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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
Its impact is best told in Uncle Gideon’s own words: On the 1st of April, while at my dinner at Willard’s, where I then boarded, Mr. Nicolay, the private secretary of the President, brought to me and laid upon the table a large package from the President. It was between five and six o’clock in the afternoon when I received this package, which I immediately examined and found it contained several papers of a singular character, in the nature of instructions, or orders from the Executive in relation to naval matters, and one in reference to the government of the Navy Department more singular and remarkable than either of the others.
“This extraordinary document,” as Welles calls it, was the fourth of the orders that Porter had just drafted. It relieved Captain Stringham from command of the Navy’s Bureau of Detail, the office responsible for the assignment of all naval personnel, and replaced him by Captain Samuel Barron. Now Secretary Welles had come to rely greatly on Stringham, and he strongly suspected Barron of secessionist leanings. Without a moment’s delay [Welles says] I went to the President with the package in my hand. He was alone in his office and, raising his head from the table at which he was working, inquired, “What have I done wrong?” I informed him I had received with surprise the package containing his instructions respecting the Navy and the Navy Department, and I desired some explanation. I then called his attention particularly to the foregoing document, which I read to him. This letter was in the handwriting of Captain Meigs of the army, the postscript in that of David D. Porter. The President expressed as much surprise, as I felt, that he had sent me such a document. He said Mr. Seward with two or three young men, had been there through the day on a subject which he (Seward) had in hand, and which he had been some time maturing; that it was Seward’s specialty to which he, the President, had yielded, but as it involved considerable details, he had left Mr. Seward to prepare the necessary papers. These papers he had signed without reading—for he had not time, and if he could not trust the Secretary of State, he knew not whom he could trust. I asked who were associated with Mr. Seward. “No one,” said the President, “but these young men were here as clerks to write down his plans and orders.” Most of the work was done, he said, in the other room. I then asked if he knew the young man. He said one was Captain Meigs, another was a naval officer named Porter. … He gave me at that time no information of the scheme which Mr. Seward had promoted, further than that it was a specialty which Mr. Seward wished should be kept secret. I therefore pressed for no further disclosures.
But the President did tell Welles that he could disregard the order naming Barron to replace Stringham in charge of United States Navy personnel. And just as well. It soon came to light that Barron had already accepted a commission in the Confederate navy. (It is still a mystery why Porter attempted to get Barron put in charge of the United States Navy Bureau of Detail. Porter’s own narrative never mentions the incident. Welles believed that Porter himself was wavering between the Union and the Confederacy and that it was his participation in the Pickens expedition that brought him down on the Union side.)
At some point in this eventful day the President also received from his bumptious Secretary of State a startling memorandum. It was another and more explicit revelation of Seward’s view that he should, in effect, serve as prime minister of the administration over which Lincoln presided. It began in forthright, if somewhat insubordinate, fashion: “We are at the end of a month’s administration and yet without a policy either domestic or foreign.” In the domestic field Seward wished, he told Lincoln, to “change the question before the public from one upon slavery, or about slavery, for a question of union or disunion.” As a further means of fostering domestic solidarity Seward proposed that the United States should adopt a truculent attitude toward Spain, France, Great Britain, and Russia and suggested that if the two former countries failed to give what he referred to as “satisfactory explanations” of certain recent actions in Mexico and Santo Domingo, Congress should be convened to declare war against them. “But whatever policy we adopt,” wrote Seward, “there must be an energetic prosecution of it. … Either the President must do it himself … or devolve it on some member of his Cabinet. … It is not in my especial province; but I neither seek to evade nor assume responsibility.” This offer to take over the duties of the Presidency was politely but very firmly rejected, on the same day and in writing, by Abraham Lincoln.