An All Fool’s Day Full of Secrets

Monday, April 1, 1861 – All Fool’s Day

On this April holiday, secrecy would turn out to be a fool’s game.

Lincoln had ordered Gustavus Fox to ready some ships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to prepare to sail, but whether they would sail for Fort Sumter or Fort Pickens was not yet mentioned (though Sumter could be assumed, since it was Fox’s plan). Preparations for either or both expeditions could take place without anyone being the wiser. And that’s just what happened.

The plans to reinforce Fort Pickens were being prepared by Capt. Meigs, Col. Keyes and Lt. David Porter (personally selected by Meigs). Seward and General Scott also added their weight to it. The daring plan was for one ship to land troops at Pickens while a warship, under Lt. Porter, steamed into the bay to make sure no Southern troops could attack.

General Scott signed the orders with a note to have a ship prepared. The USS Powhatan had recently arrived at the Navy Yard, so Meigs ordered her to be readied and for Lt. Porter to command her. This put her former commander, Captain Samuel Mercer, out of a job. Seward then took the plans to Lincoln who agreed with Seward that these secret plans must be unknown, even to the Secretaries of War and the Navy.

Speaking of the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells had known that the USS Powhatan had just returned. He ordered her to be refitted a couple of days ago, but with the President’s order from the 29th, Wells ordered her to be readied for Fox’s expedition: “Fit out Powhatan to go to sea at earliest possible moment.”

The same ship was now ordered to be two places at once.1


Seward Wants a Policy

Secretary of State Seward was beginning to feel like he should have more control. He felt that the administration had no policy whatsoever. He expressed this in writing to Lincoln on this date. Seward blamed Lincoln for focusing on too many appointments to be truly focused upon his actual job.

Seward wished to change the war question from one of slavery (which he felt was a “party question”) to Union (a question of “patriotism”).

His new plan, however, was as bold as it was reckless. He wished to demand explanations from France and Spain for their recent actions around the Americas and if they failed to provide anything close to reasonable, war must be declared upon them.

There was no policy, said Seward, so he decided to provide one. And if there was nobody who wanted to energetically prosecute it, well, thought Seward, if the President did not want to do it, it should fall onto a member of the Cabinet. Once adopted, all debates and disagreement must end.

Though he didn’t specifically mention his own name, it was clear what he wanted. Lincoln could be the President for all it was worth, but Seward wanted to be a Prime Minister behind whom everyone would fall in line.2


Wells Surprises Lincoln Who Surprised Wells

While having dinner, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells was handed a package of documents concerning the Pickens resupplying. Lincoln had bypassed Wells and Wells was not at all thrilled about this. Mostly, Scott was angered by a few appointments and some relievings, which were specifically the job of the Navy Department. He immediately went to see the President.

He showed the contents to Lincoln who seemed as surprised as Wells did, especially concerning the replacement of the Powhatan’s Capt. Mercer with Lt. Porter. Seward had been left to oversee the details and Lincoln had signed them, admitting to Wells that they went unread. Seward? What did Seward have to do with the Navy? What was this plan?

Lincoln told Wells that the details of the plan (including the bit about the Powhatan, which went, of course, unmentioned) were secret. Wells accepted that and asked nothing more.

The President did allow Wells to ignore the appointments if he wished, so in the mind of Wells, Porter would not be replacing Mercer for the command of the USS Powhatan.3


Lincoln’s Letter

Lincoln, having some time to read Seward’s letter, drafted one of his own. He had no idea how Seward could see any difference between reinforcing Fort Pickens and reinforcing Fort Sumter. While he did address the idea of starting a war with France and/or Spain to take the nation’s mind off of secession, he didn’t even dignify it with a dismissal.

But that left Seward’s power grab and wish for no debate or dissent in the ranks. “When a general line of policy is adopted,” he corrected Seward, “I apprehend there is no danger of its being changed without good reason, or continuing to be a subject of unnecessary debate; still, upon points arising in its progress I wish, and suppose I am entitled to have, the advice of all the Cabinet.”4


At Fort Sumter, Major Anderson was growing impatient, waiting for the order to abandon the fort to arrive.

I told Mr. Fox that if I placed the command on short allowance I could make the provisions last until after the 10th of this month; but as I have received no instructions from the Department that it was desirable I should do so, it has not been done. If the governor permits me to send off the laborers [which were thirty in number] we will have rations enough to last us about one week longer.5

It would take three days for Anderson’s message to reach Washington.

  1. Sources here include Days of Defiance by Maury Klein and Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume 3 by John George Nicolay and John Hay. To be honest, this Powhatan situation confused me a great deal at first, so many other sources were consulted so I could wrap my brain around it. Turned out to be not so confusing, though I admit to simplifying the matter greatly for the sake of brevity. []
  2. Seward’s “Some thoughts for the President’s Consideration” April 1, 1861. []
  3. Diary of Gideon Wells []
  4. Lincoln’s reply to Seward’s “Some thoughts for the President’s Consideration” April 1, 1861. []
  5. Official Records, Series I, Vol. 1, p230. []
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An All Fool’s Day Full of Secrets by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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