President Lincoln Plots the Capture of Norfolk

May 8, 1862

President Lincoln urges Flag Officer Louis to land troops on Sewell’s Point while Confederate installations there are shelled by Union gunboats.   Lincoln watches from tugboat stationed mile behind gunboats watches shelling of Sewell’s Point and Craney Island all afternoon.  As General Egbert Viele recalled, “the next morning, the President and party went over to the Rip Raps to see the naval combat. The Merrimac moved out of the mouth of the Elizabeth River, quietly and steadily, just as she had come out only a few weeks before when she had sunk the Congress. She wore an air of defiance and determination even at that distance. The Monitor moved up and waited for her. All the other vessels got out of the way to give the Vanderbilt and the Minnesota room to bear down upon the rebel terror in their might, as soon as she should clear the coast line. It was a calm Sabbath morning and the air was still and tranquil. Suddenly the stillness was broken by the cannon from the vessels and the great guns from the Rip Raps that filled the air with sulphurous smoke and a terrific noise that reverberated from the fortress and the opposite shore like thunder. The firing was maintained for several hours, but all to no purpose; the Merrimac moved sullenly back to her position. It was determined that night that on the following day vigorous offensive operations should be undertaken. The whole available naval force was to bombard Sewall’s Point, and under cover of the bombardment, the available troops from Fortress Monroe were to be landed at that point and march on Norfolk. Accordingly, the next morning, a tremendous cannonading of Sewall’s Point took place. The wooden sheds at that place were set on fire and the battery- was silenced. The Merrimac, coated with mail and lying low in the water, looked on but took no part. Night came and the cannonading ceased. It was so evident that the Merrimac intended to act only on the defensive. and that so long as she remained where she was, no troops could be landed in that vicinity, that they were ordered to disembark.”  The result was disappointing, wrote historian William E. Barringer: “The boats could not get close enough in to shore to discharge the men.  If they ran in closer, they might go aground and fall easy prey to enemy troops or the rebel ironclad.  SO the transports sailed back and the troops ingloriously disembarked, blocked by shallow water and the threat of enemy sea power.”

Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase was determined to act, wrote Gener Egbert Viele: “The failure of the proposed attack upon Sewall’s Point and the disembarkation of the troops that had been hastily crowded into everything in the way of a transport that could be made available was not a very inspiriting spectacle, and no one felt the mortification of the occasion so much as Secretary Chase. He was so keenly alive to the necessities of the hour, and so sensitive to the least thing that savored of defeat that he fairly chafed under a sense of disappointment as he saw the disembarking troops. Turning to me, he said, “Let us take our man-of-war (the Miami) and reconnoiter the place you suggested for a landing.” Of course I was gratified at the proposition, and we started at once. General Wool was sitting at the door of his quarters as we passed, and learning our design, volunteered to accompany us, and sent his orderly for the very officer (Colonel Cram) who had pronounced the plan impracticable. The Miami was soon under way, accompanied by a small tug. As Colonel Cram still insisted upon it that we would get aground if we attempted to approach the shore in so large a vessel, we anchored in six fathoms of water and betook ourselves to the tug, which was in its turn anchored at quite a distance from the shore. A row-boat was quickly manned with armed sailors, and in this Colonel Cram, with another officer, undertook a closer reconnoissance, but returned in great haste before they were halfway to the land, with a breathless account of a large body of men on shore. While they were recounting their narrow escape, Mr. Chase was watching the shore with a powerful field-glass, with the hope of discovering the force that had so alarmed the reconnoitering officer. Instead of defiant warriors he saw some people waving a white sheet as a flag of truce; a longer scrutiny revealed a white woman, a negress and child and a dog, as ;he sole cause of the colonel’s terror, and le was therefore instructed to return to the shore with the crew, while Mr. Chase and myself followed in another boat. The result of all this was the demonstration that this was not only an available, but a most admirable, landing-place, with depth of water sufficient for the largest transport to approach to within a few feet of the shore; yet these officers had been stationed at Fortress Monroe a whole year! On our return Secretary Chase reported the result of our reconnoissance to the President, who was so much astonished that he insisted upon going in person that very night to verify the fact. Accordingly, with the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Treasury, he went over on the Miami to the Virginia shore, and by the light of the moon landed on the beach and walked up and down a considerable distance to assure himself that there could be no mistake in the matter. How little the Confederacy dreamed what a visitor it had that night to the “sacred soil “! No time was lost on the following morning in re-embarking the troops for the purpose of marching on Norfolk by the rear. At the last moment General Wool, with much emotion, begged the Secretary to allow him to command the troops. The Secretary had decided to relieve him of the command of the expedition on account of his advanced age, but finally reversed his decision with the remark that he could not inflict sorrow upon gray hairs.”

General George B. McClellan writes Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “I respectfully ask permission to [reorganize] the Army Corps.  I am not willing to be held responsible for the present arrangement experience having proved it to be very bad & it having very nearly resulted in a most disastrous defeat.  I wish either to return to the organization by Divisions or else be authorized to relieve incompetent Commanders of Army Corps.  Had I been one half hour later on the field on the firth we would have been routed & would have lost everything.”

Notwithstanding my positive orders I was informed of nothing that had occurred & I went to the field of Battle myself upon unofficial information that my presence was needed to avoid defeat.  I found there the utmost confusion & incompetency, the utmost confusion & incompetency, the utmost discouragement on the part of the men.  At lest a thousand lives were really sacrificed by the organization into Crops.  I have to much regard for the lives of my comrades & too deep an interest in the success of our cause to hesitate for a moment.  I learn that you are equally in earnest & I therefore again request full & complete authority to relieve from duty with this army Commanders of Corps or Divisions who prove themselves incompetent.

More boastfully, McClellan writes his wife about his failure to act aggressively: “It would have been easy for me to have sacrificed 10,000 lives in taking Yorktown, & I presume the world would have thought it more brilliant — I am content with what I have done, & history will give me credit for it.  I am sorry that you do not exactly sympathize with me in the matter.  The battle of Williamsburg was more bloody — had I reached the field three hours earlier I could have gained far greater results & saved a thousand lives — it is perhaps well as it is, for the officers & men feel that I saved the day.”

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Published in: on May 8, 2012 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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