By Adm. Michelle Howard, Vice Chief of Naval Operations;
and Lt. Roger Misso, Speechwriter to Adm. Michelle Howard
As we pause to honor Veterans Day on November 11th, we remember the sacrifices of American men and women in uniform. Our nation is free and strong because of the extraordinary courage of so many Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen throughout history.
But there is another upcoming anniversary that defines us as a nation. On November 17th, we will celebrate the 152nd anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln assumed the presidency during a time of great uncertainty in the United States.
Upon Lincoln’s election, many questioned how a plainspoken, long-legged man from rural Illinois, with little military experience, could lead a major war effort. But through humility, faith in the Union, and a fervent vision for the future, our 16th President persevered.
Abraham Lincoln grew into his commander-in-chief role starting with the outbreak of the civil war and with each day of office. He was President during a time when the Land and Seas were not only separate, but singular warfighting arenas. As such, he had in his cabinet a Secretary of War and a Secretary of the Navy.
The Navy at the start of the Civil War was still in her adolescent years of development. The Service’s almost 90 year history included some glorious moments: from fighting pirates at Tripoli to winning the battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812. There was no shortage of dashing leaders and heroic skirmishes. The Navy had garnered both symbolic and strategic triumphs that resonated with the American public and her people’s sense of bravery and patriotism.
For all of that, the Navy in her youth was dealing with challenges: stagnation in the ranks (there were midshipmen who retired at age 55 without ever getting their commission) and most significantly, a lack of warships and crews. To this Civil War Navy, Gideon Welles was appointed as the Secretary.
With the firing of cannons at Fort Sumter, he not only had to build a Navy; he had to build a campaign plan to isolate the South from resupply across the Atlantic.
The Civil War Campaign Plan and the Service hit their maturity at the Battle of Mobile Bay. Rear Admiral David Farragut needed to capture the city of Mobile. The town was the center for several railheads; points of resupply to Mississippi and Georgia. Blockading the bay and taking the town would split the Southern battle space in half. It would stop critical supplies from getting to the Confederate war effort. Dividing the Confederacy would move the North more quickly to victory.
Rear Admiral Farragut led a convoy of steam and sailing ships past Confederate Forts. Mines in the water sank the USS Tecumseh at the head of the line. The ship sank in two to three minutes. 93 men of 114 were lost forever. Exhibiting wondrous courage, Farragut sailed the remaining ships into Mobile Bay, exhorting the now famous phrase, “Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead.” His bravery carved out a course for the remaining Union ships to follow, setting the conditions for the fight over the Bay.
The subsequent victory at Mobile Bay was a much-needed emotional win for the Union public and the President. The valor of sailors and soldiers alike brought one of the last major Confederate ports under Union control, and ensured the United States would endure as a Republic.
As significant as the effort and success of the Union blockade, and battles like Mobile Bay, President Lincoln did not live long enough to evolve into a leader of the Navy as he was a leader of the Armies.
We are 150 years from President Lincoln’s assassination. His life and his opportunity to express the sentiments of gratitude to the American Sailor were prematurely cut off. We are left merely to speculate at what he might say of a generation forged in battle on uncertain seas.
Lincoln’s deep understanding of the Soldier is captured in his Gettysburg address. He expresses the sorrow of a divided nation, and the recognition of the great deeds of many to ensure the Constitution and her ideals survived. With additional time, I believe he would have come to recognize the sacrifice of his Sailors and the Navy’s role in keeping the Nation whole.
Should he have lived, I think Lincoln would have remembered Mobile Bay, the men of the Tecumseh and the sudden, shocking, and quick loss of life; but also how that loss, and the bravery of so many Sailors, ultimately led to victory.
The Sailor’s Gettysburg is Mobile Bay.
On behalf of all Sailors, I offer a different address, which might have been delivered by an alternate Lincoln; one that recognizes the sacrifices of Sailors for the Union cause.
Sailors who not long ago tasted salt on their lips, and could see the wind whip our nations’ flag atop the mast, now lie within the grace of our waters.
We stand on high ground, eyes cast to the horizon, searching for signs of returning ships. As eve creeps in, our lights are brandished against the dark night to signal safe harbor.
Yet these Sailors will never again return ashore.
Instead, our lights are now beacons of hope to our citizens. Hope that brings faith that the country is, and forever will be, united.
These Sailors gave their last breath that our nation might live. We will remember them with our bright torches and revere these souls that now and ever more sail infinite seas.
From Tripoli to Mobile Bay, from the Atlantic to the Pacific—across seven seas and across time—United States Sailors have defended our Constitution and our country.
On this Veterans Day, we remember those Sailors who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. We remember those who gave, in the words of Lincoln, their “last full measure of devotion.” And we remember those who now and forevermore sail Infinite Seas.