Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Review - "Lincoln Takes Command: The Campaign to Seize Norfolk and the Destruction of the CSS Virginia" by Steve Norder

[Lincoln Takes Command: The Campaign to Seize Norfolk and the Destruction of the CSS Virginia by Steve Norder (Savas Beatie, 2020) Hardcover, 2 maps, 36 illustrations, footnotes, timeline, dramatis personae, ship directory, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxxvi,209/325. ISBN:978-1-61121-457-4. $32.95]

In April 1861, when Virginia state forces seized Portsmouth's Gosport Navy Yard (located just across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk) significantly intact after a halfhearted U.S. effort at destruction, they came into possession of a mountain of useful materiel (including heavy ordnance, munitions, military provisions, and the partially burned steam frigate USS Merrimack). Using Gosport's invaluable drydock and other support facilities, Confederate authorities were able to construct or reconstruct a number of war vessels, their most significant achievement being their conversion of the damaged Merrimack hull into the feared ironclad ram CSS Virginia. Much has been written about the Virginia and her brief but epic career as a terror to Union blockading vessels and thorn in the side of any planned enemy movement up the James River, but the famous ironclad's Norfolk harbor base has received far less attention in the literature. With its fall deemed inevitable by the Army of the Potomac's advance up the Virginia Peninsula in early 1862, most authors only briefly dispense with Norfolk's abandonment and occupation before moving on to the bloody face off between the main armies in front of Richmond. Very frequently mentioned in books, but not typically elaborated upon, is President Abraham Lincoln's personal intervention in the planning of Norfolk's capture. Addressing that episode of Civil War history in expansive and original fashion is Steve Norder's Lincoln Takes Command: The Campaign to Seize Norfolk and the Destruction of the CSS Virginia.

In early May 1862, Lincoln and cabinet secretaries Chase, Stanton, and Welles embarked from Washington on a trip to Fort Monroe to see for themselves what progress was being made (or not made) on the Virginia Peninsula. Using a great variety of sources, Norder attempts in minute fashion to document all of Lincoln's activities during his eventful week-long stay there from May 5 to May 12. During that time, Lincoln acquainted himself with the military situation at Hampton Roads, interviewed the officers stationed there, reviewed troops and sailors, inspected facilities, and eagerly observed bombardments of the enemy shoreline. He also took a keen interest in potential Southside landing sites and eventually ordered the Fort Monroe/Hampton Roads army and navy commanders (General John Wool and Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough, respectively) to cooperate in a combined operation aimed at capturing Norfolk.

Though clearly focused on Lincoln and Union army and navy affairs, the book does not neglect Confederate civilian and military perspectives of the events covered in the book. When General Joseph E. Johnston slipped out of his fortified Yorktown line on May 1 and retreated toward the capital, he informed Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall that Norfolk would have to be abandoned and the Virginia destroyed, if necessary. By May 3, the process of evacuating Norfolk was well underway.

Given that all the major military minds on both sides independently came to the conclusion that Norfolk would have to be evacuated once McClellan's army advanced up the Peninsula, it is legitimate to question the military propriety of an immediate amphibious movement against Norfolk. McClellan, who was confident the U.S. naval forces present at Hampton Roads could keep the Virginia in check, seemed content to not unnecessarily risk ships and men he hoped to use himself for the final drive on Richmond to attack a place that would fall on its own accord. Indeed, Norfolk and Portsmouth were already in the process of being evacuated before Lincoln embarked from Washington. Perhaps a better question is whether Lincoln's actions sped up events to the extent that the Confederates lost vital war-making resources they might otherwise have saved given a bit more time. The book doesn't really indicate that this might have been the case. There also doesn't seem to be much strong evidence to believe with any great confidence that a different time line could have allowed the Confederate Navy opportunity to lighten the Virginia enough for it to make it up the James River to safety. On the other hand, it was certainly reasonable on Lincoln's part to wish to secure sooner rather than later both the morale boost that the destruction of the Virginia would give to those who saw the Peninsula operation as stalled and the relief it would give to the many influential persons inside and outside the government who continued to greatly overestimate the ironclad's capabilities.

The event from the week that would most become a part of Lincoln lore occurred late on May 9, when the president personally accompanied a landing site reconnaissance mission and even joined a small detachment that briefly debarked on enemy shore to test a site's landing suitability. In retrospect, this impulsive evening foray seems like a highly foolish action for the President of the United States to have undertaken, especially when Confederate videttes were present at the location only moments earlier. Nevertheless, there seems little doubt among historians that the event happened. Though Norder cites three sources (a letter to daughter "Nettie" from Secretary Chase, a New York Times article dated 1874, and an account by Union army officer Egbert Viele), only one (Chase's letter) appears to have been written by an eyewitness to the dramatic affair. Perhaps other firsthand accounts exist cited elsewhere. In any case, the military planners at the time cited justifiable reasons for ultimately rejecting that site in favor of the one at Ocean View originally selected.

