The Relief Of Fort Pickens

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A good place to start the story is the Republican convention in Chicago in May, 1860. By long odds the leading candidate, and on form and experience the best qualified, was of course Senator William H. Seward of New York. He was eminent in the legal profession. He had served with distinction as governor of his state before going to the Senate. He had been a leader of the antislavery Whigs and had brought them into the recently created Republican Party. He came to Chicago in the full expectation of being its nominee for President, and his supporters were ebulliently confident. But Seward carried the handicap of having been too long and too conspicuously the frontrunner, so that he was the principal target of all the other candidates, and of this fact Judge David Davis, campaign manager for Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, took shrewd advantage. The bargaining for votes was ruthless, the argument that Seward’s nomination would hopelessly alienate the South was pressed to the hilt, and the galleries of the Wigwam—the convention hall built for the occasion—were packed with leather-lunged Lincoln shouters brought in on counterfeit tickets while the Seward forces were parading through the streets on their optimistic way to the arena. When Lincoln’s name was placed in nomination, reported an eyewitness, “five thousand people leaped to their seats, women not wanting, and the wild yell made vesper breathings of all that had preceded. A thousand steam whistles, ten acres of hotel gongs, a tribe of Comanches might have mingled in the scene unnoticed.” Seward’s lead on the first ballot was cut to a hair on the second, and on the third Lincoln was nominated. But behind and beneath their rivalry and contention Lincoln had formed a true judgment of the quality of Seward, and one of his first acts after his election in November was to recruit Seward as Secretary of State.

Most of Lincoln’s other Cabinet appointees were also closely connected with his search for the nomination. Some had, like Seward, been rival candidates. Others were holders of political due bills. Simon Cameron was one of these; he had delivered the Pennsylvania delegation for Lincoln. He wanted the Treasury portfolio; he got the War Department. Perhaps the only Cabinet officer not convinced he would have made a better President than Abraham Lincoln was Gideon Welles, the stubborn, tetchy, clearheaded Secretary of the Navy.

For the country the four months between election and inauguration were a strange, uneasy twilight. South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, and by the first of February six other states had followed suit. Northern sentiment was confused, and little leadership came from the White House, where old President Buchanan’s policy seemed to be to close his eyes, block his ears, and pray for the speedy advent of Inauguration Day on March 4. Military posts in the seceding states were taken over or abandoned without struggle or even protest, and those that remained in Federal hands did so on the initiative of individual officers on the spot.

In South Carolina Major Robert Anderson found his position in Fort Moultrie untenable and moved to Fort Sumter in the middle of Charleston harbor. Even this withdrawal was branded by secessionists as a provocative gesture, and the ship that attempted to reprovision Sumter in early January was fired on and forced to withdraw.

In Florida on January 10—the very day that the state seceded—Union Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, in command of the two mainland forts at Pensacola, for like reasons withdrew his forty-odd men to Fort Pickens, situated on the western tip of Santa Rosa Island and commanding the entrance to the harbor. He was soon joined by some thirty sailors from the Pensacola Navy Yard. To reinforce this tiny garrison a contingent of soldiers was sent by sea. They didn’t go ashore. Senator Stephen Mallory of Florida (soon to be secretary of the navy for the Confederacy) made an agreement with Buchanan, who had his own Secretaries of War and Navy issue orders that the Federal troops were not to land unless Fort Pickens was under actual or threatened attack. This socalled armistice of January 29 was still in effect, and troops under Captain Israel Vogdes were still aboard ship when Lincoln took office.

The new President’s desires were not in doubt. He wished to preserve the Union; he did not wish war. He also said, in his inaugural address, “The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government.” Seward had helped draft this speech. Yet within hours after the words were spoken, a message came in from Fort Sumter that without reprovisioning it could hold out no longer than forty days more. The President and his advisers were faced with the urgent need to examine and re-examine a quantity of choices, all unpleasant or dangerous.

Now as Seward brooded on these intricate and interlocking problems he became persuaded that the reinforcement of Pickens would demonstrate the firmness of the Federal will, without seeming so provocative as an attempt to resupply Sumter.

What Seward needed now was someone who could turn his policy into a concrete set of plans, someone qualified to determine what had to be done to reinforce that particular fort called Pickens at Pensacola in Florida—and to see that it was done. He must have blessed his stars when he realized that the ideal instrument was close at hand, that Captain Meigs could have been custom-tailored for the job.