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[87]

Chapter 10: naval engagement at South-West pass.--the Gulf blockading squadron in November, 1861.

  • Attempt to blockade the passes of the Mississippi.
  • -- escape of the Sumter. -- the Manassas rams the Richmond. -- the battle at the pass. -- attempt to destroy the Vincennes. -- final results of the engagements. -- capture of the Royal Yacht in Galveston harbor by Lieut. James E. Jouett. -- attack on Fort McRae and Fort Pickens by the Niagara and Richmond, November 22, 1861. -- correct account of attempt to relieve Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861, and of relief of Fort Pickens, April 17, 1861. -- list of ships and officers of West Gulf Blockading Squadron, 1861.


It would be a pleasant task to be able to record nothing but successes and have no defeats checked against us; but that could not very well be unless we admitted that our enemy was deficient in all the qualities which distinguish the American soldier and sailor, and that we gained our victories easily because we had no one of any courage, energy or ability to contend with.

On the contrary, we had all these to meet us at every step; and our enemies, although men of the same stamp as ourselves, had their energies quickened by an amount of rancor which the Federals could never be made to feel, as they were fighting simply to preserve the Union,while the Confederates were fighting with a cherished object, to gain something new and beyond their reach, which they thought would conduce to their happiness, and of which they thought the North was trying to deprive them.

We could not expect impunity from losses and defeats upon the water any more than the soldiers could on the land; for though the Confederates had nothing like the resources of the North in naval matters, yet they put forth so much more energy and converted so many ordinary vessels into powerful rams and gunboats, that they made up in that way for what they lacked originally.

The reader must not therefore be surprised if the Union Navy was now and then caught tripping; nor must they take it for granted that every officer in the Navy was a perfect man, patterned after some rare type, who never made mistakes or knew defeat.

In so great a field of operations as that through which our Army and Navy labored for so long a time, it would be strange indeed if a great many mistakes were not committed.

New Orleans was the Queen City of the South; the great emporium through which the Confederates at one time hoped to inflict great injury upon the North by fitting out vessels-of-war or privateers to prey upon the Northern merchant ships, and by converting the factories of this place into shops for casting guns and making small arms.

The Confederates considered that it would be a difficult matter for the Union forces to blockade the different mouths of the Mississippi, the bayous and sounds, and flattered themselves that New Orleans would become the rendezvous for all the blockade runners that had early in the war commenced to swarm upon the coast like bees about the honey flowers. But they were disappointed in their expectations, for as early as June, 1861, Commodore McKean sent the Powhatan, Lieut. D. D. Porter, to close up the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi, and Commander [88]

U. S. Sloop of war Brooklyn, off Pensacola.

[89]

Charles Poor, in the Brooklyn, to blockade Pass à l'outre.

It was through the latter channel that the Sumter, Captain Semmes, escaped to sea, while the Brooklyn was off in chase of a strange sail, and she was thus enabled to commence her career of havoc on American commerce.

This drew the attention of the Navy Department particularly to the mouths of the Mississippi, and a small squadron of vessels (quite inadequate for the purpose) was appointed to blockade the different passes.

The river Mississippi divides into several channels before reaching the Gulf of Mexico, and this division takes place at a point simply known as “the head of the passes,” about fifteen miles above the mouths of the river. It was supposed that if a squadron could occupy this point it would be able to intercept anything going up or down.

It was not until the 12th of October, 1861, that this squadron reached “the head of the passes.”

It was composed of the following vessels: Richmond, screw steamer, Capt John Pope, twenty-two 9 inch guns; Vincennes, sloop-of-war, ten guns; Preble, sloop, eleven guns: Water Witch, small screw steamer, four guns.

This squadron, mounting in all forty-seven guns, seemed to be quite able to defend “the head of the passes” and not only prevent anything going up or down, but to drive off any force the Confederates could collect at that moment.

But the Confederates had already fitted out a ram (the Manassas), armed with one gun in the bow, covered with iron and considered of sufficient power to sink a heavy ship with one of her blows.

The Commander of the Union squadron did not seem to be aware that the enemy had a vessel of this kind on the river, or if he did, he attached but little importance to the fact, having the impression that she was nothing more than a small converted tug.

The rule that a man should never despise his enemy was never more thoroughly illustrated than on this occasion.

The Richmond was coaling from a schooner which lay alongside of her, not keeping any particular lookout, her crew being employed in getting the coal on board. It was 3:45 in the morning, the Water Witch was not in the advance, keeping a lookout, and the ships of war were all anchored in the stream, when the Richmond discovered a strange craft approaching, which immediately afterwards struck her a heavy blow abreast the port forechannels, tearing the schooner from her fastenings, crushing in three planks of the ship's side and making a small hole two feet below the water line.

That was the only blow the ram struck, for, as we now know, she was somewhat disabled by the shock, and she moved off slowly up the river, glad to get away so easily.

This vessel proved to be the ram Manassas, at that time one of the improvised squadron of Commodore Hollins, late of the U. S. Navy.

The Richmond's crew flew to their quarters as soon as she was struck, and, as soon as they could they fired a random broadside, for there was not much chance of seeing anything in the darkness which then prevailed.

The ram. it is reported, remained under the quarter of the Richmond for some time, apparently trying to give another blow (but in fact partly disabled), and then drifted away.

Commodore J. S. Hollins, C. S. N.

Had the Richmond stood up the river until daylight the Manassas would have fallen into her power. The Preble opened her port battery on the ram as it passed slowly up the river, but without any effect.

After a time the Richmond got underway and went a short distance above the passes, but Acting-Master Wilcox reported that she was getting too close to the starboard shore (where there was water enough to float a three-decker), and the helm was put hard a starboard (instead of proceeding on up, as could easily have been done) and the vessel sheared off into the stream with her broadside bearing up the river; she then drifted down with the current until she neared the “head of the passes,” when “ineffectual attempts were made to get her head up stream” (which could easily have been done by letting go an anchor).

The vain efforts continued until the steamships [90] had drifted a mile and a half down the Southwest Pass, when they were discontinued, the helm put up, and the vessel headed towards Pilottown, where her commander thought he would be able to turn round!

When she arrived at Pilottown she still drifted on, and strange to say, she drifted toward the exit from the river. All this time the other vessels were doing all they could to drift after the Richmond! In other words, having been sent to the passes to defend them, on the first appearance of an enemy they deserted their posts and made a most shameful retreat — a retreat from a few river boats that a broadside of either ship would have sent to the bottom in five minutes. In fact, it was a perfect stampede if there ever was one, and there seems to have been a desire to get into deep water, which was entirely unwarranted by the circumstances.

