Book Review: “Lincoln Takes Command: The Campaign to Seize Norfolk and the Destruction of the CSS Virginia.”

When the CSS Virginia steamed into Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862 and tore through the Federal ships there, naval warfare changed forever. An ironclad, the Virginia seemed impenetrable as the Federal vessels poured broadside after broadside at her. Though further damage was stymied by the arrival of the U.S. Navy’s own ironclad, the Monitor, it became rapidly apparent to Federal officials that the Virginia had the potential to cause unmitigated havoc.

If Union forces were going to have a continued presence around Fort Monroe, and use the Peninsula as an avenue to attack Richmond, they had to destroy the rebel ironclad, and take its base of operations, Norfolk. The unique campaign to do exactly that, which unfolded in the early weeks of May 1862, is told in Steve Norder’s new book, Lincoln Takes Command: The Campaign to Seize Norfolk and the Destruction of the CSS Virginia.

What separates the campaign to seize Norfolk from other military maneuvers is the fact that President Lincoln took a direct role in the operations. For those days in May 1862, Commander-in-Chief was more than just a title. Norder aptly describes how Lincoln and cabinet officials Salmon P. Chase and Edwin Stanton all took a direct role in the planning against Norfolk. To do this, Norder breaks his book down into chapters detailing each day’s events. The chapters are full of rich primary sources that range from Lincoln himself all the way down to private soldiers.

Norder also splits his narrative by discussing Confederate forces around Norfolk and the Gosport Navy Yard. That includes the crew of the CSS Virginia and their attempt to break out of the ever-tightening noose around them. Norder’s description of the Virginia’s demise is especially well-told, as its crew set it ablaze to prevent the ship’s capture.

Norder set the scene with a timeline at the beginning and concludes the book with two appendices. The timeline, which lasts almost twenty pages, is extremely detailed and allows a reader who is not familiar with the subject to quickly orient themselves. Appendix 1, “Dramatis Personae,” is a likewise useful list of characters important to the story’s development. Perhaps the most crucial addition to the text, though, is Appendix 2, a ship directory. It is an easy resource for readers to track the multitude of ships operating around Hampton Roads in the Spring of 1862. The directory includes both Federal and rebel vessels, and is especially useful when ships are captured and subsequently renamed.

Beyond the small details, Norder’s narrative reveals a pivotal moment in Lincoln’s presidency. When he took military command at Norfolk, Norder writes, “It was the first and last time that an American president has done so” (xv). Though he lacked any substantial military experience, Lincoln took a vested interest in military campaigns throughout the war. In 1861, Lincoln’s need to constantly be involved had dire consequences, such as when he pushed an unprepared Union army to the Battle of First Bull Run. His handling of the operation around Norfolk, however, was much more cooperative with both Army and Navy command, which resulted in the successful capture of Norfolk. As Norder writes, “The president grasped the larger national picture, and he was beginning to gain confidence in his ability to sift through the smaller pieces to achieve the whole” (174). Though he still had a ways to go, and though he continued to make mistakes, Lincoln was learning.

In a critical aspect of the book, some will undoubtedly take issue with Norder’s aforementioned claim that it was the first and last time that a president assumed military command. As Norder himself points out, “with one small exception,” James Madison had been on the battlefield at Bladensburg in 1814 (175). Though it may be a small exception, an exception it nonetheless it. Historians should be wary of dramatics for dramatics’ sake.

The book loses momentum following the capture of Norfolk. Norder’s narrative disappears into the minutiae of occupational technicalities and the lives of civilians. While this may interest some, it is an unnecessary diversion from the main focus of the book. This section could have been shortened substantially without harm to the book.

Taken on the whole, however, readers will find this new work very accessible. It tells a story that is frequently overshadowed in the larger drama of the Peninsula Campaign. Historians of Lincoln or naval aspects of the war will especially be drawn to Norder’s pages. It is a commendable end result of much original research, which can be rare in the crowded study of the Civil War.


Steve Norder, Lincoln Takes Command: The Campaign to Seize Norfolk and the Destruction of the CSS Virginia

Savas Beatie, 2020.

209 pages main text/ 289 pages total.

Timeline, 2 Appendices.

Footnotes, Bibliography, Index.

2 Responses to Book Review: “Lincoln Takes Command: The Campaign to Seize Norfolk and the Destruction of the CSS Virginia.”

  1. Considering Presidents taking military command, I was under the impression that Washington directed the action of the militia army formed to operate in Western Pennsylvania against the Whiskey Rebellion.

    1. The actual book text is: “Before Norfolk, Lincoln had never led a military operation. George
      Washington could have done so as president during the Whiskey Rebellion of
      1794, but chose instead to place the troops under the command of Virginia’s
      governor, Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee. In 1814, on the battlefield at
      Bladensburg, President James Madison declined to assume military command. He
      left the movement and disposition of the American soldiers, with one small
      exception, to his designated general and a reluctant secretary of war. As soon as the
      British forces opened the battle, Madison withdrew from the field to leave the
      fighting to the “military functionaries.”

      Seems less “dramatic” than the reviewer implied. Looks like a very worthy book.

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