Union troops landed at Ocean View early on May 10. Lincoln witnessed the debarkation but did not go ashore with the troops, electing instead to return to Fort Monroe and await reports. The operation did not go completely according to plan, especially after the Confederates burned the bridge over Tanners Creek. However, Secretary Chase, who was present at the front, was able to resolve a dispute that arose between generals Wool and Mansfield in a way that allowed the march to resume with renewed purpose. Lincoln, who heard about the temporary snafu from Mansfield himself, arrived at the beach with Secretary Stanton late in the afternoon but returned to Fort Monroe after finding things at the front back on track. Against only token opposition, Wool occupied Norfolk that day. On the Confederate side, one big hitch emerged during the final stages of an otherwise smooth evacuation of the harbor. In an act of almost incredible omission, those on board the Virginia were not notified that the evacuation was completed and the naval base destroyed. With nowhere to turn and no time to try any other desperate measures aimed at decreasing its draft, the Virginia, with its now unprotected hull fully exposed by previous efforts at lightening the vessel, had to be immediately destroyed to preclude any possibility of capture.

Norder's final chapter, one of the book's best, details in fine fashion how Union occupying authorities struggled to sort through local allegiances and maintain security in Norfolk while also meeting the basic survival needs of a sizable population of 20,000. As was the case with other major commercial centers under Union occupation, it needed to be decided under what conditions trade and local business would be allowed to resume. How long Norfolk would continue to be covered by the North Atlantic naval blockade also had to be considered. The first military governor, General Wool, would take a hard line against the hostile majority of Norfolk residents (even to the level of being accused of trying to starve the population into submission), but his successor, General John Dix, relaxed many of his predecessor's restrictions. While this eased the suffering, other problems emerged. Controversy and corruption related to the issuing of trade permits was common throughout the occupied South, and it was no different at Norfolk. That topic and additional army-navy interservice clashes and treasury department conflicts are informatively discussed at some length by Norder.

In sum, Norder believes that the week "provided the foundation Abraham Lincoln needed to develop the confidence and vision he would need to fight the long war ahead and bring it to a successful end" (pg. 98). That claim of long-term insight into the evolution of Lincoln's strategic mind is impossible to assess with any kind of certainty, but there is some short-term support in the fact that Lincoln again directly intervened in military campaign planning mere weeks later. In that case, the end result of the president's redirection of potential Peninsula reinforcements into the Shenandoah Valley and his attempt to coordinate multiple columns aimed at destroying Stonewall Jackson there was dismal failure. Bringing in General Henry Halleck to Washington soon after to act as general in chief of the Union Army also might be seen as clouding the continuity of the author's claim, but Norder prefers to view Halleck's promotion as Lincoln sagely realizing his own limitations. Regardless of whether one believes the impact of the Norfolk operation on Lincoln's development as Commander in Chief to have been fleeting or long lasting, the book possesses many other strengths that clearly mark it as a work of considerable distinction. Amid all the popular and scholarly obsession over each day of Lincoln's life, it is impossible to imagine any other work matching this level of biographical detail in documenting Lincoln's activities during this particular week of May 1862. It is equally certain that the circumstances surrounding the capture of Norfolk have never before been examined at anything approaching this depth. In that sense, Lincoln Takes Command more than satisfactorily fills in one of the many remaining gaps in the Civil War literature's uneven coverage of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign.


  1. Thank you for the in-depth review of this important book, Drew. We appreciate the time and commitment level you demonstrate daily.

    I think this is one of the finest studies we have done in a while, and I took a personal hand editing and developing it with the author.

    Unfortunately it came out just weeks before the pandemic struck and, together with a few other titles, has sadly been lost in the shifting chaos, the large Barnes and Noble order returned in the original cases mostly unopened.

    I hope those who read this review will be encouraged to give this magnificent book the time it so richly deserves.

    Thanks again.

    Ted Savas
    Savas Beatie

    1. It appears likely that many good 2020 titles will get buried in the shuffle. I just got a letter from a publisher saying that none of their Fall catalog books will get physical distribution. I can imagine what the authors feel about that.

    2. Drew: Thanks for the review. I've read a couple of chapters and skimmed the rest so far. My own impression is that this is an important contribution to scholarship on the Peninsula Campaign and its ancillary operations. It also provides a unique insight into the "learning curve" Lincoln went through during the first year-plus of the War.

    3. For sure, Drew. All of ours will be printed physically, but most in reduced numbers, which in and of itself is problematic because the fixed lead-up costs to produce a book (acquisitions, editing, copyediting, design, etc) are the same whether we print 250 or 10,000. So doing all that work and selling a few hundred copies is a ticking time bomb.

      John--glad you are enjoying it. A review would really help. :)

      Ted Savas

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful review. This book is the result of recognizing a gap within the voluminous coverage of Abraham Lincoln.
    steve Norder


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