The Richmond and Vincennes both drifted broadside on until near the bar, when they grounded in that position (the most favorable one to receive an attack from the enemy.)

The day before Captain Pope had mounted on the Richmond's forecastle one of his 9-inch guns, in order to be ready for any emergency, and it served him a good turn when the time came for using it.

As soon as the enemy saw that the two ships had grounded near the bar, they came down below Pilottown and opened fire on them with some light Whitworth guns of good range, which could reach the Federal ships while the heaviest guns on the Richmond could not reach them.

The enemy kept up this fire for about two hours without doing any particular damage, the bolts from their rifles being quite small. One of them lodged in a drawer of the bureau containing Captain Pope's clothes, and there seemed to have spent itself, without doing any harm whatever.

There is no account of any injury being inflicted on the vessels, or of any one being killed or wounded. It was very much like the celebrated “battle of the kegs” which once set a whole fleet in motion.

While the firing was going on, the enemy's shot flying over and the shot from our ships falling short, it was reported to Captain Pope that several boats filled with men were leaving the Vincennes.

Some went on board the steamer Water Witch, others went to the Richmond, and Captain Handy (the Commander of the Vincennes), in company with several of the officers, presented himself on the quarter-deck before Captain Pope, with the American flag wrapped around his waist in large folds [!], and on being asked the object of his coming in that guise, stated that he had abandoned his ship in obedience to signal, and on being informed that no such signal had been made, he insisted that Captain Winslow of the Water Witch had so read it.

When Captain Winslow was asked regarding the matter, he said that he saw no such signal. It was, in fact, simply the power of imagination acting on Capt. Handy's nerves.

He did send to Capt. Winslow asking if that was not the meaning of a signal that was made by the flagship, but the answer he received was “No; it is impossible that any such signal can have been made. Get your guns out of your stern ports and defend your ship.”

It appears that on leaving his ship Capt. Handy determined that nothing of her should fall into the hands of Commodore Hollins, and he therefore ordered that a slow match should be placed near the magazine, and a train of powder laid, so that by the time he reached the Richmond the old Vincennes, that had performed many a useful cruise, should go up in a blaze of glory. He never reflected that his small 32-pounders might be whisked about in the air and fall upon the decks of the stranded Richmond.

Capt. Handy's reception on board the flagship by Capt. Pope was not a flattering one. He was immediately ordered back to his vessel when it was seen that she did not blow up, and the quarter-gunner who had been directed to light the match informed them that he had cut the lighted part off and thrown it overboard.

In the mean time the steamer McClellan came in with stores for the squadron and some rifled-guns of large calibre, and this put the Commander of the squadron at his ease. He could now drive the Hollins flotilla off if it should reappear.

The McClellan was then set to work to get the grounded vessels afloat, which she finally succeeded in doing, and they crossed the bar and anchored safely in deep water.

Capt. Pope in his report of this unhappy affair says:

My retreat down the pass, though painful to me, was to save the ships and prevent them from being sunk and falling into the hands of the enemy [!] as it is evident to me that they had us in their power by means of the ram and fire-rafts. If I have erred in all this matter it is an error of judgment. The whole affair came upon me so suddenly that there was no time left me for reflection, but called for immediate action and decision. The ram having made her appearance next day at the mouth of the river [!] the impression is she sustained no injury from our shot, only waiting an opportunity to destroy our ships. [91]

It having been rumored that there was a panic on board this ship at the time she was engaged with the enemy, I state it to be false. Both officers and men maintained their coolness and determination to do their duty. My orders and those of the officers were carried out with as much coolness as if it had been an every-day affair, and their whole conduct merits high commendation.

They would be gratified to prove their bravery by being permitted to take part in the contemplated attack on Pensacola, as requested in notes from me to you on the subject.

In both engagements with the enemy the fire appeared to be directed to the destruction of this ship, most of the shot being apparently directed to the quarter of this vessel, presumed for the purpose of disabling our rudder and propeller.

This relation would not be complete if Capt. Handy had not had the opportunity to place himself on record, on the eve of his ship getting aground, as follows:

Sir: We are aground. We have only two guns that will bear in the direction of the enemy.

Shall I remain on board after the moon goes down with my crippled ship and nearly worn-out men?

Will you send me word what countersign my boats shall use if we pass near your ship?

While we have moonlight would it not be better to leave the ship? Shall I burn her when I leave her?

Respectfully,


Capt. Pope seemed quite aware of the ludicrousness of this proposition, and wrote Handy as follows:

U. S. Steamer Richmond, South West Pass. October 12, 1861.
Sir: You say your ship is aground. It will be your duty to defend your ship up to the last moment, and not to fire her unless it be to prevent her falling into the hands of the enemy.

I do not think the enemy will be down to-night, but if they do come, fight them to the last.

You have boats enough to save all your men. I do not approve of your leaving your ship until every effort is made to defend her from falling into their hands.

Respectfully, etc.,

John Pope, Captain, U. S. N. Com. Robert Handy, U. S. N., Commanding Vincennes.

There is not much more to tell of this painful business — it would have been better to have left out the telling of it, but history cannot be written fairly if that alone is told which is creditable, and if that which smacks of the disgraceful is omitted.

There is no excuse for anything that happened in this squadron, and the mistakes made were not redeemed by any after-acts of gallantry.

To say that this stampede happened because these ships were taken by surprise, and because the most extravagant reports had been spread by Hollins about the force he had in rams and fire-rafts, was all folly.

Suppose the rebels had invented the most destructive methods, which lively imaginations had invested with supernatural power, there was no reason why 47 heavy guns and 700 men should run away from such goblins.

A badly-constructed ram ran her snout into the Richmond and ripped off three pieces of her planking; there were no firerafts, and Hollins' squadron was all a sham. His gunboats were nothing more than frail river craft with small rifled guns — like those which Bailey's division sent to the bottom after a fifteen minutes engagement at the battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip.

Put this matter in any light you may, it is the most ridiculous affair that ever took place in the American Navy. There is no instance during the war like it. To think that we should have to write of such a retreat is mortifying, but it stands on record, described in language that almost claims merit for the flight of the Richmond and her consorts, chased by a ram that was going in an opposite direction as fast as her disabled machinery would take her,--her officers thanking their stars that they got away so easily!

There is nothing that can equal the comicality of Capt. Handy's performance-laying a train with a slow match to his magazine, and then hastening away in his boats with the American flag wound around him, and his remarkable antics when he found that his ship would not blow up. This presents an example unmatched in any navy in the world.

