Confederates Abandon Norfolk

May 9, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln personally directed an operation that resulted in capturing one of the Confederacy’s most important naval bases.

As elements of the Federal and Confederate armies clashed at Williamsburg, Lincoln left the Washington Navy Yard aboard the five-gun Treasury cutter Miami, bound for Fort Monroe. Lincoln’s secretary stated that the president was going “to ascertain by personal observation whether some further vigilance and vigor might not be infused into the operations of the army and navy at that point.” Joining the president were Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and General Egbert Viele.

Part of the trip’s intent was to see if Norfolk could be captured now that Yorktown had fallen. Norfolk, on the south side of the James River estuary, housed the vital Gosport Navy Yard for the Confederacy and was home to the powerful ironclad C.S.S. Virginia. Lincoln and his fellow travelers hoped to end the Virginia’s reign of terror over the Federal blockading fleet.

Gen J.E. Wool | Image Credit:
Gen J.E. Wool | Image Credit:

The Miami reached Fort Monroe on the night of May 6, after a 27-hour trip. When Lincoln was informed that Major General George B. McClellan would not be meeting with him because he was busy directing operations at Williamsburg, he personally inspected the area around Hampton Roads. Seeing that Norfolk, now isolated due to the fall of Yorktown, could be easily taken, Lincoln turned to 78-year-old Major General John E. Wool, commanding the Federals at Fort Monroe, to lay out a plan to capture the town.

On May 8, a Confederate tugboat captain who had deserted informed the Federals that Major General Benjamin Huger was hurriedly evacuating his 9,000 Confederates from Norfolk. Lincoln ordered a naval squadron–consisting of the U.S.S. Monitor, Dacotah, Naugatuck, Seminole, and Susquehanna–to bombard Sewell’s Point, about seven and a half miles north of Norfolk, in preparation for a troop landing. However, the Virginia arrived to push the Federal vessels back to Fort Monroe.

As Lincoln inspected Hampton Roads for a potential troop landing on the 9th, the Confederates evacuated Norfolk, losing the town they had captured in April 1861. Lincoln directed the U.S.S. Monitor to see if Confederates had abandoned their batteries at Sewell’s Point. Learning that they had, Lincoln ordered Wool to land Federals on Willoughby Spit, away from the enemy batteries, on the south side of Hampton Roads. That night, about 5,000 Federals led by Wool and Treasury Secretary Chase left Fort Monroe.

The Federals reached Norfolk without resistance, with Mayor William W. Lamb and other municipal officials meeting Wool and Chase outside the city. Lamb handed keys to the city to the Federals. He then stretched out the surrender ceremony long enough for the last Confederates to destroy the Gosport Navy Yard and anything else useful to the Federals before escaping.

The loss of Norfolk devastated the Confederacy. It also threatened to end the career of the C.S.S. Virginia, which was now without a base. The Confederates retreated up the south side of the James, planning to make their next stand at Drewry’s Bluff. Lincoln triumphantly visited both Norfolk and Portsmouth the following day. Norfolk was placed under martial law, with General Viele governing, for the rest of the war.

The fall of Yorktown effectively doomed Norfolk, but Lincoln’s direct involvement made it happen faster than it otherwise would have. An officer of the Monitor credited Lincoln with “stirring up dry bones,” referring to the aging General Wool and Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The officer wrote, “It is extremely fortunate that the President came down when he did–he seems to have infused new life into everything, even the superannuated old fogies began to show some signs of life.”

Chase told Lincoln about the operations and then wrote his daughter: “So has ended a brilliant week’s campaign of the President, for I think it quite certain that if he had not come down, (Norfolk) would still have been in possession of the enemy and the Merrimac (i.e., Virginia) as grim and defiant and as much a terror as ever.” McClellan did not acknowledge either Norfolk’s fall or Lincoln’s involvement.



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