command-level overview, it is authoritative and useful. While students and historians anxiously await the emergence of the definitive study of the 16th president as Commander-in-Chief, Lincoln and His Admirals also serves as a gentle reminder that no such work can be considered complete without full consideration of the naval contribution.

1 - Admirals David Dixon Porter, Charles Wilkes, Samuel F. Du Pont, John Dahlgren, Samuel Phillips Lee, Andrew Hull Foote, David Glasgow Farragut.
2 - the best example given in the book is Lincoln's "suggestion" that the Sewell's Point batteries be neutralized and an amphibious landing be made above Norfolk. The president even participated in the scouting of proper landing sites.
3 - Phillip E. Myers on the Lincoln administration's policies toward managing the relationship between the U.S. and Great Britain, and Robert M. Browning for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

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