February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
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
A good place to start the story is the Republican convention in Chicago in May, 1860. By long odds the leading candidate, and on form and experience the best qualified, was of course Senator William H. Seward of New York. He was eminent in the legal profession. He had served with distinction as governor of his state before going to the Senate. He had been a leader of the antislavery Whigs and had brought them into the recently created Republican Party. He came to Chicago in the full expectation of being its nominee for President, and his supporters were ebulliently confident. But Seward carried the handicap of having been too long and too conspicuously the frontrunner, so that he was the principal target of all the other candidates, and of this fact Judge David Davis, campaign manager for Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, took shrewd advantage. The bargaining for votes was ruthless, the argument that Seward’s nomination would hopelessly alienate the South was pressed to the hilt, and the galleries of the Wigwam—the convention hall built for the occasion—were packed with leather-lunged Lincoln shouters brought in on counterfeit tickets while the Seward forces were parading through the streets on their optimistic way to the arena. When Lincoln’s name was placed in nomination, reported an eyewitness, “five thousand people leaped to their seats, women not wanting, and the wild yell made vesper breathings of all that had preceded. A thousand steam whistles, ten acres of hotel gongs, a tribe of Comanches might have mingled in the scene unnoticed.” Seward’s lead on the first ballot was cut to a hair on the second, and on the third Lincoln was nominated. But behind and beneath their rivalry and contention Lincoln had formed a true judgment of the quality of Seward, and one of his first acts after his election in November was to recruit Seward as Secretary of State.
Most of Lincoln’s other Cabinet appointees were also closely connected with his search for the nomination. Some had, like Seward, been rival candidates. Others were holders of political due bills. Simon Cameron was one of these; he had delivered the Pennsylvania delegation for Lincoln. He wanted the Treasury portfolio; he got the War Department. Perhaps the only Cabinet officer not convinced he would have made a better President than Abraham Lincoln was Gideon Welles, the stubborn, tetchy, clearheaded Secretary of the Navy.
For the country the four months between election and inauguration were a strange, uneasy twilight. South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, and by the first of February six other states had followed suit. Northern sentiment was confused, and little leadership came from the White House, where old President Buchanan’s policy seemed to be to close his eyes, block his ears, and pray for the speedy advent of Inauguration Day on March 4. Military posts in the seceding states were taken over or abandoned without struggle or even protest, and those that remained in Federal hands did so on the initiative of individual officers on the spot.
In South Carolina Major Robert Anderson found his position in Fort Moultrie untenable and moved to Fort Sumter in the middle of Charleston harbor. Even this withdrawal was branded by secessionists as a provocative gesture, and the ship that attempted to reprovision Sumter in early January was fired on and forced to withdraw.
In Florida on January 10—the very day that the state seceded—Union Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, in command of the two mainland forts at Pensacola, for like reasons withdrew his forty-odd men to Fort Pickens, situated on the western tip of Santa Rosa Island and commanding the entrance to the harbor. He was soon joined by some thirty sailors from the Pensacola Navy Yard. To reinforce this tiny garrison a contingent of soldiers was sent by sea. They didn’t go ashore. Senator Stephen Mallory of Florida (soon to be secretary of the navy for the Confederacy) made an agreement with Buchanan, who had his own Secretaries of War and Navy issue orders that the Federal troops were not to land unless Fort Pickens was under actual or threatened attack. This socalled armistice of January 29 was still in effect, and troops under Captain Israel Vogdes were still aboard ship when Lincoln took office.
The new President’s desires were not in doubt. He wished to preserve the Union; he did not wish war. He also said, in his inaugural address, “The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government.” Seward had helped draft this speech. Yet within hours after the words were spoken, a message came in from Fort Sumter that without reprovisioning it could hold out no longer than forty days more. The President and his advisers were faced with the urgent need to examine and re-examine a quantity of choices, all unpleasant or dangerous.
Now as Seward brooded on these intricate and interlocking problems he became persuaded that the reinforcement of Pickens would demonstrate the firmness of the Federal will, without seeming so provocative as an attempt to resupply Sumter.
What Seward needed now was someone who could turn his policy into a concrete set of plans, someone qualified to determine what had to be done to reinforce that particular fort called Pickens at Pensacola in Florida—and to see that it was done. He must have blessed his stars when he realized that the ideal instrument was close at hand, that Captain Meigs could have been custom-tailored for the job.
