The Relief Of Fort Pickens


Next day, April i, the scheme that had been approved in outline began to be translated into specific detail. Meigs and Keyes must have gone to work early with the various military bureaus in Washington to decide what units, what ordnance, what equipment should be assigned to the expedition. There was further discussion of whether Meigs could be put in command. This point was resolved when General Scott confirmed Meigs’s own conclusion that it was impossible. So Colonel Harvey Brown was chosen as commander.

Later in the day a new character joined the action—Lieutenant David D. Porter of the Navy, brought into the picture by Meigs to handle the naval aspects of the enterprise. Porter’s father, grandfather, and great-uncle had all been Navy officers. Porter’s own career started when he accompanied his father on an expedition to suppress pirate forays in the West Indies. He was at the time ten years old. In the next few years he became a midshipman in the Mexican navy, and at sixteen he transferred to that of the United States. In late February or early March of 1861 he had received orders to take command of a coastal survey vessel on the Pacific Coast, and he was about to depart on this assignment. To continue in Porter’s words: My orders to California were still hanging over me, and I was taking my last meal with my family when a carriage drove up to the door. It brought a note from the Secretary of State [Mr. Seward] requesting me to call and see him without delay; so, leaving my dinner unfinished, I jumped into the carnage and drove at once to the Secretary’s office. I found Mr. Seward lying on his hack on a sofa, with his knees up, reading a lengthy document. Without changing his position he said to me, “Can you tell me how we can save Fort Pickens from falling into the hands of the rebels?” I answered promptly, “I can, sir.”

According to Porter’s account Meigs had approached him a few days earlier, and they had thrashed out a plan to “get a good-sized steamer and six or seven companies of soldiers, and to carry the latter, with a number of large guns and a quantity of munitions of war, to Fort Pickens, land them on the outside of the fort under the guns of a ship of war, and the fort would soon be made impregnable.”

This then was the scheme that Porter outlined to Seward, adding, “Give me command of the Powhatan , now lying at New York ready for sea, and I will guarantee that everything shall be done without a mistake.” At this point Meigs came in, and Seward, accompanied by his military and naval accomplices, went to the White House. There, in response to a question from Lincoln, Lieutenant Porter spoke: “Mr. President” said I “there is a queer state of things existing in the Navy Department at this time. Mr. Welles is surrounded by officers and clerks, some of whom are disloyal at heart, and if the orders for this expedition should emanate from the Secretary of the Navy, and pass through all the department red tape, the news would be at once flashed over the wires, and Fort Pickens would be lost forever. But if you will issue all the orders from the Executive Mansion, and let me proceed to New York with them, I will guarantee their prompt execution to the letter.” “But,” said the President, “is not this a most irregular mode of proceeding?” “Certainly,” I replied, “but the necessity of the case justifies it.” “You are commander-in-chief of the army and navy,” said Mr. Seward to the President, “and this is a case where it is necessary to issue direct orders without passing them through intermediaries.” “But what will Uncle Gideon say?” inquired the President. “Oh, I will make it all right with Mr. Welles,” said the Secretary ot State. “This is the only way, sir, the thing can be done. …” It was finally agreed that my plan should be carried out. I wrote the necessary orders, which were copied by Captain Meigs and signed by the President, who merely said as he did so, “Seward, see that I don’t burn my fingers.”

Porter goes on to describe three of the orders that he had prepared. The first directed him to take command of the Powhatan , proceed to Fort Pickens, and cover the fort while the reinforcements were landed. The second order instructed the commandant of the New York Navy Yard to fit out the Powhatan promptly and secretly and not to inform the Navy Department until the ship had sailed. The third order was directed to Captain Mercer, commander of the Powhatan . It detached him from the ship but assured him that this was no reflection on his competence and was done only because the ship’s urgent and secret mission required a commander thoroughly conversant with the plan. But Porter makes no mention whatever of a fourth order, wholly unrelated to the mission, that he had prepared and slipped under the President’s pen. This fourth order, since it had to do with the internal organization of the Navy Department, was promptly sent forward to the Secretary. It effectively torpedoed Secretary Seward’s promise to “make it all right with Mr. Welles.”