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.
By the next morning, however — after finding that McClellan’s long siege of Yorktown had finally forced the Confederate army to retreat toward Richmond — 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.
Whether the grim sight of that charred wasteland compelled Lincoln to act more quickly is unknown. But by 2 p.m. the next day 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.