A conversation with Craig Symonds

This is the third in our occasional series of interviews with scholars of Lincoln and the Civil War.  Dr. Craig Symonds holds a Ph.D. from the University of Florida and is a former naval officer.  After teaching at the Naval War College he moved to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he stayed for three decades as one of that institution’s most popular professors and received a number of teaching awards.  His books include Lincoln and His Admirals (for which he was a co-recipient of the Lincoln Prize), The Civil War at Sea, Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History, Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography, Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War, and The Battle of Midway.

How did you get interested in the study of Lincoln and the Civil War?

My interest in Lincoln may well date from my earliest memories, and in particular attending Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Anaheim, California.  There was an enormous (to me) bronze statue of Lincoln in an alcove in the front of the school in those days (it is gone now, alas), and I can remember looking up at it and thinking how impressive he was.  Then, some years later, I was a teenager during the Centennial of the Civil War and I eagerly read Bruce Catton’s trilogy on the war as they came out. 

It’s commonly said that Lincoln grew into the job of commander-in-chief, even though he had no experience with military command before his election.  Did his grasp of naval strategy improve over time, and did he make any significant mistakes?

Lincoln’s great gift as a politician and statesman was his ability to learn and adapt to a wide variety of circumstances, and to work effectively with a disparate selection of individuals, at least some of whom were inclined to be disagreeable.   Lincoln certainly learned a great deal on the job about naval matters, but the key to his success was his ability to judge and to manage the people as much as it was grasping the arcane details of naval technology or naval strategy.  And of course he made mistakes in the process, but he learned from each of them, and almost never made the same mistake twice.  Finally, he was unusual, if not nearly unique, in his willingness to acknowledge his errors.  During the Vicksburg campaign, he became convinced that once Grant had passed the Rebel citadel, he should continue downriver to join Banks in assailing Port Hudson.  After Vicksburg fell, he went out of his way to write to Grant, “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong.”  What president since then has ever admitted such a thing?

What was the nature of Lincoln’s relationship with Gideon Welles?  How closely did he involve himself in naval operations?

I think Lincoln genuinely enjoyed Gideon Welles, whom he called “Father Neptune” or “Uncle Gideon.”  Welles was an eccentric character with his mismatched wig and voluble personality, but he was always completely candid with Lincoln—something the president counted on.  Lincoln also appreciated the fact that, along with the Assistant Secretary Gustavus Fox, Welles ran the Navy Department with little active oversight.  Lincoln preferred to let the experts run their departments and he intervened only at need.  In cases like the Trent Affair, the Peterhoff case, or feuds with the Army, Lincoln necessarily had to get involved, but only because there was no one else in the government who could.  He was not an activist manager by instinct.

Lincoln’s frustration with Samuel Francis Du Pont regarding the attack on Charleston in 1863 brings to mind his troubled relationship with George McClellan.  Was Lincoln’s disappointment with Du Pont justified, and were his expectations realistic when it came to his naval commanders? 

Lincoln’s frustration with Du Pont derived from two factors:  One was the fact that the president had recently washed his hands of McClellan, and his tendency to conflate Du Pont’s apparent timidity concerning the Charleston defenses with McClellan’s behavior, while perhaps a bit unfair, was certainly understandable.  The second factor was that Du Pont was annoyingly shut-mouthed about his plans.  All Lincoln really wanted was honest candor from his commanders, both on land and at sea.  Bu Du Pont decided that he should not burden the president with details about naval matters and rather than explain the circumstances forthrightly, he hemmed and hawed and didn’t act.  Then, when he did, and was repulsed, he demanded that his reports be published in order to justify his decisions.  More than anything else, it was Du Pont’s evident concern for his own reputation, rather than his failure, that turned Lincoln against him.

Do you think its accurate to call the Civil War a “modern war,” and how open was Lincoln the technological developments in nineteenth-century naval warfare?

The Civil War was most certainly the world’s first modern war.  The mass conscription of civilians in the armies, and the transformation of industry to mass-produce military equipment, as much as the new technology, proves this.  But the technology was also revolutionary.  It was the first railroad war, the first telegraph war, the first war that involved armored ships firing rifled guns.  For his part, Lincoln easily and almost seamlessly embraced these new technologies, and in some cases, actively advanced them.  I have often said that Lincoln was a “gadget guy” and enjoyed going down to the Navy Yard to watch, or even participate in, the testing of some new weapon.

One of the first Union strategies for defeating the Confederacy involved a naval blockade.  How effective was this effort, and what role did it play in the North’s ultimate victory?

This is simply too big a question for me to deal with in a short answer.  On the whole, I believe that the blockade was worth the effort and expense; that it severely restricted the Confederacy’s ability to wage war; and that it probably shorted the war by a matter of several months.  For a longer and more complete answer, I’m afraid you’ll have to look at my books.

On a somewhat broader note than the previous questions, how important was the Union Navy’s contribution to the overall war effort? 

The Civil War was primarily a land war, and I believe that the Union would have won that war even without overwhelming naval superiority so long as the public continued to support the Lincoln administration’s war policy.  But it would almost certainly have been a longer and even bloodier war.   Without Union superiority on the western rivers, the campaigns for Forts Henry and Donelson, for Island Number 10, for Vicksburg, and of course for New Orleans would have been entirely different.  If the Union Navy shortened the war by, say, six months, then it may have saved a hundred thousand lives.

Compared to other presidents, how would you rate Lincoln as a naval commander-in-chief?

Few presidents had the opportunity to manage naval forces in a modern war of this scale.  Only Franklin Roosevelt comes close, and FDR (like his distant cousin Teddy) was a man who had studied the navy since childhood.   Roosevelt was far more knowledgeable about naval matters than Lincoln, but the two men had very similar instincts:  a disarming congeniality, a flexible, non-ideological outlook, a pragmatic world view, and keen political skills.  I rank them both at the very top of all American presidents, not just in war management, but in presidential excellence.

Finally, what leadership lessons can modern Americans learn from Lincoln?

I’ll name three:  patience; a willingness to listen, as well as talk; and a sense of humor.  Sadly, all three are sorely in need in our nation today.

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2 responses to “A conversation with Craig Symonds

  1. Pingback: Craig Symonds talks about Lincoln and naval matters | Past in the Present

  2. Pingback: Blog Divided » Post Topic » Introducing “What Would Lincoln Do?”

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