Montgomery C. Meigs was an Army engineer. As a second lieutenant just out of West Point he had served for a year under Captain Robert E. Lee on a scheme to improve navigation in the Mississippi at St. Louis. Then came fifteen years of drudgery in the construction or refurbishing of inconsequential forts in various parts of the country. In November, 1852, Meigs had been assigned to survey the water supply for the cities of Washington and Georgetown, a survey for which Congress had just voted five thousand dollars. Three months later Meigs filed his report, offering three possible plans and strongly recommending the third: the building of an aqueduct from the Potomac just above Great Falls. His recommendation was accepted, and Congress forthwith appropriated a hundred thousand dollars to start construction. The new President, Franklin Pierce, assigned the task to the War Department, and the new Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, put Meigs in charge of the works. (To this day Washington’s water supply flows through the conduit that Meigs built. And that conduit is made of the same bricks that Meigs laid down in the 1850’s.)
For good measure, Meigs was on the same day made disbursing agent and supervisory engineer for the extension of the Capitol and the modernization of both House and Senate chambers, a year-old project that had run into trouble. From the start Meigs—promoted within a month to first lieutenant and then to captain—was made responsible not to General Totten, the chief of engineers, but directly to the Secretary of War.
For four years this arrangement worked admirably. Relations between Jefferson Davis and Meigs were harmonious, the Secretary gave the engineer great freedom of action, and work on both the aqueduct and the Capitol went forward speedily, efficiently, and without any hint of carelessness in the handling of public funds. In consequence Meigs was a familiar and respected figure on Capitol Hill.
In 1857, with the advent of the Buchanan administration, came a new Secretary of War, John B. Floyd of Virginia. Floyd had a considerably more relaxed attitude toward the public treasury than Meigs did. The captain was justly—and jealously—proud of his administration of the public works and determined to avoid any suspicion of graft in the letting of contracts or hiring of men. He also had a well-developed streak of selfrighteousness and cantankerousness and a demonstrated penchant for self-justification. So he and the Secretary were soon at daggers drawn, and their relationship grew steadily worse until, in November, 1859, an exasperated Floyd dismissed Meigs from the Capitol job. The captain turned to his friends in Congress, and an inquiry in the House concluded that Floyd’s contracts for marble for the Capitol were illegal and that those made by Meigs should remain in force. Floyd’s response came with the next War Department estimates, when he requested no money whatever for work on the aqueduct.
In no way daunted, Meigs went straight to the Senate, where Jefferson Davis was now chairman of the Military Affairs Committee. Davis and other admirers of Meigs wrote into the appropriation bill a half million dollars for the aqueduct. To nail down the lid they added a proviso that these funds could be expended only under the supervision of Captain Montgomery C. Meigs. As a practical matter President Buchanan could not veto the entire appropriation bill; he had to content himself with an opinion from the Attorney General that the proviso naming Meigs was not binding on the President, who as commander in chief had the constitutional right to reassign military officers. The contentious letters that Meigs then addressed to the President as well as to Secretary Floyd ensured that a pretext would soon be found to put him out of the way. And, sure enough, in the autumn of 1860 Floyd removed Meigs from the waterworks and assigned him to construction at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.
Meigs travelled overland to his new post, across the southern states. He was impressed by the scope and depth of secessionist sentiment and—.when he reached his destination—by the sorry state of preparedness of the Florida forts.
Meigs devoted himself, with his usual vigor and efficiency, to improving the defenses of Fort Jefferson and also those of Fort Taylor at Key West. His sojourn in Florida was not long, however. By the end of December Secretary Floyd’s record of slovenly management in the War Department had led to his forced resignation. On February 13 Meigs received orders to return to the aqueduct. He left the Dry Tortugas within two hours and on February 20 was in Washington, where he was promptly reassigned to the Capitol job as well.
So here, at Seward’s elbow, was a trusted friend of long standing, an experienced engineer of proven competence, who knew from recent personal observation the plight of Fort Pickens and who had demonstrated beyond peradventure his willingness to proceed to an objective without undue regard for established channels of command.
