Tags: meet the author
Meet the Author continues this week with a discussion on leadership with Stephen Taaffe, author of Commanding Lincoln’s Navy.
What inspired you to write Commanding Lincoln’s Navy: Union Naval Leadership During the Civil War?
Commanding Lincoln’s Navy is my fourth book. The first two were over campaigns, which meant that I had to research and write about lots of different aspects of warfare – strategy, tactics, logistics, intelligence, personnel, morale, etc. I liked some of these things, but found others tedious. There may be people out there who are really fascinated by logistics, but I’m not one of them. A few years later I had an epiphany that I should write about what interests me the most: command structures. Years of reading military history and working in academia led me to ask why some people were appointed to important and responsible positions even when they were sometimes manifestly unsuited for such posts. In my third book, Commanding the Army of the Potomac, I analyzed who was assigned to corps command and why. I found the material interesting and enlightening, so I figured I would continue the line of thought by looking at the Navy’s command structure during the Civil War. In this case, I wanted to explain who got to lead the various Union Navy squadrons and why.
I should also note a more sordid motivation. Researching the Union Navy’s command structures involved examining what people thought of each other, so I got to read lots of salacious gossip about naval officers. This way I could indulge my more sinful nature under the guise of legitimate scholarship.
What are some of the leadership lessons learned that are applicable today?
Since human nature never changes, many of the lessons from the Civil War era in gaining and exercising command remain applicable today. For one thing, connections matter. Almost every officer I examined who achieved squadron command had some powerful patron lobbying for, supporting, or encouraging him. John Dahlgren’s friendship with Abraham Lincoln, for example, played a role in his appointment to lead the South Atlantic Squadron. However, connections are never enough. Officers without talent might attain an important post, but the pressures of command usually expose their weaknesses, and then all the connections in the world won’t matter. This is especially true as a war progresses and winning becomes more important than anything else.
It might seem commonsensical, but I was also struck by the fact that successful commanders such as David Farragut and David Porter were not necessarily the most intelligent, connected, or likeable men. Instead, they tended to be practical officers who were more interested in results than in, say, who gets the credit, military theory, personal pride, etc. They also understood that success is often not a matter of figuring out what to do, but rather of getting the job done. This requires self-discipline, single-mindedness, and moral courage. For example, both Samuel Frances Du Pont and John Dahlgren knew that they needed to steam into Charleston harbor to shut it down, but neither man mustered the moral courage required to take action and risk failure. They instead made lots of excuses for their inaction. On the other hand, David Farragut understood that he could not seize New Orleans until he ran his ships past the forts defending the city, but he was willing to do so even though he knew full well that failure would end his naval career. To be sure, there were some big differences between Charleston and New Orleans, but Farragut recognized that obstacles must be overcome, not rationalized.
How does this book fill a void in Navy historiography?
There are plenty of books on various Civil War campaigns in which the Navy participated, but no one has examined the selection and sometimes removal of the Navy’s various squadron commanders. Some of these men, such as David Farragut and David Porter, are well-known to Civil War buffs and the subject of various biographies, but others are not. Nevertheless, naval officers such as Theodorus Bailey, Henry Bell, and Samuel Francis Du Pont are equally important toward understanding the Navy’s role in the conflict.
For this book, what were some of your more insightful resources?
The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion was of course enormously helpful. Much of the correspondence is routine and mundane, but every now and then I found some interesting tidbits about various personalities. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles’ published diary was also useful, as was the correspondence of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox. In order to attain information that officers might be reluctant to place in an official report, Fox encouraged officers to write to him unofficially. Finally, I benefited from the collections of some of the squadron commanders, especially Samuel Francis Du Pont, Henry Bell, John Dahlgren, and Theodorus Bailey.
Who should read Commanding Lincoln’s Navy?
I’ve got kids in private school, so anyone who can beg, borrow, or steal the requisite cash ought to own Commanding Lincoln’s Navy. Actually, I wrote the book for both Civil War scholars and buffs. I hope that I uncovered some new material and had a few original insights that scholars might appreciate, but I also believe that anyone with a passing interest in the Civil War will enjoy a book about the men who waged the Union Navy’s war.
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