Presidential Expedition Under General Wool Captures Norfolk

May 10, 1862

Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase had allowed aging General John Wool to command the expedition to capture Norfolk, but he insisted on accompanying Wool.  President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton wait nearby.   As Chase later reported, “I was up early. We breakfasted at six o’clock, and got away as promptly as possible. When we reached the place selected for the landing, we found that a considerable body of troops had already gone forward. I then took the tug and went along the shore to the point where the President’s boat had attempted to land the evening before, and found it only about three-quarters of a mile distant. I then returned to the Miami and found that the General had gone ashore. I followed, and on the shore met General Viele. he asked me if I would like a horse. I said that I would; and he directed one to be brought to me, and I was soon mounted. I then proposed to ride up to the place where the pickets had been seen the night before. General Viele agreed, and we were not long in getting up as far as I had been with the tug, and even some distance beyond. We found a shed where a picket had stayed the night before, and found fresh horse-tracks in many places, showing plainly that the enemy had withdrawn but a few hours previously. Returning, 1 made report to General Wool. Meantime, Mr. Stanton had come, and he asked me to go on with the expedition, which I finally determined to do. I accordingly asked General Wool for a squad of dragoons, and for permission to ride on with General Viele ahead of him, following the advance which had already been gone sonic three or four hours. He acceded to both requests, and we went on; that is, General Viele, myself, and a half-dozen dragoons.”  General Egbert Viele recalled:

Starting at once to the front with our escort, we had not gone very far before it became evident that a great deal of confusion existed in the command,—in fact, that there was no organization, and an utter absence of definite instructions or orders of any kind. Overtaking a regiment that was scattered along the road,—most of the men lying down wherever any shade could be found, as the day was intensely warm,—Mr. Chase inquired of the colonel to whose command he belonged and what his orders were. He replied that he had no idea who was his commander; that some said Weber and some said Mansfield. He had received no orders, except that when he landed he was told to take a certain road, and he thought he would wait to see what was to be done next. Overtaking another regiment, a mile or two beyond, the Secretary received the same answers.

The operation continues all day while President Lincoln waits impatiently as Fort Monroe.  Historian William E. Baringer wrote that he was “hurrying reinforcements…A soldier aboard one of the transports watched in amusement as the commander-in-chief went into action: ‘Abe was rushing about, hollering to someone on the wharf — dressed in a black suit with a very seedy crepe on his hat, and hanging over the railing, he looked like some hossier just starting for home from California, with store clothes and a biled shirt on.’

At 11 P.M. President Lincoln receives word from General Wool that Norfolk has been captured.  Secretary Chase wrote: “ The President had been greatly alarmed for our safety by the report of General Mansfield as he went by to Newport News; and you can imagine his delight when we told him Norfolk was ours.  Stanton soon came up to his room and was equally delighted.  He fairly hugged General Wool.  For my part, I was very tired and glad to get to bed.”  Colonel Le Grand B. Cannon, who served on Wool’s staff, remembered: “General Wool embarked, and all day long we heard nothing from him. At times we could hear firing and could see some smoke. It was a day of most fearful anxiety. The President and Secretary of War were almost overcome with their anxiety concerning this expedition. They could not but feel that they were in a measure responsible, as they had consented to it.

The whole day passed, and no word came from Norfolk. Evening set in, and when it got to be about 9 or 10 o’clock, I persuaded the President to go to bed in my room. I also persuaded Secretary Stanton to retire. He had a bed in my office. I went outside the fort with Captain Rogers, of the navy, and we went down on the ordnance wharf. It was a beautiful moonlight night. There we remained, waiting for some news to come.

After a long time I heard a distant sound of paddle-wheels splashing in the water. The sound came nearer and nearer, and finally up came a little gunboat with General Wool and the members of his staff and Secretary Chase on board, and the news that Norfolk was taken. [Confederate] General [Benjamin] Huger had run.
The excitement was wonderful. General Wool came up into the fort, and we approached headquarters the sentinel challenged, ‘Who goes there?’ The President heard the challenge, and the next thing we saw was six feet of white nightshirt at the French window.
“What is it?” asked the President.
“General Wool, to present Norfolk to you!” I replied.
“Call up Stanton, and send Wool up here,” he said.
I roused up Secretary Stanton and told him, General Wool has returned, and we have taken Norfolk.
“My God!” he said, and jumped out of bed, and started up in his night-shirt to the President room.
President Lincoln was sitting on the edge of the bed. General Wool was there, in full uniform and all covered with dust, and one or two of his officers were also there. Secretary Stanton rushed impetuously into General Wool’s arms in his excitement, and embraced him fervently. The Present broke out laughing at seeing the General in full uniform and the Secretary in his nightshirt clasped in each other’s arms, and said:
“Look out, Mars! If you don’t, the General will throw you.”75

While Chase and company were active, nearby General George B. McClellan was less so.  McClellan writes Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “From the information reaching me from every source, I regard it as certain that the enemy will meet us with all his force, on, or near the Chickahominy.  They can concentrate many more men than I have, and are collecting troops from all quarters, especially, well disciplined troops from the South.  Casualties, sickness, garrisons and guards have much reduced our numbers, and will continue to do so.  I shall fight the Rebel army, with whatever force I may have, but duty requires me to urge that every effort be made to reinforce me, without delay, with all the disposable troops in Eastern Virginia, and that we concentrate all our forces, as far as possible to fight the great battle now impending, and to make it decisive.”

It is possible that the enemy may abandon Richmond without a serious struggle, but I do not believe he will, and it would be unwise to count upon anything but a stubborn and desperate defense, — a life and death contest.  I see no other hope for him than to fight this battle, — and we must win it.  I shall fight them, whatever their force may be; but I ask for every man that the Department can send me.  NO troops now should be left unemployed.  Those who entertain the opinion that the Rebels will abandon Richmond without a struggle, are, in my judgment, badly advised, and do not comprehend their situation, which is one requiring desperate measure.

I beg that the President and Secretary will maturely weigh what I say, and leave nothing undone to comply with my request.  If I am not reinforced, it is probable that I will be obliged to fight nearly double my numbers, stronger entrenched.  I do not think it will be at all possible for me to bring more than seventy thousand men upon the field of battle.

Published in: on May 10, 2012 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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