As I stated in my earlier message, Postmaster Blair has a couple of things wrong. First, Lincoln didn’t “secretly” and “surreptitiously” withdraw the vessel the Union “chiefly relied on to effect the relief of Fort Sumter and thus foiled the attempt.” That honor went to Lincoln’s Secretary of State and political enemy, William Seward, ably abetted by Lt. David Dixon Porter.
“Seward had no great admiration for Lincoln‘s ability to lead the nation. In addition, he remained enraged at Gideon Welles (Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy) for blocking his presidential aspirations and supporting Lincoln’s nomination. What better form of revenge than to wrest control of naval operations at this early stage of the conflict?”
To effect the relief of Fort Sumter, Secretary of the Army, Simon Cameron, on March 30, ordered 200 recruits with a full year’s stores, mustered at New York Governor’s Island. At the same time, Welles instructed his commandants at the Brooklyn, Washington, and Norfolk navy yards to ready the “Pawnee,” “Harriett Lane,” and the steam sloops, “Powhatan” and “Pocahontas” for service by April 6.
The USS Powhatan had just gone out of service for replacement of her engines. ”Welles placed Powhatan back in service and informed Captain Samuel Mercer he now commanded the naval portion of the Sumter relief expedition, with all vessels to arrive off the Charleston bar by the morning of April 11. Welles briefed Lincoln on the arrangements, and the President, Welles noted in his diary, ‘approved them’.”
In response to Welles telegram, Commander Andrew Foote, acting Commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, wired back: “All possible dispatch, night and day, being made to get “Powhatan” off the yard on Friday.”
In the meantime, Seward, behind Lincoln’s back, was secretly negotiating an evacuation of Fort Sumter and was about to interfere with Welles’ plan. Army Captain Montgomery Meigs was a neighbor of Lt. Porter’s, and, at Seward’s coaching, he talked to Porter about a plan for Sumter using “a small squadron being fitted out for the supposed purpose of relieving Fort Sumter.” They also discussed an audacious plan to retake the Pensacola Navy Yard, already in Rebel hands, and reinforce Fort Pickens in Pensacola Bay, as well.
As Lt. Porter was eating dinner on April 6, he was interrupted by a messenger from Seward. After Porter arrived at Seward’s office, he was asked by Seward “Can you tell me how we can save Fort Pickens from falling into the hands of the rebels?”
“’I can, Sir,” Porter replied. Seward replied “…tell me how you will save that place.” At this point Montgomery Meigs stepped into the room, and Porter realized that Seward know more than he originally let on.
“What was needed, Porter said, was a ‘good-sized steamer,’ packed with 300 or so troops, heavy artillery, and sufficient ammunition. They would land ‘under the guns of a ship of war, and the fort would soon be made impregnable.” “Give me the ‘Powhatan,’ he stated, as if the secretary of State had the authority to appoint captains afloat, “and I will guarantee that everything shall be done without a mistake.”
Steward then took the two officers to meet the President, and, in response to Lincoln’s question as to whether Fort Pickens could be held, Meigs stingingly replied, ‘Certainly, if the navy would do its duty.’ Porter had some very definite ideas about that, and he explained to the President ‘the queer state of things existing in the Navy at this time.’ ‘Welles,’ he said was ‘surrounded by officers and civilian clerks, some of whom are disloyal at heart.’ Should the order for the Pickens expedition emanate from Welles’ desk, and ‘pass through all the department red tape, the news would at once be flashed over the wires, and Fort Pickens would be lost for ever.’ Boldly he requested that Lincoln personally issue the orders for him to take Powhatan to Pensacola. ‘I will guarantee their prompt execution to the letter.’”
Lincoln was uncomfortable. "But is not this a most irregular mode of proceeding?" "Certainly," Porter replied, "but necessary under the circumstances."
When Lincoln seemed to hesitate, Seward chimed in, "Mr. President, you are the commander-in-chief of the army and navy, and it is a case where it is necessary to issue direct orders without passing them through intermediaries."..."I will make it all right with Mr. Welles. This is the only way, sir, the thing can be done."
"Lincoln reluctantly agreed," taking no notice of the incompatibility of the Pensacola scheme and the Sumter relief expedition, perhaps simply confusing the name of the ship whose presence was vital to assure success in both places.
"Porter immediately wrote the 'confidential' carte blanche orders. Lincoln picked up his pen; "Seward,' he said, see that I don't burn my fingers.'
"Now that they had their ship, Porter and Meigs needed to find the troops, and not a single private could be issued marching orders without the concurrence of the general-in-chief, Winfield Scott. From the White House they took a short ride to Scott's quarters...Faced with Lincoln's signed orders, Scott dictated instructions for Colonel Harvey Brown to take four depleted companies of soldiers, 200 men, from Governor's Island by the steamer 'Atlantic' to Fort Pickens, and there assume overall authority.
Augustus "Gus" Fox, Gideon Welles' assistant, took command of the Sumter relief expedition on Thursday, April 4. He, like everyone else connected with the mission was unaware that the Powhatan had been secretly reassigned. Fox, after a last meeting with Lincoln, traveled to New York where he chartered the steamer Baltic and three tugs. Porter and Meigs were also in New York.
Meigs took an East River ferry to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and presented Commander Foote with the orders for the Powhatan. Foote had already received instructions from Secretary Welles regarding that ship for the Sumter expedition, yet here were conflicting documents signed by the President himself.
