The Fall of Norfolk

President Abraham Lincoln had gone to Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula partly to see whether 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 hoped to end the Virginia’s ongoing threat to the Federal blockading fleet.

The party of Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase reached Fort Monroe on the night of May 6, after a 27-hour trip from Washington. 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. McClellan had laid out a plan to capture Norfolk once the Confederate capital of Richmond fell, but Lincoln did not want to wait. He turned to Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the Federal naval fleet, and 78-year-old Major General John E. Wool, commanding the Federals at Fort Monroe, to lay out a plan to capture the town.

On the 8th, a Confederate tugboat captain who had deserted informed the Federals that Major General Benjamin Huger was hurriedly evacuating his 9,000 Confederates from Norfolk. From the deck of Goldsborough’s flagship, Lincoln ordered a naval squadron to bombard Sewell’s Point, about seven and a half miles north of Norfolk, in preparation for a troop landing. An army officer noted how Lincoln was giving orders while “dressed in a black suit with a very seedy crape on his hat, and hanging over the railing he looked like some hoosier just starting for home from California with store clothes and a biled shirt on.”

The squadron, consisting of the U.S.S. Monitor, Dacotah, Naugatuck, Seminole, and Susquehanna, steamed ahead but was stopped by the appearance of the C.S.S. Virginia. The Virginia’s commander reported that “she stood directly for the enemy for the purpose of engaging him, but the Monitor and her consorts would not give battle.” The Federals returned to Fort Monroe.

The next day, Lincoln inspected Hampton Roads for a potential troop landing. But this was rendered moot when it was learned that the Confederates had evacuated Norfolk on their own. Lincoln sent the U.S.S. Monitor to see if the Confederate batteries at Sewell’s Point had been abandoned. Learning that they had, Lincoln ordered Wool to land troops 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.

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain

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.

Norfolk had belonged to the Confederacy since April 1861, and its loss was devastating. It left the C.S.S. Virginia without a base, probably dooming her to destruction or capture. The Confederates retreated up the south side of the James 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, and Brigadier General Egbert Viele was installed as military governor 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 Goldsborough. 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 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’ as grim and defiant and as much a terror as ever.” McClellan, directing army operations on the Peninsula, did not acknowledge either Norfolk’s fall or Lincoln’s involvement.


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