Friday, May 18, 2018

New Prince's Namesake a Naval Hero in Hampton Roads

Anglophiles around the world are abuzz over all the goings-on with the British Royal Family, from the recent wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle to the new son recently born to Prince William and his wife Catherine, who they named Prince Louis Arthur Charles.  Many of them know that the name Louis (pronounced without the "s") has a long history in the family, and that the baby prince was most likely named for Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India who was killed by terrorists in 1979.  Unfortunately, many news reports only mentioned Mountbatten's tragic death, yet he was a man whose amazing life impacted the destinies of millions around the globe.

Not many know that Mountbatten, a cousin of King George VI and son of a German prince, spent over 50 years in service to the Royal Navy and that he was never more at home than when commanding a warship.  Fewer still know that the seasoned combat veteran took charge of the largest ship he would ever command, the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, right here in Hampton Roads, months before the American entry into the Second World War
.  But almost no one alive today knows what important attribute he shared with the ship's mascot.

Although it was common knowledge among residents of Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia, that the British aircraft carrier Illustrious was being completely refurbished at Norfolk Naval Shipyard after being nearly destroyed by German dive bombers, this fact was only publicly acknowledged when Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten took command. (Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library)
Stories about the event appeared in newspapers from coast to coast, largely taking the American public by surprise. Until just a few days before Mountbatten's arrival, it was forbidden to report that British warships were even visiting American ports, much less undergoing major repair work in the U.S. Navy's shipyards. Many at the time wondered why such an important event would take place hundreds of miles from the nearest Royal Navy outpost.
That story is indeed obscure, but we can now shed some light upon it. 

Royal Blood and Seawater

The destinies of the United States and the United Kingdom drew closer throughout 1941. One reason for this is that when the year began, the Royal Navy was in one of the most precarious positions in its long history.

When the war began in September 1939, the German Kriegsmarine had been vastly outnumbered by the British and French navies in terms of battleships (3 vs. 22), cruisers (8 vs. 83), and virtually every other kind of warship and auxiliary. Moreover, it had no viable fleet air arm of its own to counter the Royal Navy’s, not to mention Germany's two planned aircraft carriers were nowhere near completion.  Despite this, the well-organized and coordinated German war machine managed to force the French navy out of the war and put the Royal Navy on the defensive in the North Sea, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean during the first year of the war.

The Royal Navy had lost its first carrier to the Germans only two weeks after the war began. U-29 struck HMS Courageous with two torpedoes on September 17, 1939.  She sank in 15 minutes with a loss of 519 of her crew of 1,260. In the midst of its violent wake toiled Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, commander of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla, helping pick up survivors aboard his flagship, HMS Kelly.

Although Lord Mountbatten’s great-grandmother was Queen Victoria, he had been rising through the ranks on his own merit since joining the Royal Navy in 1916.  Although royal blood coursed through his veins, so did seawater.  His father, Prince Louis of Battenberg, had served as First Sea Lord during the First World War’s outbreak over 20 years before.

With every major setback that the British armed forces and those of its allies faced in those early months of the war, Mountbatten acted fearlessly to defray disaster. In April 1940, his flotilla had taken heavy casualties while guarding the evacuation of British troops from Norway. The following month, HMS Kelly was torpedoed off the Dutch coast, after which Mountbatten moved his flag to HMS Javelin, which subsequently had both her bow and stern shot clear away by German torpedoes and gunfire off France.  He again assumed command of his original flagship after her return to service at the end of 1940, but while supporting the withdrawal of British forces from Crete in May 1941, Kelly took a direct hit from a German Stuka dive-bomber and capsized within two minutes. While Mountbatten escaped from under the destroyer, half of his crew did not.

After enduring wave after wave of German planes, which strafed the survivors with every pass, Mountbatten recalled:

“I thought it would be a good thing to start singing and so I started that popular song ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ and the others joined in, which seemed to help.”