"Sidestepping the order's smelly prohibition 'that under no circumstances' was he to inform the Navy Department, Foote cabled Welles informing him of 'certain preparations made and things placed on board of vessels...about which you are familiar.' But, he added, 'as the orders do not come direct [from you], I make this report...no time is to be lost, I am preparing what is called for, and report my action.
"After a busy day, Welles had retired to his rooms at Willard's Hotel, when sometime before midnight, he was called upon by Secretary Seward and his son, Frederick. Seward was agitated because he had just received a telegram from Meigs in New York complaining the Powhatan's movements were 'retarded and embarrassed by conflicting orders from the Secretary of the Navy.' "Welles was mystified. He had yet to receive Foote's cryptic message and was ignorant of any cross purposes. Seward explained it must have something to do with Porter's taking command of the ship. What command? Welles wanted to know; Porter had no command. The Powhatan was under orders as flagship for the Sumter relief expedition and Seward knew this. With a straight face, Seward posed there must be an error somewhere and suggested they call on the President.
Although nearly midnight, "Lincoln was awake and very surprised at his visitors' calling, a surprise, Welles observed, that 'was not diminished on learning our errand.' There had to be some blunder here, Lincoln said, the Powhatan cannot possibly be the flagship of the Sumter relief force. There was no error, Welles insisted, the President had already approved the orders. Welles hurried across the street to the Navy Department to fetch them.
"Studying the documents, Lincoln remembered and knew he had been duped. Angrily, he rounded on Seward and demanded the Powhatan be restored to Captain Mercer, and that on no account must the Sumter relief expedition be interfered with. Seward remonstrated that Fort Pickens was just as important, and might well fall should be the Powhatan be recalled.
"Lincoln would have none of it. Pickens, he rightly exclaimed, could wait. It already had a partly reinforced garrison and a sizable naval force patrolling outside the bay. Seward continued to obstruct, and, with rising anger, Lincoln cut him off; it was 'imperative' and must be done. Beaten at his game, Seward scribbled on a telegraph blank, 'Give the Powhatan up to Captain Mercer,' addressed it to Porter, and handed it to a clerk for transmission.
"With that, Lincoln profusely apologized to his secretary of the navy. 'He took upon himself the whole blame,' Welles wrote, 'said it was carelessness, heedlessness on his part, he ought to have been more careful and attentive. President Lincoln never shunned any responsibility.'
The next morning at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Porter, "according to him, spent 'three hours' trying to persuade Andrew Foote that 'I was not a rebel in disguise plotting with the Powhatan's officers to run away with the ship and deliver her over to the South.’"
"Foote felt extremely uneasy. He had received no answer from his telegram to Secretary Welles. He read Porter's orders from the President several times, examining the watermark and the 'Executive Mansion' stamp. 'You see, Porter,' he said, 'there are so many fellows whom I would have trusted to the death who have deserted the flag that I don't know whom to believe. How do I know YOU are not a traitor?' He thought it best to keep Porter close at hand, and invited him to share his quarters at the navy yard until preparations on the Powhatan were complete.
"No sooner had Foote agreed, albeit with a very wary eye, to carry out Porter's presidential orders, than the original orders arrived from the Navy Department, the ones Lincoln had seen and forgotten addressed to Captain Mercer of the Powhatan to take command of the Sumter relief forces.
Porter scrambled about for a plausible explanation. 'We are telegraphing Mr. Seward,' he told the astonished Foote. 'Meigs thinks Mr. Welles' telegram is bogus.' Lacking definitive instructions from the Department, Foote had no choice but to obey the presidential seal.
"That afternoon, the Powhatan, her refit hardly complete, especially to her broken down engineering plan, made ready to cast off her lines. To preserve the aura of secrecy, Porter came aboard unnoticed and hid in a cabin below. The plan was for Mercer to take her out, then hand over command off Staten Island.
"Near 3 P.M., the ship's wheezy engines coughed into life, and she headed downriver for the open sea. At virtually that moment came Seward's cancelling telegram. 'Give the Powhatan up to Captain Mercer.'
"Foote detailed an officer to charter a civilian tug that managed to overhaul the warship just outside the lower bay Narrows. Mercer had already gone ashore, and Porter reading the cable signed by Seward put a fine point to protocol. He again placed his career in the starkest jeopardy and quickly jotted an answer: 'I received my [original] orders from the President and shall proceed to execute them.'
Perhaps realizing the possible results of his temerity, he also composed a letter to Andrew Foote, 'This is an unpleasant position to be in, but I will work out of it.' Foote read the notes and shook his head in bewilderment. 'He's clean daft--or has run off with the ship to join the rebels...Well, I'll never trust anyone again. I have lost faith in human nature.' And with that, the Powhatan thrashed off, useless and needless to Pensacola.
"In New York, Gus Fox, having not the slightest notion of the Pensacola expedition, was having a difficult time putting together his own Sumter relief expedition. The indifference and delay of the senior Army officers at Governor's Island lost many precious hours. Now the best troops were already at sea, bound for Fort Pickens, and the army allotted Fox the scrapings of the barrel."
Beginning on Monday, April 8, the ships of the Sumter relief force put to sea from New York and Hampton Roads, and immediately steamed into a lashing Atlantic gale. In his departing report to the Navy Department, Commander John Gillis of the Pocahontas typified the statements of his fellow skippers: 'detained by thick weather an heavy gales...will exert al diligence and dispatch.'""
Musicant, Ivan. “Divided Waters: The Naval History of the Civil War,” New York: Harper, Collins, 1995.
Porter David D. “The Naval History of the Civil War,” My reprint is dated 1970.
Davis, William C. “First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run,” Alexandria, VA: Time-Line Books, 1983.