Charleston Learns of Fort Sumter Mission

Monday, April 8, 1861

At two o’clock in the afternoon, a secretary for the Confederate Commissioners in Washington called upon Secretary of State Seward at his office. Having been informed that they would be dropping by, Seward was absent, leaving a letter dated March 15 in his place.

It was formal and full of harsh words and had the appearance that Seward didn’t just recently assure everyone that Sumter would be evacuated.

Seward wrote that he and the Commissioners had a different understanding of the state of things. While the Commissioners (and thus the Confederates) saw “a rightful and accomplished revolution and an independent nation, with an established government,” Seward saw “a perversion of a temporary and partisan excitement to the inconsiderate purposes of an unjustifiable and unconstitutional aggression upon the rights and the authority vested in the federal government.”

Continuing, he “looks patiently but confidently for the cure of evils which have resulted from proceedings so unnecessary, so unwise, so unusual, and so unnatural.”

“Under these circumstances,” Seward writes, stating that he is subject to the direction of Lincoln, he “is unable to comply with the request” of a meeting. Not only that, but he “has no authority nor is he [Seward was writing in the third-person] at liberty to recognize them as diplomatic agents, or hold correspondence or other communication with them.”

And claiming that he had Lincoln’s consent in writing and delivering this letter, he closed.1

With this information, the Commissioners wired Governor Pickens that Sumter was to be evacuated. They also wired the Confederate Secretary of State that Fort Pickens and Texas were to be the “first points of military demonstration.”2

They then packed up to return South.


Major Anderson at Fort Sumter had just received Secretary of War Simon Cameron’s letter dated April 4th informing him that Sumter was to be resupplied, backed up by naval warships. Anderson was unnerved by this and wrote to Washington to express it.

Word had gotten to Anderson that Seward had assured everyone that no such attempt would be made. He warned that “a movement made now, when the South has been erroneously informed that none such will be attempted, would produce most disastrous results throughout our country.”

Major Anderson could hardly believe that this was happening. Fox’s plan to resupply Sumter seemed insane. Lamon assured him that it would never happen. Still, here was Cameron’s letter proving everything wrong.

Anderson closed with a hope that “God will still avert it, and cause us to resort to pacific measures to maintain our rights, is my ardent prayer.”3

Washington would never receive this letter.


Robert Chew arrived in Charleston to seek an audience with Governor Pickens. He bore a letter from President Lincoln informing the Governor of the fate of Fort Sumter.

The Governor invited him in and Chew read aloud the President’s message: “I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort-Sumpter [sic] with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or amunition, will be made, without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the Fort.”4

He then handed the letter to Pickens. It was a startling, chilling letter. No formalities, no closing of “your obedient servant,” not even a signature adorned the paper. This was the word that they had been waiting for, the word they had simultaneously wanted and dreaded.

Pickens shared the letter with General Beauregard who wanted to write a reply. Chew waved it off. He was not authorized to accept a reply.

Robert Chew left on the 11pm train out of town.5

Beauregard immediately sent a message to Anderson in Fort Sumter letting him know that from here on out, no mail will be allowed to pass to or from the fort.6


In the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Harriet Lane set sail. She was heading, under sealed orders, for Fort Sumter.7

  1. Seward’s letter to the Confederate Commissioners, dated March 15, 1861, but delivered April 8, 1861. As found in The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events edited by Frank Moore. []
  2. Official Records of the Navy, Series I, Vol. 4, p259. []
  3. The Genesis of the Civil War by Crawford. []
  4. Lincoln to Robert Chew, April 6, 1861. []
  5. Allegiance by David Detzer. []
  6. Official Records, Series I, Vol. 1, p250. []
  7. Days of Defiance by Maury Klein. []

Faith as to Sumter Fully Kept. Wait and see.

Sunday, April 7, 1861

The squeeze was being put to Major Anderson at Fort Sumter.