Triumph at Taranto, Trial at Malta 

An artist's depiction of the surprise attack upon the Italian navy at Taranto, near the southern end of the Italian peninsula. (Royal Navy)

As it became obvious in June 1940 that France’s defeat was imminent and its fleet could no longer be counted upon by the Royal Navy, Italy committed its navy against Great Britain when it declared war on June 10.  Confronted by a former ally that it then had to fight and attacked by an opportunistic new foe in its home waters, the Royal Navy was rapidly running out of refuges in the Mediterranean.  Out of the depths of this crisis, however, a brilliant plan was hatched.  On November 11, 1940, the new British aircraft carrier Illustrious made history by launching the first raid by carrier-borne torpedo planes against ships in a protected harbor.  During Operation Judgment, just two waves of 21 antiquated Swordfish biplanes put half of Italy's battleships out of action at Taranto, at a cost of two aircraft.  Although behind schedule and more modest than was originally conceived, the operation stunned Italy and captured the attention of the world's navies, including the Japanese.
As seen from an unspecified Royal Navy warship, HMS Illustrious sustains a near miss right along her starboard bow on December 10, 1941, near the Italian island of Pantelleria. (Admiralty Official Collection/ The Imperial War Museum)
While protecting a merchant convoy reinforcing Malta on January 10, 1941, between 40 and 50 Junkers 87 Stuka dive bombers found Illustrious about 85 miles off the besieged island.  In just six minutes, she sustained six direct hits. One of the bombs scored a direct hit on the carrier's centrally located aft elevator, which was bringing up a Fairey Fulmar fighter and its pilot from the hangar deck. The twisted 300-ton lift platform crashed back into the hangar bay, spreading burning debris and fuel over the four fully-loaded Fulmars and nine Swordfish torpedo planes awaiting their turn to take off. Then another 1,000-pound bomb struck ten feet from the lift entrance, smashing through the buckled deck and exploding in the hangar bay. Another bomb crashed though the flight deck and exploded as yet another wave of Stukas reached the carrier. A seventh 1,000-pound bomb smashed through an antiaircraft gun platform and exploded alongside the hull, tearing shrapnel holes along her side.
Looking aft from Illustrious's island, the results of precision dive bombing can be clearly seen, with smoke from hangar bay fires erupting from fissures and bomb holes in the armored flight deck, as well as the upended aft aircraft lift. (Admiralty Official Collection/ The Imperial War Museum)
She was left a smoking ruin, adrift and without steering or electrical power, aflame from bow to stern, hangar deck to the flight deck. Any other carrier made before her would probably have been destroyed, but, after three more aerial attacks that yielded yet another direct hit near the remains of her aft elevator, Illustrious reached Malta's Grand Harbor, still on fire. Miraculously, only 126 men were killed and 91 were wounded out of her crew of 1,400.  Her mascot, a black cat named Taranto, had survived unscathed.  Her aircraft had also managed to shoot down eight of the attackers.

A photograph taken aboard Illustrious after she reached Malta shows the tremendous damage done to her forward elevator by German Stuka dive bombers. (Courtesy of Marcus Robbins/ Norfolk Naval Shipyard)
 Illustrious withstood several more bomb attacks while under emergency repairs at Malta, including another direct bomb hit, but on January 23, she slipped out of the harbor unbeknownst to the Germans and began an arduous trip back to the Atlantic by way of the Suez Canal, taking the long way around Africa.  Known but to a few on the nearly three-and-a-half-month journey that lay ahead, the tide of the war was about to change.  She was heading for Norfolk, Virginia.

Long Before War's Beginning, Neutrality Ends

In a fireside chat broadcast on December 29, 1940, entitled “On National Security,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared to millions of his radio listeners, “If Great Britain goes down, all of us in the Americas would be living at the point of a gun.” He finished his speech to the nation by declaring, “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”

On March 11, 1941, despite considerable isolationist resistance in Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease bill, and war materials began streaming forth to Britain from East Coast ports, including Hampton Roads.  Within the Lend-Lease program was a provision for the repair of allied ships.  As a result, American naval shipyards began active war work many months before the rest of the Navy.  Norfolk Naval Shipyard would perform major work on British warships for the first time since it served as a base of operations for Virginia’s last colonial governor during the Revolutionary War.

The 23,000-ton Secret 

HMS Illustrious, photographed sometime between her arrival in Hampton Roads in May 1941 and her dry-docking at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Note the fragment holes on her starboard bow. (Courtesy of Marcus Robbins/ Norfolk Naval Shipyard)
The port bow of HMS Illustrious, photographed after her dry-docking at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Note the dozens of temporary patches that had to be applied before she left Malta. (Courtesy of Marcus Robbins/ Norfolk Naval Shipyard)
Illustrious had only been commissioned into the Royal Navy the year before she entered Norfolk Naval Shipyard on May 12, 1941 but she did not look it. Many of the initial survey photos made by shipyard photographers, many published here for the first time online, were kept secret because they showed just how effective the German attacks had been.

