Editor's note: This story originally appeared in 2012 as part of a Civil War 150th anniversary series.
When Abraham Lincoln stepped ashore at Fort Monroe late on May 6, 1862, he hoped his visit would prod Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan and his Army of the Potomac into action.
But finding that McClellan’s long siege of Yorktown had already forced the Confederate army to retreat toward Richmond, he quickly switched gears, and by the next morning he was organizing an impromptu military expedition that forced the surrender of Norfolk.
Just how closely Lincoln directed this unexpected Union success can be seen in the few hundred yards that separated his vessel from Federal warships during the fiery May 8 bombardment that silenced the rebel guns at Sewell’s Point.
The following afternoon the president steamed to Ocean View, where he tread upon the “sacred soil” of Virginia while reconnoitering the enemy-held coast for an amphibious landing.
Only once before — and never since — had any sitting commander in chief been so personally involved in planning and directing a military mission.
But if Lincoln hadn’t taken charge, one of the Civil War’s most unusual operations might not have happened.
“Lincoln wasn’t a military man. But he had an innate ability to size up military situations — and it was a lot better than that of many of his generals,” says Hampton History Museum curator J. Michael Cobb, co-author of a 2009 book on Fort Wool — the Hampton Roads outpost that played a vital role in the operation.
“What’s so amazing here is that we have a commander in chief who not only initiates the attack but assumes direct operational control — and it never happens like this again.”
Lincoln wasn’t alone in recognizing the value of Norfolk.
Long before the Union’s massive build-up at Fort Monroe and its April 1862 siege of Yorktown, its chief engineer — Brig. Gen. John G. Barnard — had argued that the key Southern port and the strategic Gosport Navy Yard in adjacent Portsmouth made rich targets.
With McClellan’s advance up the Peninsula, moreover, Norfolk became increasingly isolated. It also was threatened from the south by an amphibious expedition from Fort Monroe that had seized a large swath of coastal North Carolina earlier in 1862.
“Norfolk was ripe for the taking,” Norfolk State University archivist Tommy Bogger says.
“But Lincoln was the one who made the Union army and navy do it.”
Meeting with Maj. Gen. John Wool and Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough soon after his arrival, Lincoln found them practically paralyzed by the threat of the ironclad CSS Virginia, which in March had inflicted the navy’s worst defeat before Pearl Harbor.
But rather than ordering his commanders to attack the formidable warship directly, he purposed capturing its base in Norfolk and Gosport through an amphibious landing.
Then he countered their worries about operating in such shallow waters by suggesting they use the shoal-draft canal boats already tied up in large numbers at Fort Monroe.
“Lincoln had been a boatman on the Ohio River,” says J. Michael Moore, curator of Lee Hall Mansion.
“And the plan he laid out was pretty sound.”
Early on May 7, a captured rebel tug reported that Confederate forces in Norfolk and Gosport had started an evacuation.
The president also toured the burned ruins of Hampton later that day, seeing first-hand the kind of destruction that had been carried out in order to keep the town from falling into Yankee hands.
"We passed on to the village of Hampton which was so barbarously ruined last summer. I never saw such a ruin," wrote Treasury Sec. Salmon B. Chase, who rode alongside Lincoln.
"The Old Court House almost two hundred years old, but of remarkable beauty for that time -– the old church, amid the graves of the generations, a gem of a building … where generation after generation of Virginians had been baptized, confirmed, married admitted to the Communion, and dismissed with tears and benedictions to their last repose … We returned from Hampton saddened.”
Whether the grim sight of that charred wasteland compelled Lincoln to act more quickly is unknown. But by 2 p.m. on March 8 he was at Fort Wool, watching the heavy guns there join Federal warships — including the USS Monitor — in bombarding the rebel batteries at Sewell’s Point.
Eager to get closer, the president took a tug to within a few hundred yards of the vessels. But the ominous sight of the Virginia steaming out of the Elizabeth River sent the Union ships fleeing for the safety of the guns at Fort Monroe.
“When the Virginia made a move toward the Rip Raps, Lincoln literally had to skedaddle,” Cobb says.
“That’s how close they were to the action.”
Despite the Virginia’s foray into Hampton Roads, the Union did not fight.
Instead its leaders revamped their plans, moving the landing from Sewell’s Point to the Chesapeake Bay side of Norfolk, where the guns of forts Monroe and Wool could stop any attempt by the Virginia to use the narrow channel.
Not until 2 p.m. on May 9, however — after Lincoln had consulted a local pilot and explored the shoreline — was the beach at the foot of Willoughby Spit selected. And when Wool and the first of 6,000 Federal troops landed at 7 a.m. the next day, the president was watching from the decks of the revenue cutter Miami.
Returning to Fort Monroe, Lincoln waited for news at Quarters No. 1 — and angrily bounced his hat off the floor after learning some troops had been withheld from the expedition.
He also watched as ugly plumes of smoke appeared, suggesting Norfolk might share the fate of Hampton.
Not until after retiring at 10 p.m. did Lincoln hear the city had surrendered without resistance, sparking an impromptu dance in his nightshirt.
He was about to return to Washington, D.C., the following morning when he received more good news.
The Virginia had been destroyed by its sailors.
Boarding the USS Baltimore, the president saw the blown-up remains of the rebel ironclad drifting in the Elizabeth River off Craney Island as he steamed to Norfolk. Battery after battery of silent Confederate guns rose from the banks as he passed, but within hours they all sported the familiar sight of Old Glory.
“The Confederates did a much better job of destroying the navy yard than the Federals had done the year before. But it still fell back in Union hands,” says Dennis Mroczkowksi, former director of the Casemate Museum.
“So now they’d recovered this great navy yard and this major seaport. They’d extended Union control from Norfolk all the way down into North Carolina — and they’d ended the threat of the Virginia.
“It was an easy victory with a lot of military and symbolic value.”
Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783.