At the time that Abraham Lincoln entered office, Federal forces held four installations in seceded states: Fort Sumter in South Carolina, and Forts Pickens, Taylor, and Jefferson in Florida. Of all the Florida forts, Pickens was most likely to turn into another Sumter situation.
Located on Santa Rosa Island, Fort Pickens commanded Pensacola Bay in the Florida panhandle. A Federal garrison was stationed in Pickens, with a Federal naval squadron offshore that included the warship U.S.S. Brooklyn. There had been a tacit agreement under which the Confederates guarding the Pensacola Navy Yard would not threaten the Federals if the garrison at Pickens was not reinforced. However, unlike Sumter, Pickens could be permanently reinforced if the Federals desired.
On the day after his inauguration, President Lincoln decided to make good on his inaugural pledge to “hold, occupy, and possess” Federal property in the South. He issued a verbal order to break the truce by landing 200 reinforcements from the Brooklyn to resupply and reinforce Fort Pickens. It was Lincoln’s hope that if Sumter had to be abandoned, he could still keep a foothold in the Confederacy by keeping a firm grasp on Pickens.
Lincoln learned six days after delivering his verbal executive order that it had not been obeyed. He furiously reiterated the order to Lieutenant General Winfield Scott in writing, and the next day Scott dispatched the U.S.S. Mohawk to Pensacola with an order for Captain Israel Vodges, commanding the Federal infantry aboard the Brooklyn: “At the first favorable moment you will land with your company, re-enforce Fort Pickens, and hold the same till further orders. Report frequently, if opportunities present themselves, on the condition of the fort and the circumstances around you.”
Meanwhile, new Brigadier General Braxton Bragg organized a unified Confederate command at Pensacola. He contacted Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, commanding the Federal garrison at Fort Pickens, requesting “information necessary to enable me to understand our relative positions.” Slemmer told Bragg of the unofficial truce and received assurances that Bragg would continue honoring the agreement. However, when Bragg received news indicating the Federals may try reinforcing Pickens, he prohibited the transfer of any further supplies from either the fort or the naval squadron offshore. Confederates also seized the U.S.S. Isabella at Mobile, Alabama, which had helped supply the Federal fleet at Pensacola.
When rumors spread that local residents were supplying the Federals, Bragg issued an order: “That no misunderstanding may exist on this subject, it is announced to all concerned that this traffic is strictly forbidden, and all such supplies which may be captured in transit to said vessels or to Fort Pickens will be confiscated. The more effectually to enforce this prohibition, no boat or vessel will be allowed to visit Fort Pickens or any United States vessel without special sanction.”
Back at Pickens, Lieutenant Slemmer reported that four runaway slaves “came to the fort, entertaining the idea that we were placed here to protect them and grant them their freedom. I did what I could to teach them the contrary. In the afternoon I took them to Pensacola and delivered them to the city marshal, to be returned to their owners. That same night four more made their appearance. They were also turned over to the authorities next morning.” Slemmer was acting in accordance with Lincoln’s pledge in his inaugural address to enforce fugitive slave laws.
The standoff at Pickens continued through March. While Lincoln’s cabinet was split over whether to abandon Fort Sumter, they were unanimous that Pickens should be held. Attorney General Edward Bates urged Lincoln to hold the fort “at all hazards.” Secretary of State William H. Seward agreed, stating that it should be held “at every cost.” In addition, Seward worked to save face after his dubious involvement in the Fort Sumter situation by trying to get Lincoln to send a relief expedition to Pickens.
Seward arranged a White House meeting on March 29 with Lincoln and Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, army engineer heading construction of the new U.S Capitol dome. Seward hoped to have Meigs organize an expedition to Fort Pickens, and possibly farther west to capture forts on the Texas coast with the help of ousted Governor Sam Houston. Lincoln acknowledged the informal truce at Pensacola; he also said he had issued executive orders to reinforce Pickens, but since he had heard nothing since, the orders must have “fizzled out.” Lincoln then agreed to allow Meigs to organize an expedition to Fort Pickens. Seward, having been overruled on his plea to abandon Fort Sumter, would have his way in regards to Pickens.
But General Scott still thought it would be best to abandon both Sumter and Pickens. On the 31st, he sent his secretary, Colonel Erasmus B. Keyes, to explain to Seward why reinforcing Pickens would not be practical. Seward instead ordered Keyes to work with Meigs “to make a plan to reinforce Fort Pickens, and bring your plan to the Executive Mansion at 3 o’clock this afternoon.”
The men had no time to clear the plan with Scott, instead bypassing him and presenting the plan to Lincoln and Seward. It called for landing a troop transport with support from a warship to prevent Confederate interference. Lincoln approved it immediately and instructed them to show it to Scott: “Tell him that I wish this thing done. I depend on you gentlemen to push this thing through.”
Keyes and Meigs took Seward with them to see Scott. Although Scott was not happy that he had been bypassed to reinforce a fort he believed should be abandoned, he announced: “Sir, the great Frederick used to say, ‘When the King commands, all things are possible!’ It shall be done!” Thus, two expeditions were being organized simultaneously: Fort Sumter, a naval expedition led by Gustavus V. Fox and supported by Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair; and Pickens, an army expedition led by Meigs and supported by Seward.
That same day, the U.S.S. Mohawk arrived off Pensacola to deliver Scott’s orders to Captain Henry A. Adams, the ranking Federal naval officer. Adams refused to obey the orders because they had been signed by Scott without clearance from the Navy Department. Adams wrote to his superiors: “I beg you will please send me instructions as soon as possible, that I may be relieved from a painful embarrassment.”
Meanwhile, Slemmer reported that although “matters have not assumed a hostile attitude,” Fort Pickens was surrounded by enemy artillery batteries: “Shot and shell can be thrown from each of these works into Fort Pickens, with one or two batteries established on Santa Rosa Island, Fort Pickens would be in almost as bad a position as Fort Sumter.” There were some 1,000 enemy troops opposing Slemmer’s 90-man garrison, and General Bragg was in the process of assembling a force of 5,000 men to invade Santa Rosa Island before Pickens could be reinforced.
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