Shipyard workers get a look at the destruction wrought upon the aft elevator well of HMS Illustrious, which was located in the center of the aft part of the flight deck. (Courtesy of Marcus Robbins/ Norfolk Naval Shipyard)
Despite the fact that Illustrious had an armored flight deck, which probably saved the ship during the January attack, the entire flight deck would have to be replaced, along with much of the topside and hangar deck equipment. One bomb which had passed through the flight deck, hangar deck and wardroom, exploded in the aft breaker room, putting electrical power for most of the ship out of commission. As a result, most of the carrier's electrical system would have to be replaced at the yard. Some special cable fixtures and machinery that could not be fabricated at the yard had to be shipped over from England.

The forward elevator of HMS Illustrious, seen here after its removal from the aircraft carrier at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, did not escape heavy damage during the precision dive bombing attack in January 1941. (Courtesy of Marcus Robbins/ Norfolk Naval Shipyard)
Today, the international press would certainly turn out to witness, record, and broadcast a heavily damaged British warship's arrival, but Navy Secretary Frank Knox had impressed the importance of secrecy upon his fellow press barons (Knox was publisher of the Chicago Daily News), and they maintained voluntary censorship, acting in concert to deny such information to the Germans. 

“I was in Norfolk when the British plane carrier, Illustrious, was in the yards suffering from every known ailment that an airplane carrier can suffer,” wrote correspondent Henry McLemore that October. “I saw the Illustrious with my own eyes, talked to officers who told me what had happened to her and was all but run over in the streets of Norfolk by Illustrious sailors. But, according to the Navy’s censorship code, I couldn’t write a word about the Illustrious.”

“The Board of Censors is firm in its belief that a 30,000 or 50,000-ton battleship can sneak into a harbor in broad daylight, tie up at a busy dock, disembark hundreds of its crew and undergo riveting repairs without even the cat on the clock noticing that a thing is going on.”

And so it was that the British government decided in mid-August to lift the veil of secrecy from the “riveting repairs,” revealing to the world not only where Illustrious had been for over a year, but also that a member of the royal family was to take command of the rejuvenated carrier. The American press quickly followed suit.

The British were not only happy to show the dramatic transformation the warship had undergone in Norfolk, but also prove to the Germans that her new commander, a man who had two ships torpedoed out from under him already, was equally ready to rejoin the fight.

Just before officially assuming command of HMS Illustrious at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in August 1941, Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten conducts an inspection of junior ratings as shipyard workers watch the proceedings from above. (Courtesy of the Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library)
Lord Louis Takes Command

“Mountbatten, who looks like the Hollywood version of a dashing naval hero, was piped aboard the battle-scarred Illustrious shortly after 9:30 a.m. today and immediately went about the business of officially taking command of the vessel,” wrote Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch reporter Charles Reilly on August 27, 1941.

“Mountbatten walked leisurely among the men, stopping frequently to chat with some gob or petty officer,” wrote Reilly. “He [sic] deevoted considerable time to talking with crew members who have been singled out for [sic] deecorations for their conduct when the ship was under fire.”

“I get a genuine thrill out of being associated with a ship that has done so much good and which has such a wonderful record,” Mountbatten told the crew after taking the podium. “I am anxious, as you are, to get her back in action and give the Germans and Italians a few knocks.”

Nine Lives

Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten meets three of Illustrious's nine mascots, the nearest to him held by Seaman Glyn Ellis (center). (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)

While meeting with some of the junior sailors, Mountbatten was introduced to Taranto, the ship’s mascot, along with several other kittens rescued from other warships lost in action.

Three sailors aboard the British aircraft carrier Illustrious pose with one of the nine feline mascots purportedly living aboard her during her refit at Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  It is unclear whether the cat pictured is "Taranto." (Courtesy of the Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library)
“Taranto is quite somebody aboard the Illustrious,” wrote Reilly. “She was on board during all the fighting and her calm conduct under fire won her the admiration of the crew and officers alike.”

Shirley Hogge, an artist in the shipyard’s safety office, made her own rendering of the introduction, which depicted both the captain and the cat as seasoned combat veterans with nine lives.  A framed copy was presented to Captain Mountbatten on October 13 by Rear Admiral Felix X. Gygax, commandant of the yard. Mountbatten immediately left after the presentation for Washington DC, where he was to meet with President Roosevelt.

