- Historic Sites
The Relief Of Fort Pickens
WAR WAS DAYS AWAY, A UNION STRONGHOLD WAS THREATENED, AND THROUGH A FOG OF RUMOR, DOUBT, CONTRADICTORY ORDERS, AND OUTRIGHT LIES THE ARMY AND NAVY SET OUT TO HELP
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
Seward did not dawdle. Captain Meigs’s diary for March 29 read thus: To Great Falls. When we came home I found a request from the Secretary of State to come to see him. I went with him to the President who wished to see me. He said that they were in a difficulty and he wished to have the President talk with some man who would speak of what he knew—not of politics in military affairs and one who could get on a horse in the field too. He said they had had Gen. Scott and Gen. Totten but no one would think of putting either of these old men on horseback. The President talked freely with me. I told him that men enough could be found to volunteer to endeavor to relieve Fort Sumter, but that persons of higher position and rank than myself thought it not to be attempted, that this was not the place to make the war, etc. He asked me whether Fort Pickens could be held. I told him certainly, if the Navy had done its duty and not lost it already. The President asked whether I could not go down there again and take a general command of these three great fortresses and keep them safe. I told him I was only a captain and could not command majors who were there. He must take an officer of higher rank. Mr. Seward broke out with “I can understand too how that is, Captain Meigs, you have got to be promoted.” I said “That cannot be done; I am a captain and there is no vacancy.” But Mr. Seward told the President that if he wished to have this thing done the proper way was to put it into my charge and it would be done, that I would give him an estimate of the means by 4 P.M. of the next day. He complimented me much. Said that when Pitt wished to take Quebec he did not send for any old general but he sent for a young man whom he had noticed in the society of London, named Wolfe, and told him that he had selected him to take Quebec, to ask for the necessary means and do it and it was done. Would the President do this now? He replied that he would consider on it and would let me know in a day or two.
The seed was left to germinate in Lincoln’s mind.
The third day, March 31, was Easter Sunday. Meigs has left an account of this day, but a fuller and livelier one comes from Lt. Colonel Erasmus D. Keyes, military secretary to General Winfield Scott. Keyes, who was serving his second tour of duty with the General, seems to have been a considerable talker, and at breakfast this morning he held forth for at least a half hour on the difficulties of landing artillery at Fort Pickens. When he had finished, General Scott handed him a map of Pensacola harbor, telling him to go straight to Secretary Seward and repeat this analysis. Let us listen to Keyes’s account: Arriving at Mr. Seward’s house on F Street, I was admitted, and found the astute Secretary standing in the middle of his parlor alone. After a respectful salutation, I said: “Mr. Seward, I am here by direction of General Scott, to explain to you the difficulties of reinforcing Fort Pickens.” “I don’t care about the difficulties,” said he. “Where’s Captain Meigs?” “I suppose he’s at his house, sir.” “Please find him and bring him here.” “I’ll call and bring him on my return from church.” “Never mind church today; I wish to see him and you here together without delay.” Notwithstanding I had been long subject to obey military commands implicitly, a rebellious thought arose in my mind, when I received from Secretary Seward such clear-cut orders. Nevertheless I reflected that he could speak from the ambush of original power, and concluded to obey him with alacrity, and within ten minutes Meigs and I stood together before him. Without preliminary remarks, Mr. Seward said: “I wish you two gentlemen to make a plan to reinforce Fort Pickens, see General Scott, and bring your plan to the Executive Mansion at 3 o’clock this afternoon.”
So off went Meigs and Keyes to the engineers’ office, where they worked, almost without speaking to each other, for four hours. Then finding that the three o’clock deadline was upon them they went straight to the White House. We found [this is Keyes speaking again] the President and the Secretary of State waiting to receive us. Mr. Lincoln was sitting behind the table near the end; his right leg, from the knee to foot, which was not small, rested on the table, his left leg on a chair, and his hands were clasped over his head. These positions were changed frequently during the conference, and I never saw a man who could scatter his limbs more than he.
At first Keyes was reluctant to read his contribution, pointing out that he and Meigs had not had time to show their work to Scott and that the General would be vexed at his secretary for by-passing him. So Meigs read his report, which concentrated on the engineering features of the operation. Keyes saw that though the two men had worked too rapidly to consult each other, his own report—dealing with the artillery aspects—meshed well with Meigs’s. It may be this that emboldened him to give tongue. At any rate, he read out his recommendations. When he had finished, Lincoln told the two officers to go to Scott and tell him that the scheme had the President’s approval and should proceed unless the general in chief saw strong reasons to the contrary. Then, according to Meigs, “We went to the house of General Scott, showed him our papers, which he approved saying there was nothing in them not necessary and little to be added as necessary. Mr. Seward came in and the matter was talked over and resolved upon.”
But after Seward and Meigs had departed and the old general was left alone with his military secretary, the latter noted that his chief was struggling to restrain a tremendous emotion.