Seward did not dawdle. Captain Meigs’s diary for March 29 read thus: To Great Falls. When we came home I found a request from the Secretary of State to come to see him. I went with him to the President who wished to see me. He said that they were in a difficulty and he wished to have the President talk with some man who would speak of what he knew—not of politics in military affairs and one who could get on a horse in the field too. He said they had had Gen. Scott and Gen. Totten but no one would think of putting either of these old men on horseback. The President talked freely with me. I told him that men enough could be found to volunteer to endeavor to relieve Fort Sumter, but that persons of higher position and rank than myself thought it not to be attempted, that this was not the place to make the war, etc. He asked me whether Fort Pickens could be held. I told him certainly, if the Navy had done its duty and not lost it already. The President asked whether I could not go down there again and take a general command of these three great fortresses and keep them safe. I told him I was only a captain and could not command majors who were there. He must take an officer of higher rank. Mr. Seward broke out with “I can understand too how that is, Captain Meigs, you have got to be promoted.” I said “That cannot be done; I am a captain and there is no vacancy.” But Mr. Seward told the President that if he wished to have this thing done the proper way was to put it into my charge and it would be done, that I would give him an estimate of the means by 4 P.M. of the next day. He complimented me much. Said that when Pitt wished to take Quebec he did not send for any old general but he sent for a young man whom he had noticed in the society of London, named Wolfe, and told him that he had selected him to take Quebec, to ask for the necessary means and do it and it was done. Would the President do this now? He replied that he would consider on it and would let me know in a day or two.
The seed was left to germinate in Lincoln’s mind.
The third day, March 31, was Easter Sunday. Meigs has left an account of this day, but a fuller and livelier one comes from Lt. Colonel Erasmus D. Keyes, military secretary to General Winfield Scott. Keyes, who was serving his second tour of duty with the General, seems to have been a considerable talker, and at breakfast this morning he held forth for at least a half hour on the difficulties of landing artillery at Fort Pickens. When he had finished, General Scott handed him a map of Pensacola harbor, telling him to go straight to Secretary Seward and repeat this analysis. Let us listen to Keyes’s account: Arriving at Mr. Seward’s house on F Street, I was admitted, and found the astute Secretary standing in the middle of his parlor alone. After a respectful salutation, I said: “Mr. Seward, I am here by direction of General Scott, to explain to you the difficulties of reinforcing Fort Pickens.” “I don’t care about the difficulties,” said he. “Where’s Captain Meigs?” “I suppose he’s at his house, sir.” “Please find him and bring him here.” “I’ll call and bring him on my return from church.” “Never mind church today; I wish to see him and you here together without delay.” Notwithstanding I had been long subject to obey military commands implicitly, a rebellious thought arose in my mind, when I received from Secretary Seward such clear-cut orders. Nevertheless I reflected that he could speak from the ambush of original power, and concluded to obey him with alacrity, and within ten minutes Meigs and I stood together before him. Without preliminary remarks, Mr. Seward said: “I wish you two gentlemen to make a plan to reinforce Fort Pickens, see General Scott, and bring your plan to the Executive Mansion at 3 o’clock this afternoon.”
So off went Meigs and Keyes to the engineers’ office, where they worked, almost without speaking to each other, for four hours. Then finding that the three o’clock deadline was upon them they went straight to the White House. We found [this is Keyes speaking again] the President and the Secretary of State waiting to receive us. Mr. Lincoln was sitting behind the table near the end; his right leg, from the knee to foot, which was not small, rested on the table, his left leg on a chair, and his hands were clasped over his head. These positions were changed frequently during the conference, and I never saw a man who could scatter his limbs more than he.
At first Keyes was reluctant to read his contribution, pointing out that he and Meigs had not had time to show their work to Scott and that the General would be vexed at his secretary for by-passing him. So Meigs read his report, which concentrated on the engineering features of the operation. Keyes saw that though the two men had worked too rapidly to consult each other, his own report—dealing with the artillery aspects—meshed well with Meigs’s. It may be this that emboldened him to give tongue. At any rate, he read out his recommendations. When he had finished, Lincoln told the two officers to go to Scott and tell him that the scheme had the President’s approval and should proceed unless the general in chief saw strong reasons to the contrary. Then, according to Meigs, “We went to the house of General Scott, showed him our papers, which he approved saying there was nothing in them not necessary and little to be added as necessary. Mr. Seward came in and the matter was talked over and resolved upon.”
But after Seward and Meigs had departed and the old general was left alone with his military secretary, the latter noted that his chief was struggling to restrain a tremendous emotion.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seward continued to lord it over Welles, and Welles continued to snap at Seward. But both men served Lincoln well and loyally to the end. They were the only two of his original Cabinet officers to stay on throughout Andrew Johnson’s administration, and both of them were notable for the wholehearted support they gave to that beleaguered President when the venomous radicals of the Senate attempted, through an impeachment trial, to remove him from office.