An editor at the Virginian-Pilot newspaper wrote, "The cat in the cartoon will be remembered as one of several which are mascots of the Illustrious.  Reference in the two lines of verse perhaps go to Lord Mountbatten, since he is hale and hearty despite having had vessels torpedoed out from under him in the current conflict." The cat is leaning upon the original ship's bell of the carrier, which was heavily damaged during the January 1941 attack.  A replacement was cast by Norfolk Naval Shipyard in August and presented to the Illustrious crew in September.  (Courtesy of Marcus Robbins/ Norfolk Naval Shipyard
Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, RN, accepts the cartoon of him and "Taranto," the mascot of HMS Illustrious, from Rear Adm. Felix Gygax, Norfolk Naval Shipyard commandant.  (Courtesy of Marcus Robbins/ Norfolk Naval Shipyard)
Winston Churchill's Orders

Mountbatten had just arrived in Washington when he was shown an urgent message from London.

Prime Minister to Lord Louis Mountbatten: we want you to home here at once for something that you will find of the highest interest.

He departed for England, where Prime Minister Winston Churchill offered him a new post: Advisor on Combined Operations.  Mountbatten was visibly nonplussed.  He had only been commander of Illustrious for two months. The carrier was more combat capable than she was when she was first launched, yet the finishing touches had not yet been made.  He had not yet even taken her out for sea trials.

Outraged by Mountbatten’s lack of enthusiasm for the post he had been hand-picked for, Churchill exploded.

"Have you no sense of glory?"

"Here I give you a chance to take part in the higher leadership of the war, and all you want to do is go back to sea. What can you hope to achieve, except to be sunk in a bigger and more expensive ship?"

Churchill had more than a special interest in Mountbatten for the job.  He had originated the idea for an advisor on combined operations before he even became prime minister.  The disastrous Gallipoli campaign had happened on his watch as First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I. The lack of coordination between the Commonwealth forces and the Royal Navy factored into the failure to defeat the Ottoman Turks in the Dardanelles a generation ago, yet Churchill knew they were no better prepared to work together in 1941 than they were in 1915.  Britain's armed forces needed a multi-service command dedicated to coordinating the raids, and, ultimately, invasions to come. He needed a proven combat veteran to lead what would essentially be an organization dedicated to ending the defensive phase of the war. With the Americans coming in on their side, the time was ripe to begin making preparations to, in Churchill’s words, "develop a reign of terror" along the enemy's coastline.

Despite Mountbatten’s initial reluctance to relinquish command of Illustrious, the implications of his new position, along with the realization that he could not turn it down anyway, forced a change of heart. He took up the new post on October 27, determined to carry out Churchill's orders to "turn the south coast of England from a bastion of defense to a springboard of attack." Despite some initial setbacks, most notably at Dieppe in August 1942, Mountbatten would lead a diverse group of some of the Commonwealth’s greatest unconventional warriors and thinkers, along with those from America, to create the vessels, equipment, tactics and doctrine required to invade Africa, Italy, and, ultimately, France. 

Illustrious First of Many

With her new commanding officer, Captain Arthur George Talbot, Illustrious departed Norfolk Naval Shipyard on November 25, 1941, just two weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, after which the United States officially entered the war.

HMS Illustrious was the first of six battle-damaged vessels to receive extensive repairs and even complete overhauls at the yard during 1941. Also included were the battleship HMS Royal Sovereign; two fleet carriers, HMS Formidable and HMS Indomitable; the cruiser Daytonian, and the escort carrier ArcherFormidable, which arrived on August 26, underwent the most extensive repairs after Illustrious.

In all, approximately 140 British vessels would be handled at Norfolk Naval Shipyard during the war under the Lend-Lease program. Although many of these were smaller vessels such as the Landing Ship, Tank (LST) that were commissioned into the Royal Navy in droves (yet another big idea credited to Winston Churchill), the repair of those first heavily damaged capital ships made the most meaningful impact during Britain's darkest hours during the war.

