Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy: A Biography

By Kroll, C. Douglas | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July-October 2010 | Go to article overview

Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy: A Biography


Kroll, C. Douglas, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy: A Biography. By Ari Hoogenboom. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. xiii, 387; $40, cloth.)

Utilizing a vast quantity of primary-source materials, Ari Hoogenboom, emeritus professor of history at the City University of New York's Brooklyn College, has produced a magisterial biography of the man, he argues, was most responsible for the U.S. Navy's stellar performance in the Civil War. Born in Saugus, Massachusetts, on June 13, 1821, Gustavus Vasa Fox attended the recently opened Lowell High School and Phillips Academy in Andover before being appointed an acting midshipman in the U.S. Navy in 1838. In the following years, he would serve in a variety of assignments. In 1855 Fox married Virginia Woodbury, daughter of Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury. With too many officers in the navy and a strict seniority system that slowed promotions, Fox was granted a one-year leave of absence to manage a textile mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts. When thatyear ended, he resigned from the navy to continue on as mill manager. Following a dispute with the mill's board of directors, Fox resigned his position as manager on June 21, 1860.

Before the year was out, the secession of South Carolina made Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor a major military issue. Fox put forth a plan for the relief of Fort Sumter that was discussed by President Buchanan's cabinet but ultimately dismissed . However, Montgomery Blair, postmaster general in the incoming Lincoln administration, who was also married to the sister of Fox 's wife, backed Fox's plan and invited him to Washington, D.C. On March 21, Fox made a brief visit to Fort Sumter with the permission of South Carolina governor Francis W. Pickens, and upon his return to Washington, President Lincoln was interested in his report on the condition of the island fort and its supplies. Fox was placed in charge of a relief expedition and sailed for Fort Sumter in the former revenue cutter Harriet Lane, only to find it was under fire by the time he arrived.

In response to the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln proclaimed a blockade of the insurrectionary states. To help make the blockade a reality, the president directed Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to make Fox a member of his staff, intending him to be assistant secretary. Because that post had not yet been officially created, Fox was appointed as chief clerk (the highest subordinate position in the department) instead. Within a few months, Congress created and Fox filled the new position of assistant secretary of the navy. Fox was an excellent choice. He had years of naval experience, had served in the U.S. Coast Survey, and had commanded sophisticated steam vessels. In addition, he had boundless energy and enthusiasm and was constantly on the lookout for technological developments that would increase the effectiveness of ships, guns, and sailors in battle. …

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