The Confederate Commissioners, still in Washington had received a telegram from South Carolina Governor Pickens attempting to suss out the conflicting rumors. They wired back that they were going to call upon Secretary of State Seward the next day at 2pm. For now, they believed that hostile actions were already underway. They were sure that Fort Pickens in Florida would be a target, perhaps the Texas frontier and maybe even Fort Sumter.

“If Seward’s reply is not satisfactory we shall consider the gauntlet of war thrown down and close our mission.”1


It was no secret that Anderson’s provisions were running disastrously low. The rebels had denied the thirty laid off, noncombatant workers the right to leave Sumter, thus giving Anderson thirty more mouths to somehow feed. Just a day before, Confederate General Beauregard limited their “market days,” on which they’d gather some supplies from the city of Charleston, to just twice a week.

On this date, under orders from the Confederate Secretary of War LeRoy Walker, Beauregard cut off all communication between Charleston and Sumter concerning supplies. This was due to the “the delays and apparent vacillations of the United States Government.”

The mail, however, would still be carried.2

Beauregard had been Anderson’s student, assistant and friend at West Point. Earlier in the day, perhaps in preparation for carrying out this cold order, Beauregard wrote to Anderson, “Let me assure you, major, that nothing shall be wanting on my part to preserve the friendly relations and impressions which have existed between us for so many years.”3

With that, he cut off his friend’s supplies in a hope to starve him out of Sumter.


As the rebels caught wind of the ships sailing for Fort Sumter, they assumed that Fort Pickens was on the list as well. Confederate General Braxton Bragg, commanding forces near Pensacola and Fort Pickens wrote to Secretary Walker stating that he “would fire upon any reinforcements to Pickens unless ordered not.”

Reinforcements of his own were expected: 1,200 troops from Mississippi and Georgia were to be with him in 24 hours.4


Supreme Court Justice John Campbell wrote to Seward on behalf of the Confederate Commissioners. The Justice had been acting as an intermediary between both parties. The Commissioners, said Campbell, were in anxiety over the movement of troops and rumors about reinforcements. The Justice assured them that no move would be made against Fort Sumter without informing Governor Pickens.

Seward sent an unsigned note back to Campbell: “Faith as to Sumter fully kept. Wait and see.”

This was not exactly a lie. It could be (and probably was) interpreted to mean that Fort Sumter would be evacuated shortly, as promised by Seward. What it actually meant, however, was that word would be sent to Governor Pickens, they just had to “wait and see.”

Actually, word had already been sent. Robert Chew left this morning for Charleston with a message for the Governor.5

  1. Official Records of the Navy, Series I, Vol. 4, p258. []
  2. Official Records, Series I, Vol. 1, p248. []
  3. Official Records, Series I, Vol. 1, p247. []
  4. Official Records, Series I, Vol. 1, p457. []
  5. Days of Defiance by Maury Klein. []

Tying Up Loose Ends with the Powhatan, Lincoln, Seward and Welles

Saturday, April 6, 1861

A messenger from Captain Israel Vogdes, commander of the troops that were to reinforce Fort Pickens, arrived in Washington to see the President. This story will take some telling, so hold on. Back on March 12th, General Scott had ordered Fort Pickens to be reinforced. The USS Brooklyn was selected for the task. The message took two weeks to get to Vogdes and on April 1st, he brought the orders to Captain Henry Adams, commander of the fleet.

Adams refused to follow the orders because he had old orders from former Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey that forbade any such attempt. Vogdes wasn’t thrilled about this and sent the messenger from Washington back to the capital to sort this whole thing out.1

This messenger first found Gideon Welles, Navy Secretary. He listened, was surprised that Vogdes questioned the order and took it to Lincoln who was also surprised. By 5pm, a trusted officer was sent by overland rail to redeliver the message: reinforce Fort Pickens.2


Letting the Cat Out of the Bag

It was time to tell South Carolina’s Governor, Frances Pickens, about the attempt to resupply Fort Sumter. For this, Lincoln chose Robert Chew, a clerk in the State Department. If he found everything in Charleston as it had been (no attack had been launched and the fort still occupied by Federal troops), he was to deliver this message to the governor:

I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort-Sumpter [sic] with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or amunition, will be made, without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the Fort.3


Seward Calls Upon Welles; Lincoln After Midnight

Welles, satisfied that such an incredibly huge mission was working itself out, retired to his room at the Willard Hotel. Around 11pm, Secretary of State Seward knocked on his door carrying a telegram from Captain Meigs in New York complaining that the Powhatan had been given conflicting orders.