After the ships had safely passed the bar, it was a subject of great congratulation to them that they were out of reach of Hollins, his rams and his fire-rafts; the very enemies they had been sent into the river to subdue.

New Orleans was illuminated on this occasion, and Hollins was feted as if he had won a great victory.

Perhaps this fiasco had a good effect by causing the Confederates to underrate the Northern Navy; if so, they dearly paid for it, for only a few months afterwards all their rams, ironclads, fire-rafts, and gunboats were swept away by a squadron bravely commanded, notwithstanding the heavy forts prepared with every skill for the enemy's protection, and with all the devices human ingenuity could conceive of.

Such events as we have related are not without their benefit in time of war. They make officers more careful in their plans, and teach them that good commanders and brave men should never be taken by surprise; [92] they also warn a government to be careful whom it places in command of its ships at a time when it is required that only the bravest and best should be selected for all occasions where success is demanded or where the honor of the flag is at stake.

A small detachment of vessels, under the command of Captain Henry Eagle, was at this time blockading the coast of Texas. His particular command was the frigate Santee. She was not a suitable vessel for this purpose (being a sailing ship), and her crew of 500 men might have performed more effective service by being divided up amongst five or six small steamers, armed with howitzers.

A good deal of force was expended in this way during the war, which might have been exerted to better purpose; but the object of the Navy Department was to have a large number of guns afloat in view of European complications, and these large sailing ships, though perfectly useless for blockading purposes, carried a large number of men who could at times be used with good effect in landing on the enemy's coast.

Among the privateers which the Confederates were fitting out was one called the Royal Yacht, which was being prepared in Galveston harbor to be let loose on the Federal commerce. This fact was known to Captain Eagle, and he made preparations to destroy her before she could get to sea.

On the 7th of November, 1861, an expedition was fitted out and placed under the command of Lieutenant James E. Jouett, with Lieutenant John J. Mitchell, Gunner William Carter and Master's Mate Chas. W. Adams in the first and second launches, each carrying a howitzer and a picked crew of men.

At 11:40 P. M. the two boats entered the harbor unperceived, intending, if they could pass the armed schooner guarding the entrance and the Bolivar and Point forts, to try to surprise and burn the manof war steamer General Rusk, lying under Pelican Island fort.

The boats succeeded in passing the schooner and two forts, but in attempting to avoid the sentinels on Pelican fort they grounded on Pelican Spit and were discovered by the enemy. It was then too late to attempt the capture of the General Rusk (a heavily armed vessel) as the alarm was given at once, therefore that part of the expedition was abandoned.

The boats then turned about and pulled. for the schooner Royal Yacht, which they boarded and carried after a short but sharp conflict. By this time the people in the forts were aroused and opened fire in the direction of the boarding party. Lieut. Jouett proceeded to secure his prisoners, 13 in number. and leave the vessel; before doing which, he spiked the only gun the schooner carried and set fire to her, as she had a shot through her at the water line, and the pilot on whom Jouett had depended to take the vessel out was shot down.

Lieutenant Jouett himself was severely wounded by a boarding pike in the hands of an enemy; Mr. William Carter, gunner, was wounded, one man killed of the boat's crew and six wounded, one of whom afterwards died.

Rear-Admiral James E. Jouett, (from A. Photograph taken in 1885.)

This was a gallant and well-executed affair, and no doubt the General Rusk would have been captured but for the discovery of the boats. A boarding party against an enemy well armed and prepared for such an event is always a dangerous affair. The odds are always in favor of those on board the vessel, but in this case the schooner was carried by one boat only, because the other one did not get alongside in time to be of much assistance. [93]

Captain McKean, who commanded the Gulf blockading squadron, issued a public order, thanking Lieut. Jouett and his officers and men for their gallantry and coolness on this occasion, with a hope that “their names might be enrolled by a grateful country with those which in former years shed so much lustre on the American flag.”

On November 22d, 1861, Commodore McKean. after consultation with General Harvey Brown at Fort Pickens, determined to make an attack on Fort McRae and its defences with the Niagara and Richmond, while Fort Pickens was to open on the Confederate batteries with its guns.

It was time something should be attempted in this quarter, for from April 16th up to this time (Nov. 22d) nothing had been

Capture of the privateer Royal Yacht by a volunteer crew from the frigate Santee, under command of Lieut. James E. Jouett.

done to show that there was any hostile feeling between the Federal and Confederate forces at Pensacola.

Both the Niagara and Richmond were vessels of heavy draft; the former could not enter the harbor, and the latter, to co-operate with her, would have to lie a long way outside of the fort and earthworks. The Niagara was lightened as much as possible and her draught reduced to 21 feet.

During the night of the 21st, a position had been selected and a buoy placed to mark the spot where the ships were to anchor. On the following morning at 10 o'clock, Fort Pickens fired the signal gun and the Niagara stood in, followed by the Richmond (Captain F. B. Ellison); both ships came to an anchor with springs on their cables, the Niagara in four fathoms and the Richmond in 20 feet of water, fort McRae bearing from the Niagara north, distant two miles.

The vessels opened fire, but finding that the Niagara's shells fell short, boats were sent out and a buoy placed in 23 feet of water near the edge of the shoal — distant one and three-quarters miles from the fort. Here the Niagara finally anchored and again opened fire, “this time with marked effect, many of her shells falling into the sand battery and others passing through the wall of the fort [?]. the barbette guns were silenced immediately after the firing began, and the casemates visibly slackened until 5 P. M., when it ceased entirely.” The vessels fired no more after sundown, but again attacked the fort in the morning, as did also fort Pickens.

It was thought by those on board the ships that Fort McRae and its defenses were considerably damaged by the bombardment, but that remains doubtful. There was no return of the fire from the ships during the second day of the attack, as the Confederates saw that the naval commanders had no intention of entering the harbor, and that they were unnecessarily exposing themselves to the fire of Fort Pickens. So they withdrew from their works and let the fort and ships expend their ammunition at their own pleasure. (There was a cross-fire from the ships and Fort Pickens on the enemy's sand works which it was not possible to withstand.)

The Richmond, owing to her lighter draught of water, was able to take a position closer to the northern shore than the Niagara, and so far in the rear of both [94] fort and battery that their guns could not be brought to bear upon her. For several hours she escaped being struck, but on the afternoon of the second day “a masked battery among the sand hills on the main land back of the lagoon opened fire upon her.” Finding that the enemy were getting her range and fearing that she would be struck, she changed her position, and finally, as her shells were falling short, she was signalled to retire out of the line of fire. It was thought that the guns in the masked battery were rifled and of very heavy calibre [?]as their projectiles were thrown beyond the Richmond.

