Misgovernance or Treason? April 1861, Part 1

Fort Pickens, Santa Rosa Island, Pensacola Bay, FL (Naval History and Heritage Command)

April Fool’s Day, 1861, about 6:00 p.m.: The portly figure of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles charged into the Executive Mansion and into the commander in chief’s office with a sheaf of papers. Abraham Lincoln looked up from his writing, noted the secretary’s countenance, and inquired, “What have I done wrong?” Welles had “received with surprise” a package of instructions respecting his department and desired an explanation.[1]

In those first frantic weeks following the March 4 inauguration, the nascent administration with its inexperienced chief executive and team-of-rivals cabinet struggled to confront the national emergency. The secretary’s pique on this day concerned unexpected presidential orders for senior officer assignments that infringed on his bailiwick and put a potentially traitorous officer in a critical position.

Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Lincoln explained to Welles that Secretary of State William H. Seward had been in that day with two young men to discuss another subject; that it was “Seward’s specialty, to which he, the President, had yielded,” but left details to him and signed the proffered orders, many without reading. “If he could not trust the Secretary of State, he knew not whom he could trust.”

When asked who else was present, Lincoln said a Captain Meigs and a naval officer named Porter were there as clerks to record plans and orders. The president apologized and said to disregard the troublesome officer reassignments.[2]

Unbeknownst to Welles then, orders the president signed also involved plans for employing navy assets to sustain a key federal fort in secessionist territory, plans that were secret even from the secretaries of war and the navy. The critical question before the administration was how to preserve federal authority and property in seceded states without driving additional slave states into rebellion and instigating civil war, but the team was not off to a good beginning.

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Florida, remained under Federal control with small garrisons while the rebels insisted these facilities would be taken by force if necessary. In animated, daily discussions, the nation’s leaders had been mulling the problem; two factions evolved with competing plans, one for each fort.

General in Chief Winfield Scott, senior army and navy officers, and most of the cabinet concluded that a relief expedition to Sumter was not feasible. The necessary ships and an estimated 20,000 soldiers, they thought, could not be assembled before Major Robert Anderson and his men exhausted their supplies by April 15. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair took the opposite position and tendered his resignation in protest of the majority opinion. “His indignation that any idea of abandoning Sumter should be entertained or thought of was unbounded,” wrote Welles.

Postmaster General Montgomery Blair

Blair’s father, influential politician Francis Preston Blair, intervened personally with Lincoln, warning that “abandonment of Sumter would be justly considered by the people, by the world, by history, as treason to the country.” Recorded Welles: “His earnestness and indignation aroused and electrified the President.”

Undoubtedly of the same mind anyway and determined to exploit all possibilities, Abraham Lincoln decided: a relief expedition would be dispatched forthwith despite the gloomy consensus against it.[3]

Montgomery Blair summoned his brother-in-law, Gustavus V. Fox, a former navy lieutenant with 18 years’ service, Mexican War veteran, and experienced steamer captain (also future assistant secretary of the navy). In February under the late Buchannan administration, Fox had volunteered to organize an expedition to Sumter and now did so again. Lincoln was impressed with his encyclopedic knowledge of naval affairs, his drive, determination, and loyalty to the cause. Fox convincingly promoted what could be done, rather than what could not.

Gustavus V. Fox

The operation was to consist of army troops and supplies conveyed in civilian transports chartered by the War Department with navy protection and support. The president commissioned Fox to plan, organize, and command the expedition under instructions from the secretary of war while a reluctant Commodore Silas H. Stringham commanded the navy contingent.

The steam frigate USS Powhatan had returned to New York from service in the West Indies needing considerable repairs, was decommissioned, and the crew discharged. Being the only major warship available on March 30th, Welles issued orders for the navy yard commander to recommission Powhatan without delay and fit her out for brief service.

The sloop-of-war USS Pawnee, former revenue cutter USS Harriet Lane, and a several steam tugs were ordered to be ready on or before April 6th with one month’s stores aboard. Naval vessels and transports would rendezvous ten miles due east of Charleston lighthouse on the morning of April 11. The tugs would ferry soldiers and supplies from the transports over the shallow harbor bar to the fort while the warships suppressed rebel batteries as needed.

