Lincoln's Tragic Admiral: The Life of Samuel Francis du Pont

Overview

Once revered as one of the finest officers in the U.S. Navy, Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont is now, when remembered at all, criticized for resisting technological advancement and for half-heartedly leading the disastrous all-ironclad Union naval attack on Charleston. Although his reputation appeared unshakable after he won the first major Union victory of the Civil War in South Carolina, the failed attack on Charleston brought his career to an abrupt end. Relieved of his command, he was also maligned in the ...

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Overview

Once revered as one of the finest officers in the U.S. Navy, Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont is now, when remembered at all, criticized for resisting technological advancement and for half-heartedly leading the disastrous all-ironclad Union naval attack on Charleston. Although his reputation appeared unshakable after he won the first major Union victory of the Civil War in South Carolina, the failed attack on Charleston brought his career to an abrupt end. Relieved of his command, he was also maligned in the press. In Lincoln’s Tragic Admiral: The Life of Samuel Francis Du Pont, Kevin J. Weddle challenges this reduction of Du Pont’s legacy, combining new and known sources to uncover a thoroughly modern, though flawed, Du Pont.

Despite the fact that Du Pont’s name has become intertwined with the ironclad due to the catastrophic battle that brought shame on both the man and the machine, Weddle reveals that the admiral was the victim of a double irony: although Du Pont championed technological innovation, he outspokenly opposed the use of the new ironclads to attack Charleston. Only when his objections were overridden did his use of these modern vessels bring his career to a tragic end. Weddle exposes this historical misunderstanding, while also pinpointing Du Pont’s crucial role in the development of United States naval strategy, his work in modernizing the navy between the Mexican War and the Civil War, and his push for the navy’s technological transition from wood to iron.

In his examination of key documents from Du Pont’s life and career, Weddle unveils the life-long partnership that Du Pont shared with his wife and confidante, Sophie, who served as an immediate counsel to many of his decisions, while also tackling larger historical questions such as civil-military relations, attitudes toward slavery, innovations in military strategy and organization, and the introduction of new military technology in wartime. Both enlightening and moving, Lincoln’s Tragic Admiral will appeal to scholars interested in American, technological, and military history, as well as the general reader interested in the Civil War.

University of Virginia Press

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Meet the Author

Kevin J. Weddle is Professor and Director for the Advanced Strategic Art Program, Department of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations, at the United States Army War College.

University of Virginia Press

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2006

    For history lovers, a marvelous book!

    A fascinating book! The author wonderfully integrates Du Pont¿s human strengths and frailties into the bureaucratic, logistical, and armament systems of the time. He provides just enough background on Du Pont¿s family, peers, and related events for readers to appreciate their impact without being taken off track. Ultimately the reader sees the guy as very much a real man with skills, challenges, successes and failures that are as relevant today as 150 years ago. (Anyone who doubts the relevance of history to modern events need only read this book.) Also, I greatly enjoyed learning about the technological advances of the day in the context of the times. It¿s easy for us today to look back at the Civil War as being an ¿old-style war¿ like that of 1812, but Weddle's book enlightened me to the fact that from a technological attitudes standpoint, the Civil War was much more a ¿modern¿ war than I had previously realized. For example, what kid isn¿t fascinated by the battle of the ironclads 'Monitor' and 'Virginia' (Merrimack)? History texts often present that event as an isolated incident, but Weddle demonstrates that steam-powered vessels and ironclads were the wonder weapons of their day -- they captured the public imagination (and those of military planners) just as tanks, jets, and nuclear weapons have in more recent times. It's also incredible the peers Du Pont rubbed elbows with at the time -- legendary Naval heroes like Stephen Decatur and Matthew Perry. If you like history, you will love this book. Not only does it offer fascinating insights into the leading admiral of his day and his times, but it reads like a novel. A must-read!

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