At the end of the first day's bombardment the ships retired, uninjured. On the second day they took up about the same positions, but their shells failed to reach the forts, while the Commander says, “the enemy's shells fell thick about us, some passing over the ships, and far beyond them.” “Therefore,” says the Flag Officer, “I deemed it my duty to withdraw the ship, as to have retained our position would have been to expose both her and the crew to serious injury with no possible advantage. Our not being able to get within range was owing to the fact that the northerly wind had lowered the water and was directly in face of our fire.”

In this bombardment of two days two shot struck the Niagara, one abaft the fore chains, lodging in the woodwork, the other near the mizzen chains, also lodging in the woodwork, the injuries being trifling. The Richmond was also struck twice. A shot struck the rail and hammock nettings forward, another (a shell) exploded four feet under water, “breaking and pressing inboard several of her planks and causing a serious leak.” The loss during this engagement was one man killed and seven slightly wounded by splinters.

Our object in mentioning this affair is not for the purpose of claiming any brilliant victory for the Navy, but to show the futility of ships engaging forts (especially sand forts) at such long ranges that their shell will not reach, and where they burst five seconds before the proper time! Nor is the bombardment mentioned as a naval exploit of any great importance, for there were no results from it which could benefit the Government in any way, beyond showing the enemy that they would not be allowed to rest quietly while they were building their sand forts and preparing to make Pensacola Harbor impregnable against Fort Pickens and the Union fleet.

Had this action on the part of Flag Officer McKean and General Harvey Brown been concerted earlier in the year it might have had the good effect of driving the Confederates out of their works some time sooner; but from April 17, 1861, when Fort Pickens was reinforced with men and guns and made strong enough to resist any attack from the Pensacola side, up to November 22d of the same year, not a movement had been made by our Army or Navy to check the work of the Confederates in building earthworks and mounting guns.

It is more than possible that this work could have been arrested if proper steps had been taken in the first place to send in a strong naval force well backed by the Army. The Confederates would have evacuated Pensacola a month after troops had been sent to its relief, on April 17th, 1861.

There does not seem to have been any particular object in the bombardment of Fort McRae, beyond at the same time destroying the navy yard and its contents, which, it is true, was in the hands of the Confederates; but the latter did not seem at all disposed to injure anything, and why our own forces should want to destroy what the enemy were taking care of cannot be understood.

There was nothing in the yard but machinery which the enemy could not use, and guns which they had already mounted and which could not have been of a very dangerous character, as our ships were only struck twice each in a two days bombardment.

The history of the manner in which Pensacola was held by the Confederates from April 1st, 1861 to May 9th, 1862, offers one of the most curious commentaries on the conduct of the war in this quarter. It had the best harbor in the Gulf of Mexico, belonging to the United States. It had a good navy yard, with the ordinary facilities for fitting out and repairing ships, and water enough on the bar to admit of the passage of all but five or six of the heaviest ships of the Navy. It was just the point wanted by our naval commanders from which to carry on operations against New Orleans and the coast of Louisiana and Texas, and from which to intercept blockade runners bound for Southern ports from Havana and Nassau.

Before even Fort Sumter was fired on President Lincoln saw the importance of our holding Fort Pickens, and at the same time that Secretary Welles sent his expedition to reinforce Sumter, the President and Secretary Seward sent one to reinforce Fort. Pickens and prevent it from falling into the hands of the insurgents.

This is an important part of the history of the war, and as it had an important bearing on naval matters in the Gulf of Mexico, and exhibited a great want of decision or forgetfulness on the part of those who were charged with the duty of recovering the Government property, it may not be uninteresting [95]

Panoramic view of Pensacola Bay, the Navy yard and forts.

[96] to relate some events connected with this place during the time of its occupation by the Confederates.

In the early part of the difficulties between the North and South, and before the Confederates had taken the bold step of firing upon Fort Sumter, and when the Government was anxious to ascertain the true condition of affairs at Charleston, Mr. G. V. Fox, formerly a Lieutenant in the Navy and later the Assistant Secretary, offered his services to go to Charleston, communicate with Colonel Anderson, and return with the required information.

The late administration of Mr. Buchanan, with a policy as feeble as it was unwise, had done nothing towards asserting the authority of the government over Fort Sumter, nor taken any energetic steps for its relief, even when it became known that the insurgents were waiting only for an opportunity to seize upon it, and turn its guns against any force which the National Government might send against Charleston.

The commander at Sumter, if he was not ordered to remain supine under all provocations, was at least given to understand that it would not be agreeable to the administration if he should attempt to prevent the Southerners from erecting such earthworks as they might think proper within reasonable bounds: but that he might hold on to the government property in Fort Sumter as long as he could do so without precipitating hostilities. That was the spirit of the understanding between Major Anderson and the Government, if not the actual one.

Though it was known to the late administration that the insurrectionists in Charleston were openly constructing strong earthworks opposite Sumter, avowedly with the intention of forcing its surrender, yet no steps were taken to relieve Major Anderson by sending reinforcements or supplies; nor did they protest against the action of the Southern forces who were making every preparation to attack him.

The Southern leaders had been prepared for the contingency of secession before Mr. Buchanan gave up the reins of office. All their plans were well matured and all precautions taken to insure their success. Thus, when President Lincoln came into office he found himself face to face with the most perplexing state of affairs that ever beset a statesman. The little garrison at Sumter was surrounded by guns, and the indignant people of the North were demanding that it should be relieved at all hazards.

The steamer Star-of-the-West, under Captain McGowan, of the Revenue Marine, was chartered during President Buchanan's administration, and ordered to carry provisions to the beleaguered fort; but on entering the harbor and getting within range of the guns on Morris Island, she was fired upon, and finding that he would be sunk if he persevered in going on, Captain McGowan turned his vessel about and left the harbor.

Mr. Fox presented certain plans for the relief of Sumter to the Buchanan administration, but for various reasons they were not accepted, although at first deemed feasible, even by General Scott. But on the next day (Febuary 5th, 1861) news was received of the election of Jefferson Davis to the Presidency of the Southern Confederacy, and then General Scott intimated to Mr. Fox that probably no efforts would be made to relieve Fort Sumter.

On the 12th of March, Mr. Fox received a telegram from Postmaster-General Montgomery Blair to proceed to Washington; and when he arrived there he was induced by this gentleman to lay the same plans before President Lincoln that had been offered to President Buchanan, Mr. Blair informing Mr. Fox at the same time that General Scott had advised the President that Fort Sumter could not be relieved and would have to be given up. Having been introduced to the President by Mr. Blair, Fox unfolded his plans and was directed to call upon General Scott and discuss the matter with him.