Great Britain finally made the last Lend-Lease repayment back to the United States on December 29, 2006.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Admiral-in-Chief: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Invasion of Norfolk, Part 2

By A.J. Orlikoff
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Cheered on by Confederate soldiers manning the batteries at Craney Island at the western side of the mouth of the Elizabeth River, the casemate ironclad Virginia steams north into Hampton Roads with her escorts to take on the U.S. Navy ships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  Although this illustration probably depicts Virginia's first wildly successful foray into Hampton Roads in March 1862, later attempts by the former Merrimack to disrupt the operations of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron were much less dramatic, and the Confederate warship would ultimately meet her end off Craney Island in May. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
With the dust settling from the Navy’s bombardment of Sewells Point in May 1862, President Abraham Lincoln watched as a curl of black smoke appeared from around the bend of the Elizabeth River. Someone on the ramparts shouted “There comes the Merrimac!” The former U.S. Navy vessel, now the pride of the small Confederate Navy under the name CSS Virginia, was coming to strike a powerful blow to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, just as it had done in March of 1862. However, just as before, the U.S. Navy had USS Monitor to counter the iron monster.

As Lincoln departed Fort Wool with members of his cabinet to wisely retreat to the stronger Fort Monroe, Monitor advanced to protect the vulnerable wooden ships of the squadron with the experimental ironclad USRC (United States Revenue Cutter) E.A. Stevens. Also awaiting the Confederate ironclad was the powerful USS Vanderbilt, donated by the American railroad titan Cornelius Vanderbilt, which was equipped with a ram designed to pierce the armor of Virginia's armor. They advanced towards the lumbering Virginia with only an empty sheet of water separating them. The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron had once again accepted the Virginia’s challenge.

USS Vanderbilt (1862-1873) in a period engraving by G. Parsons as published in Harper's Weekly, 1862. This former flagship of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt's North Atlantic Mail Steamship Line was turned over to the U.S. Navy on March 24, 1862 and fitted with a heavy battery of 15 guns. (
As Lincoln, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton retreated from Fort Wool, they watched the unfolding drama as Monitor and Vanderbilt stared down CSS Virginia. For a few moments, nothing happened.  Then, as suddenly as a ship of such displacement could, Virginia turned and retreated back up the Elizabeth River. Lincoln’s strategic intuition had been sound; American naval supremacy in the area was enough to both silence Confederate batteries and turn back counterattacks from their mightiest ship. With their objectives completed, the ships returned to the shelter of Fort Monroe, but Lincoln was far from done.

Looking south, this 1862 print shows Fort Monroe's commanding view from Old Point Comfort in what is now Hampton. Named for President James Monroe, this, the largest stone fort ever built in the United States, was constructed for coastal defense and was never taken by the Confederacy, serving as a key base of operations in Virginia. (Library of Congress Geography and Map Division)
Lincoln immediately wanted to continue striking the enemy in Norfolk.  The next day, he ordered the Monitor, this time without Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough’s input, to confirm the silencing of the rebel batteries. In addition, Lincoln consulted with General John Wool, the commander of Fort Monroe and the U.S. Army forces in the area, on how to best launch an amphibious invasion of Norfolk. Wool was initially hesitant as he believed there was no suitable landing site, but Lincoln was insistent that a reconnaissance should be conducted and, should a landing site be found, an invasion force launched from Hampton.

General John E. Wool, then 78, was the oldest general to serve on either side of the American Civil War. The fort Lincoln watched the bombardment of Sewells Point from, originally known as Fort Calhoun, was renamed Fort Wool in honor of the old general who was in command of Fort Monroe. (Southworth & Hawes)

Lincoln sent Chase on the initial reconnaissance missions of May 8 to act as a direct liaison to Lincoln. Chase reported that he and Wool had indeed discovered a suitable landing point which was sheltered from any potential intervention by CSS Virginia. The President, wanting to see the landing site for himself, boarded a small tug with Secretaries Stanton and Chase, accompanied by a small party of soldiers from Fort Wool, to conduct an evening reconnaissance of the site. Thus, the  Commander-in-Chief, one with no military experience, personally led a reconnaissance mission of an enemy shore.  Confederate cavalry arrived on the beach to investigate the approaching vessels but Lincoln ordered that they not be fired upon.  Satisfied that the landing site was suitable, Lincoln returned to U.S. lines, and General Wool agreed to launch the amphibious invasion on May 10.

Salmon P. Chase was Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury and he accompanied the President, along with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, to Hampton Roads in May 1862. A former senator and governor, Chase played an active role in the military operations which led to Norfolk’s capture and is the only sitting Secretary of the Treasury to personally 
participate in an amphibious invasion.

The level of micromanagement Lincoln displayed in Hampton Roads may seem unusual, but it is important to recognize that Lincoln exercised such personal control over American forces out of what he believed was certain necessity. Lincoln was already frustrated with the lethargic progress of General McClellan’s 100,000-strong Army of the Potomac and he detected much of the same lethargy from Goldsborough and Wool.  Lincoln was perfectly willing to defer, delegate, and take a hands-off approach with military affairs and he frequently did so during the war with various Union commanders such as General Ulysses S. Grant and Admiral David G. Farragut.

