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 He had known of the order from President Lincoln which stated that he had been replaced by Lt.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.