- 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
Now Meigs, Keyes, and Porter moved their base of operations to New York. Meigs had ten thousand dollars in coin that Seward had given him from secret State Department funds. (When the expedition was over, Meigs turned back six thousand dollars of this advance.) He and Keyes busied themselves with assembling men, horses, and guns and in chartering steamers to carry them to Florida. Porter concentrated on making good his claim to command of the Powhatan , and a troublesome task it proved to be. To his great satisfaction he found that the commandant of the Navy Yard was on leave. This officer had a reputation for caution and would probably have insisted on telegraphing the Navy Department for confirmation of Porter’s orders. As it was [this is Porter’s account], I had trouble enough with Foote [the acting commandant] to bring him to reason, and it was only after three hours earnest conversation that I convinced him I was not a rebel in disguise plotting with the Powhatan ’s officers to run away with the ship, and deliver her over to the South. “You see, Porter,” he said, “there are so many fellows whom I would have trusted to the death who have deserted the flag that I don’t know whom to believe.” He read my orders over and over, turned them upside down, examined the water-mark and Executive Mansion stamp, and surveyed me from head to foot. “How do I know you are not a traitor? Who ever heard of such orders as these emanating direct from the President? I must telegraph to Mr. Welles before I do anything, and ask further instructions.” “Look at those orders again,” I said, “and then telegraph at your peril. … If you must telegraph, send a message to the President or Mr. Seward.” “Yes,” replied Foote, “and what would prevent you from having a confederate at the other end of the line to receive the message and answer it—there is so much treason going on?” I burst out laughing. “What would you say,” I inquired, “if I were to tell you that [Navy Captains] Frank Buchanan, Sam Barren, and [George] Magruder were going to desert to the rebels?” Foote jumped from his chair. “God in heaven!” he exclaimed, “what next? You don’t expect me to trust you after that? … But, man, that can’t be, for I saw by the morning papers that President Lincoln was at a wedding last night at Buchanan’s, and Buchanan had the house festooned with American flags, and all the loyal men of Washington were there.” “So they were,” I replied, “but, nevertheless, they will all desert in a few days, for their hearts are on the other side. [Captain Duncan] Ingraham is going also—his chief clerk has already preceded him, and carried off the signal book of the navy.” “Good Lord deliver us!” exclaimed Foote, piously. “I must telegraph to Mr. Welles. I can’t stand this strain any longer. It will kill me. You sit smoking and smiling as if this was not a very serious matter.” “Here”- to his chief clerk—“bring me a telegraph blank.”
Porter’s debonair account of this interview is too long to give in full. But one more passage is worth repeating. “Just think,” I continued to Captain Foote, “of the President taking you into his confidence so early in these troubles; think what a high position you may reach before the trouble with the South is over if we succeed in carrying out this expedition successfully. Then, again, think what a tumble you will get if you disobey a positive order of the President. He will believe rebellion rampant everywhere, and won’t know whom to trust. Think of Captain Foote being tried and shot like Admiral Byng for failing to carry out his orders.”
The unhappy Foote succumbed to these persuasions, but he took Porter to stay at his own house, where he could be observed and, if things went wrong, apprehended.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, preparations for the relief of Fort Sumter were in full swing. The War Department had general responsibility, but naval vessels were of course needed to support the expedition. On April 5 Secretary Welles prepared orders and read them to the President, and upon his approval they were promptly dispatched. They were addressed to Captain Samuel Mercer, commanding United States steamer Powhatan , and instructed him to take three additional ships under his command and proceed to Charleston.
The impact of this message in New York is not hard to imagine. Excerpts from Meigs’s diary give the story succinctly and poignantly. April 5 … Evening, telegram from Secretary of Navy to detain the Pawhatan . Porter in despair. Says he will do nothing more for this government. He will go to California and spend his time in surveying. … April 6. Everywhere. Had to go to the Navy Yard to endeavor to save the Powhatan . This did twice, and I succeeded in taking her though written orders from Secretary of Navy to send her to help reinforce Sumter on the i nh were in the yard. I took the ground that Capt. Mercer had been relieved by orders signed by President, that she was promised to our expedition, was a necessary and most important part of it, and that no man, secretary or other, had a right to take her, and that the secretary could not do it as I was by the President made responsible and told not to let even the Secretary of the Navy know that this expedition was going on. They gave her up to us and Porter sailed about noon. He was seen going down the harbor at 3 P.M.