How was this possible? Who would give orders here but him? Perhaps it was then that the Navy Secretary put it together – the secret mission that Lincoln wouldn’t tell him about, Seward’s obvious role in it and now Seward at his door at 11pm.

Seward did indeed have the answer when Welles asked. He supposed it had something with the Powhatan and Lt. David Porter who commanded it.

That couldn’t be, thought Welles, Porter had nothing at all to do with the command of any ship. Besides, the Powhatan was the flagship of the fleet to reinforce Fort Sumter. Right?

Not exactly. Seward had ordered the Powhatan to reinforce Fort Pickens. Welles was floored. They both agreed to see the President.

It was after midnight when they reached the White House and Lincoln was still awake. He was surprised to see them and even more surprised at the reason why. When both sides explained themselves, Lincoln finally put it together. The Powhatan had been ordered to two different places by two different orders under two different commanders.

Lincoln ordered the Powhatan to be immediately turned back over to Captain Mercer, put in command by Welles. It must be ordered to Sumter.4

Seward wired Lt. David Porter, currently in charge of the vessel, ordering him to turn over the ship to Mercer.

But it was too late. The USS Powhatan, Porter commanding, had set off to reinforce Fort Pickens.



There’s an interesting aside here. The dates for the closing events of the Powhatan craziness seem to be confused. It’s fairly clear that the Powhatan set off at 3pm on the 6th. Foote, commanding the Navy Yard, confirmed it in his letter to Welles. However, it is also fairly clear that this meeting of Seward and Welles happened on the night of the 6th.

It could then be argued that the Powhatan sailed at 3pm and the Seward/Welles meeting happened at 11pm both on the 6th. This would work out fine (and is basically how I presented it), but for one thing. In the Official Records of the Navy Lt. Porter seems to reply to Seward’s “Give the Powhatan to Capt. Mercer” message with a refusal.

“I received my orders from the President and shall proceed and execute them.” It’s quite possible that this can be explained as Porter just giving a head’s up to dispel the confusion of the 5th (when he and Mercer met and telegraphed Foote who telegraphed Seward).

Just trying to clear up some confusion about the confusion.

  1. Lincoln and the Decision for War by Russell McClintock. []
  2. Diary of Gideon Welles []
  3. Lincoln to Robert Chew, April 6, 1861. []
  4. Diary of Gideon Welles []

The USS Powhatan Ordered to be in Two Places at Once

Friday, April 5, 1861

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles sent the orders to put Fox’s plan to resupply Sumter into action. Lincoln had read, approved and signed the orders giving Captain Samuel Mercer, commander of the USS Powhatan instructions to ready his ship and assume command over the Pocahontas, Pawnee and Harriet Lane for a mission to resupply Sumter. The War Department would supply the ships with provisions, the Navy would protect those ships. If they were opposed by the defenses of Charleston, they were to clear a way for the resupplying.

Mercer was ordered to be just off Charleston Harbor on the 11th of April. There and then, he would be met by the other ships.1


As for the USS Powhatan, it was now a ship that both Lt. David Porter and Captain Samuel Mercer believed they commanded. Around 8 o’clock in the evening, Captain Mercer received the telegram from Welles. He had known of the order from President Lincoln which stated that he had been replaced by Lt. Porter and that Porter was in the process of readying the Powhatan for the mission to Fort Pickens in Florida. The order from Welles, thought Mercer, must be bogus.