The General did not approve Mr. Fox's plans, and informed Mr. Lincoln that it might have been-practicable in February, but owing to the increased number of Confederate forts and guns it was not possible then.

These difficulties in carrying out his plans for the relief of Sumter, induced Mr. Fox to go in person to Charleston to see if he could not ascertain by the visit something that would strengthen his argument. He also wished if possible to visit Major Anderson.

In consequence, with the consent of the President, Secretary of War and General Scott, he proceeded by way of Richmond and Wilmington to Charleston and arrived there on the 25th of March. At that time there was a general feeling in Charleston and thereabout that the Government had concluded to give up Fort Sumter without an attempt to retain it.

On Mr. Fox's arrival in Charleston he sought an interview with Lieut. Hartstene, formerly of the U. S. Navy, and stated to him his desire to visit Major Anderson, and Hartstene in consequence introduced him to Governor Pickens, to whom he showed the orders under which he acted.

Governor Pickens directed Lieut. Hartstene to take Mr. Fox to Fort Sumter, where they arrived after dark and remained two hours. [97]

Major Anderson seemed to think it was too late then to undertake to relieve Sumter by any other means than by landing an army on Morris Island. He thought an entrance from the sea impracticable, but while discussing the matter on the parapet Mr. Fox heard the sound of oars, and though the boat was very near she could not be seen through the haze and darkness of the night until she had actually reached the landing. This gave Mr. Fox the idea of supplying the fort by means of boats. He found the garrison very short of supplies, and it was decided by him and Major Anderson that he could report to the government that the fort could not hold out after the 15th of April unless supplies were furnished.

Mr. Fox made no arrangements with Major Anderson for reinforcing or supplying the fort, and very wisely did not inform him of his plans. On his return to Washington he was frequently called before the Cabinet to discuss his propositions and answer the objections of General Scott and other military authorities.

His plan was a naval one altogether, and he intended that it should be carried out by naval officers. It was simply running past batteries over 1,300 yards distant, at right angles with the enemy's fire, and there were many examples where such things had been done in perfect safety. Steamships had even been known to pass within 100 yards of a fort on a dark night without being seen.

The President inquired if there was at that time any officer of high rank in Washington who would sustain Mr. Fox in his project, directing that if one could be found he should be brought to the executive mansion.

Mr. Fox took Commodore Stringham to the President, who that morning had held a long conference with Commodore Stewart, and both declared that Sumter could be relieved on the plan Mr. Fox proposed.

On the 10th of March the President sent Mr. Fox to New York to make inquiries about obtaining vessels for the voyage, and he there consulted Messrs. George W. Blunt, Wm. H. Aspinwall and Charles H. Maxwell with regard to the necessary preparations. There were many delays in getting off the expedition, caused principally by everybody's desire to avoid a war. As late as the 4th of April the President informed Mr. Fox that he would allow the expedition to start for Charleston, but that he would in the meantime write a letter to the authorities of that place and promise that no attempt would be made to land troops if vessels were allowed to supply Sumter with provisions. There were but nine days left between the time Mr. Fox would arrive in New York and the time when Major Anderson would be out of provisions, when he would be at liberty to surrender. In these few days Mr. Fox had to charter steamers, provide men and boats, and employ tugs, and then to pass over 632 miles before he could reach his destination.

The Secretary of the Navy had in the waters of the United States the steamers Powhatan, Pocahontas and Pawnee, which he placed at Mr. Fox's disposal. On the Powhatan, which had gone out of commission, Mr. Fox depended for his boats and men. He arrived in New York on the 5th of April, 1861, engaged the steamer Baltic of Mr. Aspinwall, and delivered confidential orders to Colonel H. L. Scott, aide to the General-in-Chief, and Colonel D. D. Tompkins, Quartermaster, to supply all the needed stores.

Colonel Scott ridiculed the idea of any attempt to relieve Sumter, and by his indifference and delay half a day was lost. The recruits that he finally furnished were “entirely unfit to be thrown into a fort likely to be attacked by the Confederates.”

Mr. Fox had applied to the Secretary of the Navy before leaving Washington, to have Commodore Stringham take command of the expedition; but that officer declined, as he considered it too late to be successful and likely to ruin the reputation of the officer who undertook it!

The hiring of three tugs was intrusted to Russell Sturgis, who obtained them with great difficulty on account of the danger of going to sea, and the Government had to pay the most exorbitant prices for them. These tugs were the Yankee, the Uncle Ben, and the Freeborn. The Yankee being fitted to throw hot water. Mr. Fox received all the aid he desired in the mercantile line, and supposed that the naval vessels were all hurrying to the appointed place of meeting off Charleston.

Now on March 13th, 1861, the Powhatan came from sea into New York harbor. She was surveyed and found unfit for further service. Orders came from the Navy Department to put her out of commission, give the officers leave of absence, and send her crew to the receiving ship. On April 1st the stores were all landed, the ship stripped, officers granted leave of absence, crew sent to the receiving ship, and the vessel put out of commission.

To read the account of the naval historian (Boynton), the Navy Department depended on the Powhatan for the success of this expedition, yet on the 2d of April she was lying at the Navy Yard a “sheer hulk,” preparing to go into dock!

Mr. Fox states that the Powhatan, Captain Mercer, sailed on the 6th of April; the Pawnee, Commodore Rowan, on the [98] 9th; the Pocahontas, Captain Gillis, on the 10th, the Harriet Lane, Captain Faunce, on the 8th, the tug Uncle Ben, on the 7th, the tug Yankee on the 8th, and the Baltic, Captain Fletcher, on the 8th; rather an unusual way for an expedition to start out, and calculated to cause a failure even if there were no other obstacles in the way. Three army officers accompanied the troops.

Soon after leaving Sandy Hook a heavy gale set in, and continued during most of the passage to Charleston, and the Baltic, the fastest and staunchest vessel, only arrived off Charleston harbor on the 12th of April, and communicated with the Harriet Lane, the only vessel that had arrived before her. At 6 A. M. the Pawnee arrived, and Mr. Fox went on board of her and informed Commander Rowan of his orders to send in provisions, asking him to stand in towards the bar.

Commander Rowan replied “that his orders required him to remain ten miles east of the light and await the arrival of the Powhatan, and that he was not going into the harbor to inaugurate a civil war.” Mr. Fox then stood in towards the bar with the Baltic and the Harriet Lane. As these vessels showed themselves, heavy guns were heard up Charleston harbor and the smoke from the batteries which had opened upon Sumter was distinctly visible. Fox then turned and stood towards the Pawnee, intending to inform Commander Rowan of the state of affairs, and met him coming in. Rowan hailed and asked for a pilot, declaring his intention of standing in and sharing the fate of his brethren of the Army. Fox went on board the Pawnee and informed the Commander that the Government did not expect such gallant sacrifice, having settled naturally upon the policy indicated in the instructions to Captain Mercer and himself.

