Norder, Steve. Lincoln Takes Command: The Campaign to Seize Norfolk and the Destruction of the CSS Virginia. (Savas Beatie: December 2019). 336 pages, 36 illustrations, 2 maps. ISBN: 978-1-61121-457-4. $32.95 (Hardcover)
What if I told you Abraham Lincoln, barely over a year into his first term and while McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign was raging, decided to take over a joint operation to capture Norfolk, Virginia and ultimately shared the credit for the destruction of the famous CSS Virginia? Have you ever heard of that one? Honestly, I hadn’t either, until now. Steve Norder closely studies one week in May 1862 at Hampton Roads which, the author argues, gave Lincoln the confidence he needed to successfully prosecute the war.
After giving a brief introduction prior to May 1862, the author covers the time period of May 5-12, 1862, generally one day per chapter. Norfolk and neighboring Portsmouth across the Elizabeth River were important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the Gosport Navy Yard. By capturing these places, the North could wipe out a key Confederate ship building location and gain another base at the mouth of the James River, fully cutting off Richmond and Petersburg from the sea.
President Lincoln arrived at Fort Monroe on May 6, 1862. He personally believed Norfolk and Portsmouth were vulnerable, but Major General McClellan was busy waging his Peninsula Campaign, the Battle of Williamsburg having ended just the day before. Lincoln decided to take matters into his own hands over the next few days. Despite the ever present threat of the CSS Virginia, Lincoln ordered offensive action including bombardment of Confederate shore batteries. Personally scouting landing beaches, Lincoln took a direct role in what ultimately became a bloodless occupation.
An ”Aftermath” chapter covers the “blockade” of Portsmouth and Norfolk, one with many twists and turns and also one which lasted an astonishingly long time. It wasn’t officially ended until half way through the Siege of Petersburg! Norder’s “Dramatis Personae” appendix gives a concise summary of the players in this week long affair, and a ship list does the same for the wooden and iron vessels which participated.
For such a small time frame, the author was diligent in collecting sources. I counted no less than 33 newspapers cited, as well as a solid array of archival sources. Letters written by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to his daughter provided detail not mined before. The maps in this one were surprisingly sparse, given that this is a Savas Beatie book. That said, in this particular case, general overview maps were enough to understand the action, given what ultimately happened.
I would recommend this book to those interested in combined arms operations during the Civil War, fans of lesser known actions occurring at the same time as “main events,” and those looking to fill gaps in their knowledge. Although the author’s claim that this week’s actions sustained Lincoln’s belief in his ability to wage war might be overstated and overemphasized, this does not detract from the story.
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