- 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
At about the same hour General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate forces at Pensacola, received from his war department this telegram: “Lt. Worden of US Navy has gone to Pensacola with dispatches. Intercept them.” The unfortunate Bragg had to reply that Worden had come and gone, that alarm guns had just been fired at Fort Pickens, and that reinforcements would probably be landed before morning. He was correct; Captain Vogdes’ men, along with a hundred fifteen marines, went ashore that night.
On April 16 the expeditionary force of Colonel Brown and Captain Meigs arrived at Fort Pickens, approaching the island on the seaward side and offloading without incident two hundred soldiers that night and the rest of the men and cargo, including the horses, on the seventeenth. Also on the seventeenth the Powhatan , whose mission had been to cover the landing, hove somewhat anticlimactically into view.
Her commander, though coming late to the feast, did his best to bring drama to the occasion. He appeared flying the British flag, apparently hoping to run past the shore batteries and enter the harbor itself. The businesslike Colonel Brown did not relish the idea of having his landing parties harassed by the Confederate fire that Porter seemed intent on provoking. So Meigs was dispatched on an errand that, in a final flourish of bravado, Porter reports thus: I ran in for the harbor, crossed the bar, and was standing up to Round Fort, when a tug put out from Pickens and placed herself across my path. Captain Meigs was on board the tug, waving a document, and, hailing, said he had an order from Colonel Brown. It was to the following effect: “Don’t permit Powhatan to run the batteries or attempt to go inside. It will bring the fire of the enemy on the fort before we are prepared.” I felt like running over Meig’s tug, but obeyed the order. The stars and stripes were hoisted, in hopes the enemy would open fire, but they did not, nor do I believe they had any intention of so doing.
The relief of Fort Pickens had been accomplished.
The aftermath is tame enough. Pickens remained in Union hands throughout the war, and the Confederacy was deprived of the harbor of Pensacola. Indeed the Confederate forces eventually destroyed the dry dock at the Navy Yard and evacuated the town of Pensacola itself, which was forthwith occupied by the Federals.
It is more interesting to take a brief look at the later history of some of the participants in the Pickens venture. Captain Meigs, you recall, had been barred from command of the expedition because of his rank and because no vacancy existed for his promotion. But in the spring of 1861 the times they were a’changing—and fast. From Fort Pickens, Meigs returned to Washington, where on May 14 he was made colonel and on May 15 was appointed brigadier general and quartermaster general of the Union Army, to succeed Colonel Joseph E. Johnston, who had gone south to the Confederates. As quartermaster general throughout the war, Meigs enhanced his reputation for integrity and efficiency, and he held the post for twenty years.
Porter continued in his headstrong and flamboyant way. Luckily for him and for his cause, his abilities outweighed his indiscretions, and his services in the Gulf, at New Orleans, and at Vicksburg won him promotion to rear admiral. After the war he was a notable superintendent of the Naval Academy, and when the rank of admiral fell vacant with the death of his foster brother David Farragut, Porter succeeded him—the second of that rank in the history of the United States Navy.
Lieutenant Colonel Keyes was delayed in his return from New York. Secessionists had torn up the railroad and destroyed bridges around Baltimore, and Keyes came back by way of Annapolis, in the company of the 7th New York Regiment. He found that an exasperated General Scott had taken another military secretary in his stead. Be it remembered not only that Keyes had absented himself overlong on this extracurricular frolic with Meigs and Porter, but also that he had got into it in the first place when he had been sent by his chief to explain to Secretary Seward why the Pickens expedition should not be undertaken.
However, by the end of May, Keyes had a commission as brigadier general of volunteers, in which capacity he earned a commendation at the First Battle of Bull Run. In the Peninsular Campaign he commanded one of McClellan’s corps. Later a dispute with General John Adams Dix led to his resignation from the Army.
Lieutenant Worden, the officer who had slipped through Bragg’s fingers at Pensacola to deliver the message that sent Vogdes’ men ashore, made the mistake of trying to return north overland instead of by sea. This time his luck failed him, and he spent seven months in a Confederate prison. He was exchanged just in time to take command of the Monitor in her fight with the Merrimack . After the war he succeeded Porter as superintendent of the Naval Academy.
Captain Foote, from whose custody Meigs and Porter had pilfered the Powhatan , was in August, 1861, placed in command of naval operations on the upper Mississippi. Early the next year the heavy attack of his flotilla against Fort Henry compelled that strong point to surrender even before the arrival of Grant’s army forces. Foote distinguished himself also at Island No. 10 in the Mississippi and was promoted to rear admiral but died before the end of the war.