No other naval vessels arrived that day except the Pocahontas, but the steamer Nashville and a number of merchant vessels arrived off the bar and awaited the result of the bombardment, thus leading the people of Charleston to suppose that there was a large naval fleet lying off the bar.

Meanwhile the weather continued very bad, with a heavy sea. Neither the Pawnee nor the Harriet Lane had the necessary boats to land men or provisions, and it is very clear to the writer that any attempt to have done so would have been madness in the face of that sea and the enemy's fire. In fact, the expedition was useless from the time the first gun was fired at Sumter. It could only have been successful provided the water had been smooth, and the boats could have reached the fort late at night.

The moment the Confederates knew of the arrival of vessels off the bar, the bombardment commenced, and there was no stopping it then in the excited condition of the Southerners. They had been looking for the opportunity for weeks, and having found it they made the most of it, and did what they so longed to do — fired on the fort and flag which had stood there so many years to protect them.

All this time Mr. Fox was awaiting the arrival of the Powhatan. Finding that she did not appear he went in the offing and made signals all night, so that she might find the Baltic in case she should arrive. The morning of the 13th was thick and foggy with a very heavy ground swell on, and the Baltic, feeling her way in, ran aground on Rattlesnake Shoal, but got off without damage, and was obliged by the heavy swell to anchor in deep water, several miles outside of the Pawnee and Harriet Lane.

One gallant army officer (R. O. Tyler), though suffering from seasickness, as were most of the troops, organized a boat's crew and exercised them for the purpose of having at least one boat (in the absence of the Powhatan) that could go to the relief of Fort Sumter--as if one boat pulled by raw recruits could ever even cross the bar, much less reach the fort under such a fire. But fortunately the adventure ended where it began, and no boat was sent.

In the morning a great volume of black smoke burst forth from Fort Sumter,through which the flash of Major Anderson's guns could be seen replying to the Confederates. The quarters in the fort were on fire, but most of the officers thought it to proceed from an attempt to smoke out the garrison with fire-rafts, as if the buildings of the officers inside the fort with all their inflammable material would not make smoke enough without the addition of firerafts!

It was the opinion of the naval officers that no loaded boats could reach Sumter in that heavy sea. The tug-boats, like everything else in this expedition, had gone astray, and it was determined to seize a schooner lying at the bar with a load of ice, fill her with stores and men and send her on the following night to the relief of Sumter. The records do not say who proposed this scheme — for what chance could this slow-moving vessel have had under a fire which eventually caused the surrender of the fort itself? Fortunately this plan was also abandoned, and on the 14th Major Anderson evacuated, and with his troops was taken north on the steamer Baltic.

This ended the Sumter expedition. [99]

It is no more than justice to Mr. Fox to state what his plan really was, and we will give his own words:

My plan for supplying Sumter required 300 sailors, a full supply of armed launches and three tugs. The Powhatan carried the sailors and launches, and when this vessel was about to leave in obedience to an order from the Secretary of the Navy, two officers, Lieut. D. D. Porter, U. S. N., and Captain M. C. Meigs, U. S. Engineers, presented themselves on board with an order from the President of the United States authorizing the former to take any vessel whatever in commission, and proceed immediately to the Gulf of Mexico.

This order did not pass through the Navy Department, and was unknown to the Secretary of the Navy, and when signed by the President he was not conscious that his signature would deprive me of the means to accomplish an object which he held to be of such vital importance.

To tell the rest of this history we must further quote Mr. Fox's report:

The tug Freeborn was not permitted to leave New York; the tug Uncle Ben was driven into Wilmington by the violence of the gale and eventually captured by the Confederates; the tug Yankee reached Charlestown a few hours after the Baltic left for New York with Major Anderson's command on board.

Mr. Fox from his statement seems to have relied on the Powhatan to assist him, and considers her absence to be the cause of failure.

On the 2d of April he had not even received the written authority to undertake this expedition, and no decision had been come to by the President until April the 4th, and it was not until the morning of April 6th that a telegraphic dispatch was received by Captain Foote (commanding New York Navy Yard) as follows: “Prepare the Powhatan for sea with all dispatch. (signed) Gideon Welles.” On April 1st President Lincoln wrote an order to put the Powhatan in commission. On April 2d the work commenced on her.

On April 5th she went into commission, and on April 6th sailed for the relief of Fort Pickens, under the command of Lieut D. D. Porter.

On the day (April 6th) when a telegram came for Mr. Welles to prepare the Powhatan for sea with all dispatch, that vessel was about to sail on another mission. On the 7th, came orders for Captain Mercer to take command of the expedition to Charleston.

Supposing that the Powhatan had been taken in hand from her “sheer-hulk” condition on the 6th, and working on the best time, she could not have more than been ready by the 11th. She could only at the best make eight knots an hour. Charleston being 630 miles distant would require 79 hours, or three days and seven hours, to make the passage. This would have brought them to Charleston only on the evening of the 14th, when Sumter was past all help.

Mr. Fox says he depended on her splendid launches and 300 sailors. The Powhatan had two wheel-house launches in the shape of a half watermelon, which were perfectly useless for want of repair, and sank when they were put in the water off Fort Pickens. She had two large quarter boats that would carry 35 men each, and two smaller boats that would carry about 25 men each in smooth water. Then where could Mr. Fox find the launches and men on the Powhatan? Mr. Fox was not at all responsible for the failure, in fact no one connected with the Navy was to blame. The absence of the Powhatan had nothing to do with it. It was mostly due to the inaction of the Government, the disagreement between Army and Navy officers as to the feasibility of the plan, and the length of time elapsing between the period when Mr. Fox first proposed to relieve Fort Sumter and the time when he was allowed to get off. No one seemed desirous of helping him, and most of those whose business it was to get off the expedition threw obstacles in its way.

Whether it would have succeeded under the most favorable circumstances is doubtful, for an enemy that could (and did during the next four years) hold all approaches to Charleston against our heaviest iron-clads would not have been likely to fail in keeping out a few heavily-laden boats and tugs, with their high-pressure steam announcing their presence. We know now that boats and tugs would have been sacrificed in any attempt to relieve Sumter.

Mr. Fox, himself, manifested great courage in volunteering for such desperate service, which finally brought him into connection with the Navy Department, where his services were at that time much required. Mr. Welles showed a loyal spirit in this attempt to succour those whom the country thought should be relieved at all hazards, and he needed no defense.

