Abraham Lincoln and the Washington Navy Yard

By Tricia Runzel National Museum of the American Sailor, Contract Curator

If you had been stationed at the Washington Navy Yard between 1861 and 1865, you may have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of President Abraham Lincoln on one of his many visits. Beginning just one month after Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861, the President became a frequent visitor to the Navy Yard, most often visiting friend and advisor John A. Dahlgren, who became a Rear Admiral in the Navy in 1863 . Throughout his presidency, Lincoln maintained a close relationship and an enormous amount of respect for John Dahlgren, Commandant of the Navy Yard from 1861 to 1863. Much to the consternation of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s friendship with Dahlgren resulted in Lincoln regularly traveling to the Navy Yard for informal naval meetings with Dahlgren, rather than meeting with Welles at the Navy Department. Welles recalled when news of the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia reached Washington, “The President himself was so excited that he could not deliberate or be satisfied with the opinions of non-professional men, but ordered his carriage and drove to the navy yard to see and consult with Admiral Dahlgren…” Lincoln’s spontaneous trips to the Navy Yard may have caused friction with Welles, but it was not just naval advice that drew the President to Dahlgren’s door.

Just as often, Lincoln arrived at the Navy docks for a bit of curiosity and relaxation. Dahlgren, the great naval innovator, shared with the President a love of gadgets and new technology. Dahlgren frequently staged exhibitions of new ordnance and invited Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln to the demonstrations. What’s more, Dahlgren and the Navy Yard provided Lincoln rare opportunities for relaxation away from the pressures and stress of war. Dahlgren wrote in his diary, “I took the President on board the “Pensacola” for her second trial trip. No one else was with us, so we had a quiet time. The President looks grave and absorbed, and a little the worse for his cares.” Over the war years, Dahlgren often remarked on Lincoln’s state of mind and his diary reflects Lincoln’s declining humor and ongoing stress. 

Lincoln’s last visit to the Navy Yard was on the evening of April 14, 1865, only hours before being shot at Ford’s Theatre. Naval surgeon George B. Todd, stationed on the monitor USS Montauk, wrote to his brother of Lincoln’s final visit, “Yesterday about 3 P.M. the President and wife drove down to the navy yard and paid our ship a visit, going all over her, accompanied by us all. Both seemed very happy, and so expressed themselves, – glad that this war was over, or so near its end, and then drove back to the White House.” Twelve days later, the assassination conspirators would arrive at the Washington Navy Yard, where they would await trial for their crimes. History often forgets President Lincoln’s relationship with the Navy, but his frequent visits to the Washington Navy Yard and close friendship with Admiral Dahlgren reveal a president with a deep love and appreciation for the Navy.

Sources:

1 The Lehrman Institute, “The War Effort: Navy Department,” Mr. Lincoln’s White House, http://www.mrlincolnswhitehouse.org/washington/the-war-effort/war-effort-navy-department/.

2 Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles: Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Volume I (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), 62.

3 Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren, Memoir of John A. Dahlgren: Rear-Admiral United States Navy (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1882), 351

4 Dr. G.B. Todd to his brother, April 30, 1865 quoted in Timothy Sean Good, We Saw Lincoln Shot: One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995), 71.

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