Sunday, April 19, 2009

Review: Lincoln and His Admirals

Lincoln and His Admirals
By Craig L. Symonds

Nearly a century and a half has passed since the death of Abraham Lincoln and in that time a vast ocean of literature has been written about him. Nearly every conceivable topic associated with Lincoln’s life, presidency and death has been covered from nearly every conceivable angle. It is hard to imagine that there could be anything new left to say. And yet, as 2009 is the 200th anniversary of his birth, a flood of new books have recently filled the biography and Civil War sections of bookstores across the country. Just when you think nothing new can possibly be said about our sixteenth president, Craig Symonds’ “Lincoln and His Admirals” manages to do just that, by looking at Lincoln in his role as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Navy.

Winner of the Lincoln Prize in conjunction with James McPherson’s “Tried By War: Lincoln As Commander in Chief,” Symonds’ book serves more than adequately as a companion to McPherson’s. Indeed, where Dr. McPherson covers the well plowed ground of Lincoln’s relationships with his generals, Symonds breaks the seldom cultivated soil of Lincoln’s relationship with the U.S. Navy and its admirals.

Beginning quite literally with Lincoln’s first day on the job, Symonds navigates the choppy waters of Lincoln’s decision to resupply and not to re-enforce Fort Sumter in intricate detail, giving the pros and cons of the each option.

The blockade of the Confederate States, a key component of the Anaconda Plan (the war strategy developed by Winfield Scott and adopted by Lincoln), affected the areas of international diplomacy and trade. Symonds deftly navigates his reader through the tricky diplomatic channels, explaining that a blockade of enemy ports is internationally recognized as an act of war between two nations, yet the Lincoln administration did not recognize the legitimacy of the Confederate government. If any other nation recognized the sovereignty of the Confederate government it would undermine the Union War effort. Frequently the departments of War, State and Navy found themselves at odds with each other, warring between themselves as to which department had jurisdiction. And just as frequently the President found himself mediating conflicts between his secretaries, Stanton, Seward and Welles. Symonds also does a great job relating Lincoln’s shrewd handling of the “Trent Affair” and other seemingly miniscule diplomatic faux pas which had they been handled less delicately, may have led war with England and Confederate independence.

In more than a few instances strategy dictated that the Army and Navy work together. Because no other person embodied the ability to command both the Army and the Navy, therefore the task of coordinating these “joint operations” fell upon Lincoln, who took the helm and steered the conjunctive efforts of the rival departments. The coordination between the army and navy was most successful in the capture of New Orleans and later Vicksburg, but less effective in the fall of Fort Fisher, and the disaster of the Red River Campaign.

Lincoln’s problems finding a reliable general who will fight and win are well documented; less so are his problems with his naval commanders. Ambitious officers who wanted promotions, fame and glory had their equal in the navy as well as in the army. The navy also had its share of less aggressive commanders. Just as Lincoln had to replace McClellan as the commander of the Army of the Potomac for his inaction, so did he with admirals DuPont & Goldsborough. Symonds does a good job of detailing Lincoln’s search for the naval equivalent of Ulysses S. Grant. Symonds includes many informative biographical sketches of naval officers, detailing their strengths and weaknesses, who have been overshadowed by their army equivalents and whom have nearly been lost to history.

Craig Symonds retired after thirty years of teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy at which he is now Professor Emeritus. During his teaching career he won both the Naval Academy’s “Excellence In Teaching” award (1988) as well is it’s “Excellence in Research” award (1998). He has previously written ten books, including “Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History,” which won the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Prize in 2006. With his latest book, “Lincoln and His Admirals,” not only has he garnered another well deserved award, The Lincoln Prize, but has also managed to shed a new light on an often neglected topic of Civil War scholarship.

ISBN 978-0-19-531022-1, Oxford University Press, © 2008, Hardcover, 448 pages, photographs, maps, endnotes, bibliography, index. $27.95

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