Steam Sidewheel Frigate USS Powhatan (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Meanwhile, Lieutenant David Dixon Porter, USN, monitored events from his home in Georgetown. This ambitious scion of a distinguished navy family was disgruntled. After 35 years of sea service and 20 as a lieutenant, his career seemed stalled. Shore duty was boring; promotion was glacial. Civil war seemed inevitable, but Buchanan’s secretary of the navy and suspected Southern sympathizer, Isaac Toucey, had done nothing to put the navy in readiness.

Warships lay rotting in the yards for lack of funds; morale among officers and men was sinking; drydocks were in disrepair, and ships being laid up. Now Gideon Welles, an unimpressive small-town businessman from Connecticut (and former Democrat), occupied the secretarial chair. Porter had in one pocket orders to command a Coast Survey schooner (not a steamer) on the west coast, about which he was unenthusiastic, and in the other a highly lucrative civilian offer from the Pacific Mail Steamship Company to command one of its big new steamers out of San Francisco. He was keeping his options open.

David D. Porter as rear admiral and commander of the U.S. Navy’s Mississippi River Squadron. (Library of Congress)

That afternoon of April 1, recalled Porter, “My orders to California were still hanging over me, and I had even engaged my passage in the steamer from New York, and was taking my last meal with my family, when a carriage drove up to the door” with a summons to attend the secretary of state without delay.

As Porter entered his office and without preamble, Seward inquired, “Can you tell me how we can save Fort Pickens from falling into the hands of the rebels?” He answered, “I can, sir.” “Then,” said the secretary, “you are the man I want, if you can do it.” “I can do it,” he said.[4]

“A strange state of things existed at that time in Washington,” recalled Welles. “The atmosphere was thick with treason…. When I took charge of the Navy Department, I found great demoralization and defection among the naval officers. It was difficult to ascertain who among those that lingered about Washington could and who were not to be trusted.”

Lieutenant Porter was one of the suspects. He had been a protege of Jefferson Davis when secretary of war and was intimate with a clique of dubious officers. He had “dash and energy” but was audacious and careless in his statements and “given to intrigues.”

However, continued Welles, among the politicians, “neither [Republicans nor Democrats] appeared to be apprehensive of or to realize the gathering storm. There was a general belief, indulged in by most persons, that an adjustment would in some way be brought about, without any extensive resort to extreme measures.”

Mr. Seward considered himself “the premier, the controlling mind of the Administration,” Welles noted. He meddled in all departments and exuded confidence that he could negotiate conciliation without conflict. To that end, the new secretary of state arranged a backroom understanding with leading secessionists: no assault should be made on Fort Sumter provided the garrison should not be reinforced. Famine would effect the downfall of the fortress in any case, and until blood was spilled, there was hope of peaceful resolution.

In fulfillment of this arrangement, Seward opposed any and every scheme to reinforce Sumter, while advocating for Fort Pickens relief as both easier and sufficient to sustain government authority. But, concluded Welles, “with all his shrewdness and talent, [Seward] was sometimes the victim of his own vanity and conceit…. He had probably overestimated his own power and ability to allay the rising storm, and had not the personal influence he supposed.” [5]

Upon Seward’s request, Lieutenant Porter explained how he would save Fort Pickens, a matter he had just discussed with his neighbor, Captain (soon to be Quartermaster General) Montgomery C. Meigs. Apparently, Meigs had first suggested the idea to the secretary. The plan required a good-sized steamer to carry six or seven companies of soldiers with artillery and munitions to the fort, which would soon be made impregnable. “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.”

Seward invited Porter and Captain Meigs to accompany him to the president, who needed no convincing about saving Pickens. In his colorful memoirs, Porter quoted the meeting (about which some skepticism is appropriate): “Mr. President, 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.” Orders from the Secretary of the Navy through departmental red tape would be at once flashed over the wires, and Fort Pickens would be lost.