Photographer Matthew Brady captured the audacity of Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, who was the naval antithesis of George McClellan. He aggressively commanded several fleets throughout the Civil War and consistently won victory after victory for the Union by striking directly at the enemy. Farragut famously ran past the forts which protected New Orleans on April 29, 1862, capturing the Confederacy’s largest city with only a minimal loss of life. (National Archives & Records Administration)
These men had what Goldsborough, Wool, and McClellan lacked; they aggressively and willingly took the fight to the enemy. Lincoln detested the timidity and over cautiousness of many Union commanders and was resolved that the best way to win the war was to take the fight to the enemy and strike them simultaneously at multiple points, as the Anaconda Plan called for, in order to best leverage the Union numerical superiority. Thus, when Lincoln believed it was necessary, the Commander-in-Chief personally intervened on many occasions to ensure that the U.S. Military was constantly striking the Confederacy in multiple places all at once.
This eyewitness sketch shows Union troops boarding transports on the wharf of Fort Monroe in order to invade Norfolk. Notice Lincoln, bottom center, participating in the preparations. (Library of Congress)
In the early morning hours of May 10, approximately 5,000 soldiers from Hampton and Newport News boarded ships to embark on the invasion of Norfolk. On the wharf of Fort Monroe, Lincoln, Chase, and Stanton stood at the heart of the action as Lincoln was, according to an observer, “…rushing about, hollering to someone on the wharf.” Lincoln was determined that the invasion he had ordered, planned, and personally reconnoitered be successful.
This print by C. Bohn shows the area around Camp Butler in Newport News, where many of the troops that participated in the invasion of Norfolk embarked.  (Library of Congress Geography and Map Division)
 As the rays of the morning sun began to shine with more intensity, Lincoln watched from aboard a tug as thousands of U.S. Army soldiers, personally led by Wool, landed unopposed near what is now known as Ocean View.  Navy Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge accompanied Lincoln on the tug and recalled that, “He was very much preoccupied. He sat out on deck, aloof from everyone else, and appeared extremely tired, careworn, and weighted down with responsibility.”

Brigadier General Egbert L. Viele in 1860. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The invasion was initially botched as the Union forces were disorganized but Chase, who had gone ashore with the troops while Lincoln stayed on ship, sprang into action and ordered Brig. Gen. Egbert Ludovicus Viele, who had accompanied Lincoln to Hampton Roads as a guest of the cabinet, to take command of the landing force “…in the name of the President of the United States.” With Viele in command, the Army quickly organized and made rapid progress towards Norfolk. With Confederates abandoning their positions before them, they surged forward until they were met a few miles outside of the city by the Mayor of Norfolk, who promptly surrendered the city. This was likely to buy time for the retreating Confederates, who were sabotaging the Gosport Naval Yard before completing their retreat. 
This illustration from Harper’s Weekly shows the surrender of Norfolk by Mayor William Lamb, whose son was a Confederate colonel serving in North Carolina. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Lincoln was overjoyed to hear the news of the victory and the icy and aloof demeanor Selfridge had observed seemed to melt away as Lincoln offered everyone his congratulations and even hugged General Wool. What Lincoln and the others did not know was that the Confederates had planned to abandon Norfolk eventually, yet Lincoln surely had forced their hand by compelling them to abandon Norfolk far sooner than they had wanted. The ultimate proof of this came the next morning as Goldsbourough reported to Lincoln the destruction of CSS Virginia at the hands of her own crew off Craney Island. The workers at the Gosport Naval Yard had been hard at work trying to lighten the Confederate vessel to reduce her draft to less than 18 feet, enough to get her over the shoals of the James River safely to Richmond. With the Union now in possession of Norfolk, the Confederates had run out of time and were forced to destroy their most powerful naval asset. Virginia had survived the might of three North Atlantic Blockading Squadron frigates, the Monitor, and battery fire, yet in the end she was destroyed as a result of the pragmatic and aggressive posture of the Commander-in-Chief.
This Currier and Ives lithograph shows the final moment of CSS Virginia off of Craney Island on May 11 where the fires set by her crew ignited the powder magazine, resulting in a massive explosion. The Confederacy would never again contest the U.S. Navy's supremacy in Hampton Roads. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
Lincoln departed Hampton Roads on May 11, and perhaps his worth during his week in Hampton Roads is best summed up by those who were there. Chase wrote of the President’s conduct, “I think it quite certain if he had not come down Norfolk would still have been in possession of the enemy.” He later added, “So ended a brilliant week's campaign by the President.” A reporter for the Washington Star added, “The sailors all unite in saying he is a ‘trump’ and they also express the opinion that the success of the movement is due to the energy infused into it by ‘Uncle Abe.’” Lincoln, in the eyes of many Sailors, was an inspiring figure.
Scholars and enthusiasts alike believe this portrait of Abraham Lincoln, taken on November 8, 1863, eleven days before his famed Gettysburg Address, to be the best photograph of him ever taken. Lincoln’s character was notoriously difficult to capture in pictures, but Alexander Gardner’s close-up portrait, quite innovative in contrast to the typical full-length portrait style commonly used by Matthew Brady, comes closest to preserving the expressive contours of Lincoln’s face and his penetrating gaze. (Scewing/ Wikimedia Commons)
Lincoln’s qualities as a commander-in chief were on full display during his week in Hampton Roads. Though he possessed no military experience nor was he a navalist by training, Lincoln nevertheless immediately and aggressively rallied his naval assets to strike at Sewells Point, stare down the vaunted Virginia, reconnoiter a hostile coast, and land an amphibious force to take Norfolk. Lincoln was a natural and intuitive naval strategist who essentially acted as a commanding flag officer who successfully took the fight to the enemy despite the trepidation of both Goldsborough and Wool. Perhaps, if the circumstances of his life had gone much differently, Lincoln would have been a capable admiral.

