Determining to re-enforce Fort Pickens

As April began, President Abraham Lincoln had resolved to resupply the Federal garrisons at both Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, and Fort Pickens in Pensacola Harbor, Florida. On the 1st, he signed a secret executive order dispatching the U.S. Navy’s most powerful steamer: “Fit out the Powhatan to go to sea at the earliest possible moment under sealed orders. Orders by a confidential messenger go forward to-morrow.” Lincoln approved Navy Secretary Gideon Welles’s plan to place the Powhatan in Gustavus V. Fox’s fleet going to resupply Fort Sumter, but Secretary of State William H. Seward had other plans.

Seward believed 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. Seward therefore wanted the Powhatan to be added to Montgomery C. Meigs’s fleet going to Pickens. He wrote to Captain Andrew H. Foote, commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to fit the Powhatan out for that purpose. The Powhatan’s commander, Captain Samuel Mercer, was to be replaced by Lieutenant David D. Porter, who was working with Meigs on the Pickens mission. Seward told Foote that the Powhatan “is bound on secret service, and you will under no circumstances communicate to the Navy Department the fact that she is fitting out.”

Another order was written out giving Captain Samuel Barron the authority over personnel matters in the Navy Department. Barron was a Virginian, and Seward hoped that giving him such responsibility would encourage his home state to stay in the Union. But such an order was Welles’s to give, not Seward’s, and Welles suspected Barron of planning to join the Confederacy. Seward placed these orders into a pile of other documents, and Lincoln signed them after Seward assured him that they did not need to be read.

Welles received these orders during his dinner at the Willard Hotel that night. He immediately went to the White House to confront Lincoln, who could tell that he was disturbed and asked, “What have I done wrong?” Welles showed him the documents, and Lincoln explained that Seward had asked him to sign them without reading; the president believed there was nobody he could trust more than his own secretary of state. Lincoln authorized Welles to rescind the order for Barron, who as Welles suspected would later join the Confederate navy. Lincoln also reinstated Mercer as commander of the Powhatan. But neither Lincoln nor Welles yet knew that Seward was working to have the Powhatan join the mission to Pickens rather than Sumter.

On the 5th, Welles issued orders to Captain Mercer: “The United States steamers Powhatan, Pawnee, Pocahontas, and Harriet Lane will compose a naval force, under your command, to be sent to the vicinity of Charleston, S.C…. The primary object of the expedition is to provision Fort Sumter, for which purpose the War Department will furnish the necessary transports.” Welles explained that if the South Carolinians allowed the fort to be supplied, no show of force would be necessary. If not, then the warships would attempt to reinforce Sumter. Captain Gustavus V. Fox would command the entire expedition and coordinate between the army and navy.

The Powhatan was to be the flagship for the Fort Sumter expedition, but Porter had not yet received an order to give command of the ship back to Mercer, so he continued fitting her out to take her to Fort Pickens. Both Mercer and Porter contacted Foote at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the night of the 5th to see if he could clear up the confusion, but he replied: “I am executing orders received from the Government through the Navy officer as well as from the Army officer. Will write fully if possible to-day, certainly to-morrow. I hope the Powhatan will sail this evening.”

Meanwhile, Meigs wrote Seward from New York asking for clarification regarding the conflicting orders for the Powhatan. Seward took this message to the Willard Hotel and explained to Welles how the matter had become so confused. They then headed to the White House to straighten this out with Lincoln. On the way, according to Welles, “Mr. Seward remarked that, old as he was, he had learned a lesson from this affair, and that was, he had better attend to his own business and confine his labors to his own Department. To this I cordially assented.”

The secretaries met with the president around midnight. Lincoln promptly directed Seward to return the Powhatan to Captain Mercer and revert her purpose back to relieving Fort Sumter. Seward reluctantly complied, but Porter refused to obey because the original order for him to take over the Powhatan, signed by Lincoln, superseded the order to give her back, signed by Seward. Thus, the Powhatan left New York as part of Meigs’s mission to Fort Pickens, along with the transports Atlantic, Baltic, and Illinois. Meigs’s expedition would not arrive at Pickens before Fox’s arrived at Sumter.

Meanwhile, Lincoln learned that Captain Henry Adams, commander of the Federal naval squadron offshore from Pickens, had refused his order to reinforce the fort because it would break the informal truce he had with the Confederates under which they would not attack as long as he made no effort at reinforcement. Lincoln considered the truce to have been voided when Confederates began trying to starve the Fort Sumter garrison into submission, and he responded by ordering Lieutenant John L. Worden to travel overland as a secret messenger to deliver orders for the squadron to land reinforcements.

Brigadier General Braxton Bragg, commanding Confederate forces at Pensacola, asked permission to prevent any Federal attempt to reinforce Pickens. Adjutant General Samuel Cooper notified Bragg on the 6th: “The Government at Washington have determined to re-enforce Fort Pickens, and troops are now leaving for that purpose.” Bragg responded: “I shall fire upon any re-enforcements to Pickens unless ordered not… Twelve hundred men expected on to-day from Mississippi and Georgia.” Two days later, Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker granted Bragg permission to attack and warned him that the Federals were planning an attack of their own.

Lieutenant Worden arrived on the 10th with explicit orders for Federal naval officials to land troops at Fort Pickens. Worden assured Bragg that he had been sent from Washington to deliver a “verbal message of a pacific nature” to the garrison commander at Pickens. Bragg, unaware of the reinforcement order, granted Worden permission to meet with the garrison in the fort.


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