Mercer went to see Porter who was every bit as confused by the news. Together, they telegraphed Commander Foote, in charge of the Brooklyn Naval Yard. He would certainly know which order was valid.2

However, Foote could shed no real light on this: “I am executing orders received from the Government through the Navy officer as well as from the Army officer. Will write fully if possible to-day, certainly to-morrow. I hope the Powhatan will sail this evening.”3

He wired Welles that the Powhatan was ready to ship off, but also that Welles had forgotten about a Lt. Smith. Welles wired back, ordering the Powhatan to remain until further instructions could be provided and to wait for Smith, but only until the 7th. 4

But as he would find out the next day, a lowly lieutenant was as inconsequential to the plan as the Secretary of the Navy.

  1. Official Records of the Navy, Series I, Vol. 4, p 235. []
  2. Official Records of the Navy, Series I, Vol. 4, p111. []
  3. Official Records of the Navy, Series I, Vol. 4, p236. []
  4. Official Records of the Navy, Series I, Vol. 4, p237. []

Virginia Totters on the Edge; Orders for Sumter

Thursday, April 4, 1861

Union sympathy in the deeper South was gone. The tripĀ Lamon and Hurlbut made to Charleston proved that. But what about Virginia? The border state had been holding an on again, off again secession convention since early January. Lincoln, wishing to take the true pulse of nationalism in Virginia, sent George W. Summers, a Unionist, to the convention. Summers, knowing that an important vote (the vote) would soon be coming, sent John B. Baldwin in his stead.

Baldwin arrived in Washington in the morning on this date, and met with Lincoln right away. The President told his visitor that he had come three or four days too late, though Baldwin left as soon as he was summoned. What Lincoln meant was that it was too late to do any good.

The Secession Convention in Virginia was an embarrassment to Lincoln, who thought that the Unionists should adjourn it before more of their ilk switched sides.

Virginia’s Unionists were barely that. They were tottering on the edge just as much as their state was. More than Union, they wanted peace. If appeasing the Southern states – The Confederacy – would keep the peace, they felt, then conciliation and compromise was needed.

But the compromise that the South wanted was exactly what Lincoln could not give. Fort Sumter and Pickens, said Baldwin, must be abandoned as a gesture of peace; the administration’s policy must be one of peace.

Lincoln then asked what might happen if Sumter were resupplied with only provisions – no troops, no aggressive maneuvers, just supplies? That wouldn’t work, Baldwin insisted, it would never be allowed. Once shots were fired, no matter who shot first, the Upper South, including Virginia, would secede.

There had been rumors of Lincoln offering to surrender Sumter if Virginia would stay in the Union (trading a fort for a state), but they had since proved to be unprovable.1

The vote that would take Virginia out of the Union was put before the Secession Convention. It was rejected 88 to 45, keeping the state true to the Union. For the time being, anyway.2



Major Anderson’s letter to Washington informing them that he had but a week’s worth of rations finally found its way to Lincoln’s desk. Astounded that he had such little time, the President sent orders to Gustavus Fox (now in Washington again) that he was to head up the expedition to “succor Fort Sumter.”

The letter ordered Fox to “take charge of the transports in New York having the troops and supplies on board to the entrance of Charleston Harbor.” He was to first attempt to land the supplies and if attacked, “place both troops and supplies in Fort Sumter.”3

The President (via Secretary of War Simon Cameron) then shot off a letter to Anderson asking him to hold on until the 11th or 12th, when the expedition to resupply the fort was to be attempted. The decision to surrender or hold out prior to the resupplying would be up to Anderson.4

Orders to resupply both Fort Pickens in Pensacola and Fort Sumter in Charleston had been given, but was it now too late?

  1. Lincoln and the Decision for War by Russell McClintock – completely from Baldwin’s own testimony in 1866. []
  2. Days of Defiance by Maury Klein. []
  3. Official Records, Series I, Vol. 1, p235-236. []
  4. Official Records, Series I, Vol. 1, p235. []