Lincoln And His Admirals, by Craig L. Symonds
Although the naval history of the civil war is not something that is completely neglected by historians , it has definitely not received the same amount of attention as Lincoln’s relationship with his generals. Part of this is due to the fact that the squeaky wheel gets the grease–Lincoln’s generals were a fairly obstreperous lot, many of them with political connections who wanted to throw around their weight. This is not to say that the political element was missing from the navy during the Civil War, as this book demonstrates, but rather that there were far fewer political admirals and so Lincoln’s focus was usually focused on those people who were making the most noise and whose behavior was the most pivotal when it came to votes. This book, though, is an admirable one in explaining the complicated involvement of Lincoln in naval affairs, and the author does a good job in setting a context in which his involvement was often necessary to smooth over conflicts, and in which Union victory came about through complicated means, in which the navy played a supporting but important role.
With over 300 pages of content, none of it filler, this book fills an admirable void in discussing Lincoln’s relationship with his admirals. As is the case in general, the tale shown is of increasing confidence and competence among Lincoln in his role as commander and chief along, as well as a high degree of rivalry between Seward and Welles over matters that involved both of them, which proved to be quite a few. Organized in a chronological fashion, the author shows how Lincoln’s initial understanding of the navy and the relationship between the navy and army and the navy and foreign affairs was not always strong. Lincoln is consistently shown as being a moderating influence on the extremes pushed by others, seeking to guide a path between radical and conservative, and usually successful at engaging in the difficult balancing act. Likewise, the importance of the navy is shown in combined operation, blockade running, attempting to deal with commerce raiding, and interacting with foreign citizens and the agents of foreign governments. The result is a book that contains some information that people might not be aware of, such as the patronage politics of the navy and the struggle for officers in promotion as well as to gain the naval victories that would give one a high reputation. As was the case with his generals, Lincoln preferred those who didn’t continually demand reinforcements.
This is a book that makes a fine companion volume to Lincoln and His Generals, a book the author himself makes reference to in the introduction to this book. For those who have an interest in the naval history of the Civil War, and enjoy reading about the ways that naval affairs can influence matters of diplomacy as well as military strategy, this is a worthwhile book. The way that the author is able to grasp Lincoln’s political skill and the way he made people feel like he was on their side even when he was somewhat skeptical about them, as was the case with Porter, is itself worth the read. Where else can one expect to know so thoroughly the rivalries between various naval officials and the way that Lincoln and Seward struggled with being back channels, especially early in Lincoln’s presidency, concerning naval affairs? The end result is that this particular volume gives a fascinating and detailed look, well backed up by the evidence, into an area of history that is often ignored. To be sure, there are many more books about Abraham Lincoln than one could read during a lifetime, but this is certainly a worthy one.
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