The cause of the contretemps which directed the Powhatan from the Sumter expedition was in the organization of the Navy Department, which, with the bureau system existing then as it exists to-day, was unfit to carry on a great war. The Secretary wanted at his side an Advisory Board, or what was afterwards established, a clever man as Assistant Secretary.

The fact of sending a civilian down to Charleston to direct the movements of a naval commander, without any authority of law, was all wrong, no matter if the person had once been in the Navy. This produced complications from the very first; for no naval officer who was acquainted [100] with the forms and precedents of the Navy would submit quietly to what he might well consider a reflection on his corps.

There are plenty of reasons why such an expedition should fail without referring to such as did not exist, and as a large portion of history (which should have been devoted to important duties performed by naval officers) has been taken up in showing that the preparations of the Navy Department for the succor of Fort Sumter were interfered with, it is time the matter was made plain. The quotations from Mr. Fox's report explain it all.

It was fortunate that nothing was attempted after the few vessels of the expedition met at the bar, and the fact that the Confederates opened fire on Sumter the moment the vessels did appear off Charleston was proof positive that they were prepared, not only to use up Sumter, but any number of vessels that should attempt to enter the harbor.

As the Powhatan has so constantly been quoted by a naval historian (Boynton), and he has stated certain matters in a way not altogether historical (though no doubt with a most sincere desire to write the truth), it may not be amiss to give a little sketch of how the Powhatan was spirited away and sent on another mission.

It is part of the history of the war, has been only incidentally alluded to by the writer, and will not in the least detract from the Fort Sumter relief expedition.

Mr. Lincoln had been installed in the Presidential office, and almost immediately after the question of relieving Fort Sumter was proposed to him (on the 12th of March), as will appear from Mr. Fox's letter, which has been quoted.

Captain Montgomery Meigs, of the Engineer Corps, had been thinking of a plan by which the Government might vindicate its authority over its own forts; and as Fort Pickens was very weakly manned by Capt. Slemmer and 25 men, and was in danger every hour of falling into the hands of the Confederates, he proposed an expedition for its relief by throwing in troops and mounting heavy guns.

Neither Mr. Seward nor Captain Meigs believed in the plan to succor Fort Sumter. In their opinion the opportunity had passed. This seemed to be the opinion of leading naval and military men and the surrender of Sumter was already looked for at an early day; many thinking it better that it should be evacuated to prevent bloodshed, and others not dreaming any plan of relief feasible.

Mr. Seward was anxious that the Administration should show its determination to maintain its authority over its forts, no matter where situated.

The Sumter expedition had been settled on by the Cabinet in council, and to Secretary Welles was left the selection of the ships and the manner of conducting the whole matter.

Captain Meig's plan, as proposed to Secretary Seward, was to charter a large steam transport that would carry 600 troops and stores, also artillery of all kinds, and with a naval vessel to protect the landing. Mr. Seward was new to all this kind of business, and was slow to act, though precious time was flying. Captain Meigs conferred with Lieut. D. D. Porter, who conceived the plan perfectly feasible, and showed a desire to go on the expedition: all of which was reported to the Secretary of State. Lieut. Porter was at that time under orders for California, and was to have left for New York to meet the California steamer on April 1st. In two or three hours he would have taken the train. A note was sent him at 2 P. M., notifying him that the Secretary of State wished to see him at his office immediately. On his arrival at the office the Secretary asked him if he knew how the Administration could prevent Fort Pickens from falling into the hands of the Confederates.

He answered promptly that he did know, and then suggested the plan proposed by Captain Meigs. “You are the very man I want,” said the Secretary. “Come with me to the President.” At that moment Captain Meigs came in and accompanied the party.

Those familiar with the early events of the Rebellion will remember that Fort Pickens was under the command of Captain Slemmer, of the Army, who held it with a handful of men, and was preparing to defend it against a large force of Confederates on the Pensacola side, who were daily augmenting their numbers, and making preparations to bombard the fort, as had been done at Sumter.

Pensacola, with its well-equipped Navy Yard, was too tempting a bait for the Confederates to leave, and no doubt the General commanding was ordered to put forth all the energy and science known in the art of war to encompass the destruction or capture of the formidable fort.

Lieut. Porter told the Secretary of State that if the government would give him command of the Powhatan (then lying in New York) and supply the troops, he would guarantee the safety of the fort. It was not known then to any of the party that the Powhatan was lying at the Navy Yard “stripped to a gantline,” and that on or about that day she had gone out of commission preparatory to being repaired, and would be in the dry-dock in a day or two. It was thought that she was [101] in commission and all ready for service, which should have been the case.

When the party reached the executive mansion, the President was evidently prepared to receive it, and was well acquainted with all the plans that had been proposed. He had talked with Mr. Seward and Captain Meigs, and was so heartily interested in the scheme, that he agreed to all that was proposed.

There was none of that indecision or “apparent inaction” (which is spoken of in Boynton's Naval History of the War) from March 4th to April, 1861. Mr. Lincoln was either belied when that expression was used, or he had learned better. He had for his advisers old men who moved and thought slowly, and his military and naval advisers were evidently more cautious than there was any justification for.

When the President was told that the Powhatan would have to get ready very quickly, the Commander (Mercer) changed for Lieutenant Porter, and all the orders written without the knowledge of the Navy Department (for the reason that everything would be carried on in that department in the usual red-tape style, and the whole matter would be known to the Confederates by being flashed across the wires an hour after Secretary Welles got an order to prepare the ship for sea), he merely remarked “it seems to me like a very irregular proceeding, but, Mr. Secretary, do not let me burn my fingers. I want that fort saved at all hazards.”

Then Mr. Seward explained to him how, as President and Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, he could issue orders from the executive mansion, without passing them through an intermediary, and that he (the Secretary of State) would satisfy Mr. Welles of the necessity of the present way of proceeding.

The President at that time had not the faintest idea that the Secretary of the Navy intended to use the Powhatan, nor did he know the name of any vessel intended for the Sumter expedition, neither did the Secretary of State or any of the party.

It is a well-known fact now that all the orders issued by the Navy Department for the relief of Sumter were telegraphed to Charleston an hour after they were presscopied; for it was assumed at that time, when treachery was rampant in every branch of the Government, and when the insurrectionists had their spies and emissaries everywhere about the Government offices, that every man who did not openly declare his hostility to the Government was sound on the question of loyalty. It is now known that some of the meekest-looking supporters of the Government were its greatest enemies.

