October 29, 1861 (Tuesday)
Throughout the summer and early autumn of 1861, it became clear that a full, successful blockade of South Atlantic ports was nearly impossible. The blockade of Charleston, specifically, involved a refueling issue. The ships had to return to a northern port for more coal. Seizing a Southern port and turning it into a Union base was desired.
Not only that, but if a large Union force was landed in South Carolina, Georgia, or one of the Gulf states, those states might think twice about sending troops north to Virginia.
In July, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles met with Capt. Samuel Francis Du Pont, longtime Naval officer, and decided that the seizure of Port Royal Bay would be perfect for a coaling station and bay of refuge. However, it would take not only a large Naval force, but 12,000 to 15,000 infantrymen to hold it.1
By the end of July, the idea was still afloat, but the destination became vague. As September rolled around, the fleet was assembling, but its objective was still fuzzy. By this time, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox was also central to the planning. Finally, Lincoln, too, was involved. The President had wished for the joint operation to set sail by October 1st or shortly thereafter.
While Du Pont (now a Flag Officer) assembled his fleet in New York, General Thomas W. Sherman gathered his men. Assembled at Annapolis, Maryland, 13,000 troops in three brigades were loaded onto transports. By October 21st, the entire fleet, including transports, was ready at Hampton Roads, Virginia. A strong storm caused a delay, which was actually a boon, allowing Du Pont and Sherman to plan the final details for taking Port Royal Bay, the finally-settled-upon destination.
At last, after months of planning and anticipation, the fleet of seventy-seven vessels pulled out of Hampton Roads on this date. Du Pont feared that the infantry troops were too green for such an undertaking. Nevertheless, by noon, the fleet had reached Cape Henry, where Du Pont, from his flagship Wabash, ordered to form the V-formation of a double echelon line. It would take days to reach Port Royal.2
Swett Arrives in St. Louis
The orders removing General John C. Fremont from command had been entrusted to Leonard Swett for delivery to General Samuel Curtis, who was to oversee the actual delivery and transfer of power to General David Hunter. Swett, an Illinois lawyer and politician, had worked the circuit court with Lincoln in the 1850s. Lincoln entrusted his old friend with this important mission.
It took Swett a bit longer to arrive in St. Louis than originally planned. Traveling by rail, his train missed connections at Baltimore and Pittsburgh. By the dawn, he crossed the Mississippi River. Finally in town, General Curtis could not be located until evening.
Swett and Curtis had a sit-down and discussed their next move. There were complications. News of Fremont’s sacking had appeared in the New York newspapers and it was possible that Fremont knew that Swett was carrying the order. Both Swett and Curtis expressed uncertainty as to how the General would take the news. Curtis suggested that the removal be made very public, otherwise, it may just be ignored.
Because it might be difficult for Swett to get through the lines, especially if Fremont suspected he was coming, they needed someone with an additional reason for joining up with the Army of the West. To hedge their bets, they made another copy of the orders and found two officers to take them separately, just in case.
Swett found Captain Ezekiel Boyden of the 25th Illinois infantry, part of Sigel’s division, to attempt one delivery. The other would be a Captain McKinney, who was known from the Mexican War. Both were told not to deliver the orders if the Army was on the eve of battle.3