Editor's note: For more on President Abraham Lincoln's relationship with, and management of, the United States Navy, check out Craig Symonds' Lincoln and his Admirals (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Admiral-In-Chief: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Invasion of Norfolk, Part I

By A.J. Orlikoff
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

This illustration published in 1907 depicts an attack against Confederate-held Sewells Point on May 8, 1862 by U.S. Navy vessels such as USS Monitor (in the lead) and the experimental Revenue Cutter E.A. Stevens (also known as the USRC Naugatuck) (following immediately behind).  The steam sloops Dacotah and Seminole, and steam frigates San Jacinto and Susquehanna are also depicted as having taken part in the bombardment against Confederate troops of the Columbus (Georgia) Light Guard and the Norfolk Light Artillery Blues. The circular structure in the middle distance to the right represents Fort Wool, despite the fact that its final design was a crescent at best, with Fort Monroe beyond, also looking much larger and closer than it would have looked to those manning the batteries, under a battle flag with a design that did not exist that early in the war. (Naval History and Heritage Command/ NH 58756)

On the afternoon of May 7, 1862, a tall figure stood upon the ramparts of Fort Wool in the middle of Hampton Roads. The figure watched as a powerful naval strike force, spearheaded by the ironclad Monitor, advanced towards the Confederate batteries at Sewells Point. Just that morning, the man who now watched as the ships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron moved into position had quickly appraised the strategic situation in Hampton Roads and prodded the naval commander, Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough, to utilize his powerful naval assets to conduct a “demonstration” against the Confederate works. With the rare opportunity to watch an operation he had ordered in person, the figure watched as the U.S. Navy flotilla, with powerful 11-inch guns, opened fire on the Sewells Point defenses. 
Fort Wool (formerly known as Fort Calhoun and known informally as the Rip Raps) on a man made island sitting roughly equidistant between Fort Monroe and Willoughby Spit, was the closest U.S. Army territory to Confederate-held Norfolk during the spring of 1862, making it a good vantage point for President Lincoln.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
The "Rebel Batteries" of Sewells Point as they appeared in Harper's Weekly on November 8, 1861.  A print of this appears in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum gallery. (Marcus W. Robbins via
Their fire was devastating as the Confederate defenders desperately tried to fight back. As the man on the ramparts watched, cannons to his left and right joined the furious cannonade as the Confederate batteries were silenced. As the smoke cleared, the Navy strike force shifted their fire to other Confederate batteries a half mile away from Sewells Point and the man on the ramparts was surely gratified that his strategic wisdom to strike the Confederate batteries had been sound. The man on the ramparts was Abraham Lincoln, Commander-in-Chief and President of the United States, and he was determined to make good use of his time in Hampton Roads in May of 1862.
Although it was common to have to sit still while being photographed during the Civil War, Alexander Gardner's photograph of this meeting at Antietam, Maryland, in October 1862 between President Abraham Lincoln and Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan captures the stilted relationship between the two men.  The following month, Lincoln would remove McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac, and two years later, McClellan would run against Lincoln for the presidency.  (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division via Wikimedia Commons)
Lincoln’s arrival in Hampton Roads, which resulted in the naval operations which led to Norfolk’s capture by Union forces, ironically had nothing to do with a desire to spur the U.S. Navy into action. Rather, Lincoln had arrived to confer with Union General-in-Chief George B. McClellan on his now notorious over cautiousness and lethargy during the Peninsular Campaign of 1862, when the vast Army of the Potomac was stalled by a much smaller Confederate army in Yorktown. Lincoln, having arrived at a time when McClellan deemed it inconvenient to meet with the Commander-in-Chief, was not one to sit idle and he almost immediately decided to take control of the naval situation in Hampton Roads while he waited for McClellan to meet with him.

