The Long Blue Line: Cutter Miami, Abraham Lincoln and the destruction of CSS Virginia

lincoln
William H. Thiesen, PhD
Atlantic Area Historian
United States Coast Guard

In the history of the U.S. presidency, there have been numerous presidential yachts, but the list of presidential command ships is far shorter. It includes USS Northampton (CLC-1) a Cold War-era cruiser that steamed off the East Coast serving as a floating White House in case of attack on the nation’s capital. Fortunately, she never fulfilled her intended purpose.

The first and only one of these unique vessels to sail in harm’s way under the commander-in-chief was the U.S. Revenue Cutter Miami. Purchased early in 1862 and commissioned on Jan. 28, Miami was one of the first propeller-driven vessels in the Revenue Cutter Service. Built in Scotland in 1853 as the Lady Le Marchant, the federal government bought the commercial steamer for $25,000. She measured 115-feet in length with a schooner sail rig and a two-cylinder oscillating steam engine.

Photograph of President Abraham Lincoln a year after he planned the amphibious landing at Norfolk, Virginia. (Library of Congress)

Photograph of President Abraham Lincoln a year after he planned the amphibious landing at Norfolk, Virginia. (Library of Congress)

Records indicate that Treasury officials had a unique mission in mind for Miami. After acquiring her, the Service sent the cutter to the New York Navy Yard, where she received a 24-pound pivot gun aft and a 20-pound pivot gun mounted forward, as well as a gig, launch and two small boats to transfer crew and passengers. Treasury assigned distinguished cutter Capt. Douglas Ottinger to command Miami with a crew of three junior officers, two engineers and 34 enlisted men. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase ordered New York’s customs collector to purchase “every particular necessary for comfort,” including spare beds, crockery, champagne glasses, silverware, and silver teapots and coffee urns.

By Friday, April 4, after completing fitting out and provisioning of Miami, Ottinger set sail for Washington, D.C. The cutter arrived at the Washington Navy Yard on April 7 and, within days, Secretary Chase assigned her to sail federal officials on tours along the Potomac River. First, Chase hosted Secretary of State William Seward and his family aboard the cutter, as well as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Rhode Island governor William Sprague, and Rear Adm. John Dahlgren. Chase also extended an invitation to the president to sail aboard Miami. Within days, President Lincoln, the first lady and their two sons boarded the cutter for a cruise from the Washington waterfront, downriver to Alexandria and up the Anacostia River to the Navy Yard.

Technically, Miami sailed under U.S. Army orders; however, the president decided to use the cutter for official business. On Saturday, April 19, he boarded Miami with secretaries Chase and Stanton, Dahlgren and other military officials, for a meeting with U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell. The cutter sailed down the Potomac River to McDowell’s headquarters at Aquia Creek, where the president and his entourage anchored for the night. The next morning, Lincoln conferred with McDowell, before sailing Miami back up the Potomac to Washington.

Painting of Revenue Cutter Miami covering troop landings at Ocean View Beach near Norfolk, Virginia, by Charles Mazoujian. (U.S. Coast Guard Collection)

Painting of Revenue Cutter Miami covering troop landings at Ocean View Beach near Norfolk, Virginia, by Charles Mazoujian. (U.S. Coast Guard Collection)

In early May, Lincoln chose to use Miami for another official trip; however, this time he intended to take the cutter in harm’s way. The war effort had bogged down on the front lines in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Fortress Monroe and Union forces commanded the peninsula on the north side of the James River and Confederate forces supported by ironclad CSS Virginia held Norfolk, the Norfolk Navy Yard and the south side of the James. Lincoln wanted to see first-hand why Union military leaders failed to move on the Confederates occupying Norfolk and the ironclad’s homeport at the Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Lincoln soon became the first and only sitting president to direct troops and assets in the field. After meeting with his flag officers at Fortress Monroe, he reconnoitered possible troop landing beaches near Norfolk and ordered the shelling of Confederate fortifications at Sewell’s Point, near the landing area. He boarded a shallow-draft tugboat to sound water depth along the intended landing beaches and he sent Miami in advance of troop transports to cover the landings.

Before dawn on Saturday, May 11, Union troop transports bearing 6,000 men and 100 cavalry horses appeared at present-day Ocean View Beach, where Miami waited at anchor. The Union troops landed and marched on Norfolk with little opposition. Confederate troops had evacuated the area, but before they abandoned the Navy Yard, they off-loaded Virginia’s guns to arm shore batteries up the James River. Virginia’s crew steamed the disarmed ironclad into the river where they destroyed her with fire and explosives. When Union forces arrived at the outskirts of Norfolk, the mayor and city council surrendered the city.

Destruction of CSS Virginia, also known as the Merrimac, whose homeport at the navy yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, fell into Union hands after the capture of Norfolk. (Library of Congress)

Destruction of CSS Virginia, also known as the Merrimac, whose homeport at the navy yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, fell into Union hands after the capture of Norfolk. (Library of Congress)

Miami would not return to Washington with the commander-in-chief, nor enjoy fame and acclaim as Lincoln’s command ship. After seeing the troops off to the landings at Ocean View, the cutter suffered boiler damage and returned to Washington after undergoing repairs. Before Miami departed Hampton Roads, a Norfolk admirer of Lincoln located CSS Virginia’s steam safety valve and gave it to the cutter crew, which delivered it to the president upon her return to the nation’s capital.

Despite the hesitancy of his generals, Lincoln’s campaign had worked, breaking the stalemate between Union and Confederate forces in southeastern Virginia. Lincoln’s amphibious operation had allowed Union forces to capture all of Hampton Roads, so CSS Virginia no longer threatened the Chesapeake Bay area. Lincoln’s command ship did not enjoy similar success. Miami served out the war at homeports of New York and Newport, Rhode Island, and spent her final days at Wilmington, Delaware. In 1871, the Service decommissioned the cutter and sold her for $2,149.00.

Lincoln went on to greater glory as the Union won the war, and Lincoln succeeded in his effort to re-unify the nation. Considered one of the most important leaders in American history, Abraham Lincoln served for a time as a cutterman and an honorary member of the long blue line.

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2 Responses

  1. gale tucker says:

    interesting article. never heard this before. thanks

  2. Abel Schwartz, x-JO1,USCG says:

    Congratulations. This story is an outstanding example of a tale that would lend itself to an exhibit at such places as the Mystic Seaport, Mystic,CT., or the Coast Guard Academy Museum. Great story with both depth an breath of Civil War interest. Someone should stand up and run with this one.