Working to Reinforce Fort Pickens

April 6, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln learned that his order to reinforce Fort Pickens in Pensacola Bay, Florida had not been obeyed.

Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island | Image Credit:
Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island | Image Credit:

Lincoln had intended to resupply both Forts Pickens and Sumter. On April 1, he signed a secret executive order dispatching the U.S. navy’s most powerful steamer, Powhatan, to the Navy Department. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles had intended to place Powhatan in Gustavus V. Fox’s fleet going to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, but Secretary of State William H. Seward had different plans for the ship.

Seward hoped that reinforcing Pickens could be done without provoking hostilities, and once done, it could allow him to save face on his pledges to evacuate Sumter by lobbying Lincoln to stop the expedition to that fort. Seeking to add Powhatan to Montgomery C. Meigs’s fleet going to Pickens, Seward placed an order to divert the steamer into a pile of other documents requiring Lincoln’s signature.

Welles issued orders on the 5th for Powhatan, Pawnee, Pocahontas, and the revenue cutter Harriet Lane to proceed to Fort Sumter on Fox’s mission. However, he was unaware that Seward had ensured that Powhatan would not be part of the Sumter expedition. The Federals at Fort Pickens had an informal truce with surrounding Confederates since January, but Lincoln considered that voided when Confederates began laying siege to Fort Sumter.

The next day, Lincoln learned that the commander of the naval squadron offshore from Pickens had refused to break the informal truce, which relied upon the Federal pledge not to reinforce the fort. Lincoln responded by ordering Lieutenant John L. Worden to travel overland as a secret messenger to Fort Pickens and deliver orders for the offshore squadron to land reinforcements.

Lincoln also learned that Powhatan had been diverted from Pickens to Sumter. He directed Seward to change it back to Sumter, and Seward reluctantly complied. However Lieutenant David D. Porter, commanding Powhatan, refused to obey because the order had been signed by Seward, not the president. Thus, Powhatan prepared to leave New York as part of Meigs’s mission to Pickens, along with transport ships Atlantic, Baltic, and Illinois. Meigs’s expedition would not arrive at Pickens before Fox’s arrived at Sumter.

Brigadier General Braxton Bragg, commanding Confederates at Pensacola, requested permission from Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker to prevent any Federal attempt to reinforce Pickens. Walker granted Bragg permission on the 8th, warning the general that a Federal attack was imminent.

Lieutenant Worden arrived two days later with explicit orders for Federal naval officials to land troops at Fort Pickens. Worden assured General Bragg that he had been sent from Washington to deliver a “verbal message of a pacific nature” to the Federal commander of Fort Pickens. Bragg, unaware of the reinforcement order, granted Worden permission to meet with the garrison in the fort.



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  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 32-34
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