This engraving published in the July-December 1861 volume of Harper's Weekly depicts 13 merchant steamships acquired by the U.S. Navy between April and August 1861 and subsequently converted into warships, plus the steamer Nashville (far left), which became a Confederate cruiser. U.S. Navy ships, as identified below the image bottom, are (from left to right): Alabama, Quaker City, Santiago de Cuba (listed as St. Jago de Cuba), Mount Vernon, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Florida, De Soto, Augusta, James Adger, Monticello, Bienville and R.R. Cuyler. (HN 5936/ Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
The U.S. Navy, over its illustrious history, has benefited from a number of ardent navalist presidents. Presidents John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt were famous naval champions who consistently fought for and touted the benefits of a strong U.S. Navy. However, many leave Lincoln out of the discussion of navalist presidents even though Lincoln was as much a naval champion as any president. In fact, Lincoln presided over an era of unprecedented naval spending and activity with the U.S. Navy exploding in size from 42 ships in commission at the beginning of the war to 671 by the end of the war, an increase in size by a factor of 15. This naval buildup was no accident as the Union “Anaconda Plan,” the grand strategy devised by the old General Winfield Scott and approved by Lincoln, relied heavily upon the Navy to blockade the Confederate coast, close its major ports, and isolate portions of the Confederacy by controlling the major rivers. To Lincoln, the U.S. Navy was a vital instrument in the military symphony designed to quell the rebellion.

This contemporary stylized map by J.B. Elliot illustrates the general concept of the U.S. Navy's Anaconda Plan, conceived by the Army's senior general at the outbreak of the Civil War, Winfield Scott. (Library of Congress Geography and map Division)  
Lincoln was certainly an unlikely naval champion. From an inland state and with, by his own admission, no naval experience, Lincoln nevertheless took to naval affairs almost immediately after taking office, though admittedly by necessity with the question of supplying Fort Sumter. However, by all accounts, Lincoln was greatly personally interested in the fleets, strategies, and technological aspects of the U.S. Navy. Lincoln was particularly fascinated by naval technology and one of his favorite activities during the war was to visit his friend Ordnance Chief Captain John A. Dahlgren at the Washington Naval Yard to personally view the latest naval technologies and weapons.

The then Captain Dahlgren, pictured here on the USS Pawnee next to the cannon that bore his name, was a technological visionary who served as Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance until his promotion to Rear Admiral in 1863. He was a close friend of Lincoln's and both men had immense respect for each other's abilities. (Library of Congress)

One of Lincoln’s greatest qualities as both a Commander-in-Chief and as an individual was his capacity to rapidly invest himself in and learn something that was unfamiliar to him. As a result Lincoln, by the time he was watching the bombardment of Sewells Point from the ramparts of Fort Wool in May 1862, was an adept naval strategist in his own right and he was resolved to take the fight to the enemy in Hampton Roads. With the Confederate batteries silenced, Lincoln watched as a puff of black smoke became visible from around the bend of the Elizabeth River. The CSS Virginia, terror of the Confederate Navy and the Monitor’s old opponent at the Battle of Hampton Roads, was coming to do battle. 

An Alfred Waud sketch of the Rip Raps (Fort Wool) in 1861. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
As seen from off Old Point Comfort in 2016, Fort Wool looms in front of the Ocean View section of Norfolk.  The top of the Westin Virginia Beach Town Center can be seen in the far distance middle left. (M.C. Farrington)