If the president would issue personal orders giving the lieutenant command of Powhatan, he would proceed to New York and guarantee the plan’s prompt execution. “But,” said the President, “is not this a most irregular mode of proceeding?” “Certainly,” replied Porter, “but the necessity of the case justifies it.” Seward agreed that direct orders were necessary. “But what will Uncle Gideon say?” “Oh, I will make it all right with Mr. Welles,” said the secretary of state. “This is the only way, sir, the thing can be done.”[6] The orders were immediately written and signed.

“The 1st of April was the day on which Mr. Seward, assisted by Meigs and Porter, prepared the strange series of instructions to me which President Lincoln signed without reading,” recalled Welles. “What, then, were the contrivances which he was maturing with two young officers, one of the army and the other of the Navy, without consulting the Secretary of War or the Secretary of the Navy? What had he, the Secretary of State, to do with these officers in any respect?” [7]

Two forts, conflicting plans, irreconcilable orders for one ship, uncertain loyalties, lots of secrecy. Welles would ponder: misgovernance or treason? Stand by for the next installment.

[1] Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles: Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, 2 vols. (New York, 1911), I, 17.

[2] Ibid., 17-18.

[3] Ibid., 13-14.

[4] David Dixon Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War (New York, 1885), 7.

[5] Welles, Diary, 10-11.

[6] Porter, Incidents, 8-9.

[7] Welles, Diary, 21, 27.

2 Responses to Misgovernance or Treason? April 1861, Part 1

  1. Thanks to Dwight Hughes for revealing the dilemma that was Fort Pickens…
    As the Secession Crisis took root late in 1860, and a profoundly uncertain American Future remained obscured as 1861 arrived, U.S. Army Lieutenant Adam Slemmer muddied the waters by taking firm possession of the strongest of four forts in vicinity of Pensacola with a combined Army/ Navy Team of 80 men, soon augmented by a flotilla of U.S. Navy warships hovering within rifle shot just south, in the Gulf of Mexico. Convinced by perfidious members of the U.S. Government ‘to take measures to avoid bloodshed in Florida,’ President Buchanan agreed to The Pickens Truce: an Executive Order that prohibited 500 reinforcements aboard the Navy flotilla from landing on Santa Rosa Island; and in exchange, the Rebel force, several thousand strong, lining the northern shore of Pensacola Bay promised to not attack Slemmer.
    When Abraham Lincoln was sworn into office 4 March 1861 he faced two potential flash-points, Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens; and his Administration endured “death by a thousand cuts” from the disloyal government workers, clerks, officials and “fellow travellers of the Confederacy” yet inhabiting Washington D.C., who performed acts of “lawfare” against the Lincoln Administration when able, and otherwise merely reported Lincoln’s intentions to interested parties in the South.
    Paranoia emerged as result of this “atmosphere of uncertain loyalty” permeating The Capital, with even Loyal members of Lincoln’s Administration distrusting the motives of each other: Gideon Welles distrusted Seward; Seward distrusted Salmon P. Chase and Montgomery Blair; and everyone distrusted Simon Cameron.
    In effort to reduce two potential flashpoints to a more manageable ONE, orders were delivered to Captain Henry A. Adams, in command of the U.S. Navy’s flotilla near Fort Pickens, to “Land the troops and reinforce Slemmer.” Those orders arrived 27 March 1861. But Captain Adams begged off, claiming ‘The Pickens Truce was put in place by the President of the United States; and the orders to disregard that truce came from a lower level official.’ [See OR (Navy) Serial 1 vol.4 p.71 and pp.109- 110.] So the Fort Pickens Expedition was quickly cobbled together; and if nothing else, the Powhatan’s orders managed to confuse Confederate operatives in the North about what was really going on. (And helped to sort the disloyal from the Loyal within the ranks of the U.S. Navy.)
    Meanwhile, it was the action of John L. Worden that ultimately resolved the Pensacola stalemate in favor of the Union…

  2. thanks Dwight … great essay about one of my favorite Republicans — William H. Seward … i look forward to Part II!

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!