Lincoln Sends the Thanks of Congress to a Great Hero of the Civil War

The President lauds "distinguished service in the capture of Forts Hatteras and Clarke."

Key Facts

  • Lincoln extends the Thanks of Congress to the Union's first hero
  • An extremely rare letter of him doing so

In early 1861, the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army, General Winfield Scott, developed what he called the "Anaconda Plan," which aimed to squeeze the Confederacy by blockading its ports, launching amphibious attacks at key points along the Southern coast, and seizing control of vital inland waterways such as the Mississippi River. When the Civil War broke out, the U.S. government began to implement this plan.

In the opening months of the war, there was little good news for the North, and the public clamor for a victory grew daily. Instead, on July 21, 1861, the Battle of Bull Run resulted in disaster for Union arms. Frustration built and the U.S. Government became increasingly anxious to show that it had a viable plan and could field forces capable of winning. In this heated atmosphere, in July and August, the U.S. Navy began to establish the blockade. To complement this effort, it determined to launch its first amphibious assault since the Mexican War: an assault on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

This locale was chosen because the Union leadership saw the value of seizing control of the navigable channels into North Carolina sounds, as with these under control, U.S. forces would be in position to take key points on the Carolina mainland. These coastal strong-points then would serve as bases from which they could push inland to disrupt vital Confederate agricultural supply areas and the rail lines of communication running through the state to the Confederate capital of Richmond. Possession of these waters would also help eliminate the threat to U.S. shipping from rebel privateers - a significant problem that threatened to grow and was already causing disruptions to trade as marine insurance rates in the north sky-rocketed.

Hatteras Inlet commanded the entrance to North Carolina's sounds, leading Union commanders to decide to seize its surrounding shoreline first. General Benjamin Butler, who previously had commanded the Union garrison at Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads, became the landing force commander. Commodore Silas Stringham, commander of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron, led the supporting naval forces. The task force Stringham commanded was the largest that the U.S. Navy had assembled up to that point in the war. It consisted of three steam frigates, three gunboats, and a converted sidewheel steamer, which all told mounted 149 guns, including modern, rifled naval guns. Rounding out the task force were two chartered vessels acting as troop transports and a collection of surfboats and auxiliary tugs. The transports and auxiliaries carried a landing force of two New York infantry regiments, for a total of slightly more than 900 men.

The immediate objective of the operation was the capture of two forts - Clarke and Hatteras - that guarded Hatteras Inlet. These forts comprised a significant part of the Confederacy's military forces on the Outer Banks. On the morning of August 27, 1861, Confederate lookouts at Hatteras lighthouse spotted Commodore Stringham's ships on the horizon. Soon thereafter, the Union warships began bombarding both forts, pounding them with a steady stream of accurate fire. With the bombardment complete, the Union army troops came ashore. Soon Fort Clarke's garrison had retreated to Fort Hatteras, where the Confederates were reinforced and put up their defense. For a while, the advantage shifted to the southerners, as bad weather drove Stringham’s ships out of firing range of the forts. But Union naval forces resumed their attack when the weather moderated the next morning, and by late morning the battered Southern troops had had enough, and Fort Hatteras surrendered. In the end, no Union ground attack was needed because of the success of the naval forces under Stringham. In fact, not a man on the Union side was killed.

How happy was Lincoln to receive the news? General Butler, in his autobiography, described the meeting he and Gustavus Fox (Assistant Secretary of the Navy) had with Lincoln in the White House to tell him the news. "...The President was called and when our errand was hinted to him he immediately came in his night shirt. Everybody knows how tall Lincoln was, and he seemed very much taller in that garment; and Fox was about five feet nothing. In a few hurried words, not waiting for any forms or ceremonies, Fox communicated the news, and then he and Lincoln fell into each other's arms. That is, Fox put his arms around Lincoln about as high as his hips, and Lincoln reached down over him so that his arms were pretty near the floor apparently, and thus holding each other they flew around the room once or twice, and the night shirt was completely agitated." The victory provided a much-needed boost to northern spirits and enabled the people to see that the Lincoln Administration’s plan to fight the war had substance and could bring victories. As such its political value exceeded its considerable military value. On the military side, the Hatteras expedition demonstrated the central importance of naval fire support to amphibious operations. Additionally, Stringham innovated by having his ships fire while on the move, rather than anchoring and slugging it out with nearby shore batteries as navies had done in the past. This made the defenders' task more difficult, while not affecting the Union warships' ability to put their ordnance on target. Stringham’s brilliant tactic was used extensively throughout the war by the U.S. Navy, especially in taking control of the Mississippi River.

On July 11, 1862, President Lincoln, demonstrating his appreciation of the role Commodore Stringham had played in the struggle for the Union, wrote to the legislative branch recommending that he be awarded the coveted Thanks of Congress. “I recommend...Silas H. Stringham, now on the retired list, for distinguished services in the capture of Forts Hatteras and Clark,” he specified. The Thanks were voted and approved on February 7, 1863. This made Stringham one of just 15 navy officers and 15 army officers ever to receive the Thanks of Congress during the Civil War. However, due to administrative delays, it was not until the war was just about over that the paperwork was completed and the naval hero was actually sent his official appreciation.

Just a day before his second inauguration, President Lincoln, who had initiated the process, took upon himself the responsibility of conveying the Thanks, along with his own personal sentiments.

He did so in this communication, Executive Mansion, March 3, 1865, to Rear Admiral Stringham.

Letter SIgned.

“It is my duty, as it is my sincere pleasure to transmit herewith, a copy of the Joint Resolution of Congress, approved 7 February 1863, tendering you (and the officers) its thanks for your distinguished service in the capture of Forts Hatteras and Clarke, on the coast of North Carolina.

Interestingly, although addressed to the Admiral and thus technically a letter, because of its official nature Lincoln treated it as a document and executed it with his full signature. We cannot recall seeing another instance of Lincoln interjecting his own feelings into his wartime correspondence or documents, which were almost uniformly impersonal and to the point. But with victory at hand, he allowed his exuberance to show.

The retained secretarial copy of Admiral Stringham’s response is present and adds his perspective. On March 6, 1865, he wrote President Lincoln, saying“I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of the 3rd instant, transmitting me a copy of the Joint Resolution of Congress approved 7 February 1863, and to express my appreciation of the honor conferred upon me, as well as the pleasure which every officer must feel at the evidence that his efforts are appreciated by his country.” The congressional resolution mentioned in the letter is not present.