- 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
But Porter wasn’t yet home free. For some unexplained reason Meigs couldn’t let well enough alone. Obviously he must have been bone weary and nervously exhausted from the varied physical and emotional stresses of the past few days. At any rate, perhaps in an uncontrollable welling up of his own persnickety brand of selfrighteousness, Meigs shot off a wire to Seward, complaining of the interference of the Secretary of the Navy. On receiving Meigs’s message Seward also lost sight of the salutary maxim that you should quit when you’re ahead. Secretary Welles describes the consequences: I congratulated myself, when I went to my room at Willard’s on the evening of the 6th of April, that [the preparation of the Sumter expedition] had been accomplished within the time given us, and that the force had probably sailed. Between eleven and twelve that night, Mr. Seward and his son Frederick came to my rooms at Willard’s with a telegram from Captain Meigs at New York, stating in effect that the movements were retarded and embarrassed by conflicting orders from the Secretary of the Navy. I asked for an explanation, for I could not understand the nature of the telegram or its object. Mr. Seward said he supposed it related to the Powhatan and Porter’s command. I assured him he was mistaken, that Porter had no command, and that the Powhatan was the flagship, as he was aware, of the Sumter expedition. He thought there must be some mistake, and after a few moments’ conversation, with some excitement on my part, it was suggested that we had better call on the President. Before doing this, I sent for Commodore Stringham, who was boarding at Willard’s and had retired for the night. When he came, my statement was confirmed by him, and he went with us, as did Mr. Frederick Seward, to the President. On our way thither Mr. Seward remarked that, old as he was, he had learned a lesson from this affair, and that was, he had better attend to his own business and confine his labors to his own Department. To this I cordially assented.
One can have some doubt whether Mr. Seward’s contrition was as clearly expressed as Mr. Welles tells us. It was certainly not in evidence when the group came before the President. Seward argued tenaciously that the Powhatan should remain committed to the relief of Fort Pickens. The President himself found it hard to believe that the Powhatan had indeed been assigned to the Sumter expedition. But when Welles went to the Navy Department and returned with copies of the orders, the President was convinced. He instructed Seward to send a telegram ordering that the Powhatan be at once restored to Captain Mercer. Seward protested, but, says Welles, The President would not discuss the subject but was peremptory, … and he directed Mr. Seward to telegraph … to New York without … delay. Mr. Seward thought it might be difficult to get a telegram through, it was so late, but the President was imperative.
Fortunately we have no witness to the state of Captain Foote’s emotions when, hours after Porter and the Powhatan had disappeared down the bay, this new order was received at the Navy Yard. But he was prompt to send it forward by a fast tug, and the Powhatan was in fact overtaken before she got to Staten Island. The message was clear enough; it read “Deliver up the Powhatan at once to Captain Mercer.” The signature at the end was clear also; it was “Seward,” not “Lincoln.”
This was a loophole with which Porter was intimately familiar, and he was through it in the twinkling of an eye. I telegraphed back [says he], “Have received confidential orders from the President, and shall obey them. D. D. Porter” I then went on deck and gave orders to go ahead fast. In an hour and a half we were over the bar, discharged the pilot, and steering south for an hour, and then due east, to throw any pursuers off our track (for I was determined to go to Fort Pickens). At sundown I steered my course.
Let us turn now to the situation at Fort Pickens itself, where the relief force under Captain Vogdes was still confined aboard ship in compliance with the instructions of the Buchanan administration. On March 12 General Scott had sent orders for the soldiers to land, but no response had been received in Washington. Then on April 6 a message came to Secretary Welles from Captain Adams, the officer commanding the naval force off Fort Pickens. Scott’s orders, sent by sea, had not been received until April i. Adams, feeling himself still bound by the Navy Department’s instruction of January 30 and not subject to the orders of General Scott, an Army officer, had refused to let Captain Vogdes land his troops. Adams’ message asked urgently for direction from the new administration’s Secretary of the Navy. Off went Welles to the White House, where it was soon agreed, first, that the troops should be landed and, second, that the telegraph was too insecure a way to transmit the required orders. So another messenger, Lieutenant John Lorimer Worden, was briefed, told to memorize and destroy his orders, and sent off overland. He reached Pensacola on the morning of April 11 and requested permission to communicate with the United States fleet. This was a privilege expressly granted by the January 29 armistice, and that afternoon Worden was aboard the dispatch boat. But there was too much sea to cross the bar that night, and it was not until noon on April i a that he delivered his message to Captain Adams.