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 []
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Tying Up Loose Ends with the Powhatan, Lincoln, Seward and Welles by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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