- Commanding Lincoln’s Navy: Union Naval Leadership During the Civil War
Stephen R. Taaffe’s Commanding Lincoln’s Navy addresses both the men who achieved squadron command in the Civil War U.S. Navy and the evolution of the philosophy that Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles used to select them.
In 1861, U.S. Navy promotion and assignment was controlled by a system of strict seniority that was inefficient and ineffective even in peacetime. When war broke out, Welles found it as difficult to find commanders as he did to find ships. Throughout the war, Welles was able to choose his senior commanders from a small pool of Regular Navy officers—the unattractiveness of seagoing life and the lure of high rank in the Army spared the Navy from “political admirals.” The departure of the officers who “went South,” however, both shrank the pool of potential squadron commanders and forced Welles to consider the loyalty of those who remained.
A key theme is how Welles’s criteria for choosing commanders changed over time. Tightly constrained by seniority and loyalty, Welles appointed William Mervine and Silas Stringham as the first two wartime squadron commanders in May 1861. Neither Mervine, 70 years old, nor Stringham, a relative youth at 62, lasted five months. Welles, recognizing that seniority could not produce the leaders the Navy needed, had by December 1861 obtained legislation that enabled him to appoint “flag officers” without regard to seniority. Given this freedom, the Secretary increasingly chose squadron commanders based on energy, demonstrated competence, and his personal evaluation of their potential. When Congress created the rank of rear admiral in July 1862, Welles left some of the coveted slots vacant “to induce and stimulate our heroes” (p. 24).
Taaffe persuasively concludes that complaining and passivity were serious black marks in Welles’s eyes, while competence and aggressiveness were highly valued. Victory kept David Glasgow Farragut in command despite his impatience [End Page 1338] with routine blockading, and David Dixon Porter’s operational successes counterbalanced his backstabbing intrigues. Operational success alone was insufficient; despite Samuel Phillips Lee’s long and successful command of the blockade of Wilmington, N.C., Welles replaced him for the December 1864 assault on Fort Fisher, suspecting that he “lacked the killer instinct” (p. 264).
Welles, Taaffe concludes, “got into the most trouble when he factored seniority and politics into his decisions” (p. 266) regarding squadron command. The appointments of John A. Dahlgren, promoted at President Abraham Lincoln’s insistence; Charles Wilkes, popular with Congress for his role in the Trent Affair; and Mervine, chosen for his seniority, support this thesis. Welles’s selections were generally good; Taaffe rates Farragut and Porter as outstanding and most others as “solid” or “generally creditable.” Samuel F. Du Pont and Dahlgren failed in battle, but even Welles’s worst choices did not “seriously [damage] the Union cause. Instead, they were merely inadequate” (p. 266).
After initially reviewing the operational and administrative problems Welles faced in 1861, Taaffe covers the events of 1861–64 in each of the Navy’s major theaters in turn. The last year of war is treated roughly chronologically. The volume is well annotated, but the author’s “primary” sources include post war articles and memoirs by and about participants. He relies heavily upon published selections of correspondence from individuals such as Du Pont and Gustavus V. Fox. While Fox’s papers in the Library of Congress are cited, the Fox collection of the New-York Historical Society is unaccountably absent.
Commanding Lincoln’s Navy provides a much-needed study of the Union Navy’s high command. It will be a welcome addition to the library of any Civil War naval historian.