Secretary Seward evidently understood the situation, and determined that his expedition should not come to grief for want of proper secrecy. There was no wavering then on Mr. Seward's part, there was not a particle of hesitation on the part of the President, there was no long talk to prove the practicability of the expedition. The success of the affair was all taken for granted, and in half an hour everything was settled. How was it then that the President has been represented as hesitating, and Mr. Fox had to work so hard and travel to and fro until his patience was almost exhausted?

He was twenty-five days in accomplishing what was done in this instance in half an hour. The vacillation in the Sumter case did not rest with the President. but with those who tried to shift their want of success to the President's shoulders. It was, in fact, owing to circumstances which none could foresee.

After the President had decided that there was nothing to be done but write the necessary orders, Lieut. Porter wrote out and Capt. Meigs transcribed them.

They were as follows:

Executive Mansion, April 1st, 1861.
Lieut. D. D. Porter will take command of the steamer Powhatan, or any other United States steamer ready for sea. which he may deem most fit for the service to which he has been assigned by confidential instructions of this date.

All officers are commanded to afford him all such facilities as he may deem necessary for getting to sea as soon as possible. He will select the officers who are to accompany him.


Executive Mansion, April 1st, 1861.
Lieut. D. D. Porter, U. S. Navy:
Sir: You will proceed to New York and with the least possible delay assume command of any naval steamer available. Proceed to Pensacola Harbor, and at any cost or risk prevent any expedition from the mainland reaching Fort Pickens or Santa Rosa.

You will exhibit this order to any naval officer at Pensacola if you deem it necessary after you have established yourself within the harbor, and will request co-operation by the entrance of at least one other vessel.

This order, its object, and your destination will be communicated to no person whatever until you reach the H arbor of Pensacola.


Washington City, April 1st, 1861.
Sir: Circumstances render it necessary to place in command of your ship, and for a special purpose, an officer who is duly informed and instructed in relation to the wishes of the Government, and you will therefore consider yourself detached; but in taking this step the Government does not intend in the least to reflect upon your efficiency or patriotism; [102] on the contrary, have the fullest confidence in your ability to perform any duty required of you. Hoping soon to be able to give you a better command than the one you now enjoy, and trusting that you will have full confidence in the disposition of the Government towards you,

I remain,

Abraham Lincoln. Captain Samuel Mercer, U. S. N. A true copy.
M. C. Meigs, Chief Engineer of expedition under Col. Brown.

Executive Mansion, April 1st, 1861.
To The Commandant of The Navy Yard, New York:
Sir: You will fit out the Powhatan without delay. Lieut. Porter will relieve Capt. Mercer in command of her; she is bound on secret service, and you will under no circumstances communicate to the Navy Department the fact that she is fitting out.


Washington, Executive Mansion, April 1st, 1861.
All officers in the Army and Navy to whom this order may be exhibited, will aid by every means in their power the expedition under Colonel Harvey Brown, supplying him with men and material, and co-operating with him as he may desire.

Abraham Lincoln. A true copy. M. C. Meigs, Chief Engineer of the expedition.

Similar orders were issued to Major-General Scott and the Adjutant-General of the Army, directing that everything should be done to make the expedition a success.

Then Capt. Meigs and Lieut. Porter called on Gen. Scott, and after a very short time he issued the necessary order for the troops to go in a chartered steamer, and there was nothing more wanted.

That night Lieut. Porter left for New York, and at 10 o'clock A. M., on April 2d, presented himself to Capt. Foote (who was acting Commandant of the Navy Yard at that time), and gave him the order to fit out the Powhatan; which order Foote received with much surprise at this unusual way of doing business. It required three hours to convince Capt. Foote that he must obey the President's order, and that he was not to telegraph to Secretary Welles for instructions in this embarrassing position. He at last consented to take Capt. Mercer into the conference, give him the letter for himself, and be guided by his answer. Capt. Mercer considered it absolutely necessary for Foote to carry out the President's orders to the letter. He was rather pleased with the idea of getting rid of an old, worn-out ship, and offered to stay by the vessel as her Captain, fit her out, and take her down the harbor as far as Staten Island, in order the better to conceal the intended movement. Capt. Meigs also urged Foote to obey the President's order, and he finally decided to do so, and commenced the work of fitting out the Powhatan with all possible dispatch.

The Powhatan's engines were all apart, and they were preparing to hoist out her guns and take her into dry-dock, at 2 o'clock P. M. of that day (April 2d), when the order was issued to employ a double force of men and work them day and night until she was ready for sea. The officers who had been granted leave were telegraphed for, and on the fourth the crew was put on board. No repairs had been put on the vessel — not a pound of paint, not a new rope rove, nor a sail mended. She was in a shocking condition for any service; there was no time even to repair her boats, which were leaky (those fine boats depended upon to land the troops and provisions at Fort Sumter). On the 6th of April, four days after the Powhatan was taken in hand, steam was up, everything in place, the pilot on board, and the lines ready to cast off. Then a telegram came to Capt. Foote from the Navy Department: “Prepare the Powhatan for sea with all dispatch.” Here was a dilemma! Again Foote wanted to telegraph the state of affairs to the Secretary of the Navy, and stop the ship until he could hear from the Department. But his attention was again and again drawn to the President's order, and at last he succumbed.

Lieut. Porter stepped on board the Powhatan in citizen's dress, and was unobserved among the crowd of people who were bidding their friends good-by. He went into the cabin and locked himself in the Captain's state-room. The ship steamed away from the dock at one o'clock, P. M. on the 6th of April, going as far as Staten Island before Captain Mercer left her.

The moment the ship had left the yard, Foote could contain himself no longer, and he at once telegraphed to Secretary Welles that the Powhatan had sailed in command of Lieut. Porter under orders from the President.

The moment this telegram was received, Secretary Welles went straight to the President to request an explanation, at the same time informing him that he had depended upon the Powhatan to carry out his orders concerning the relief of Fort Sumter. The President was astonished, as he did not even know that the Powhatan had been connected with that expedition. Mr. Welles was much excited at what he considered Mr. Seward's interference with his affairs, and demanded the ship restored to him. Secretary Seward was sent for in haste, and when he came into the President's presence he found Secretary Welles in as great a state of excitement as his placid temperament would admit of. [103]

“Give up the ship, Seward,” said Mr. Lincoln, “we will get another.” And Mr. Seward consenting to do so, a telegram was sent to Lieut. Porter as follows:

Give the Powhatan up to Capt. Mercer.

April 6, 1861. Seward.

While the ship was lying off Tompkinsville, Staten Island, waiting for the boat to return that had carried Capt. Mercer on shore, a swift little steamer came alongside, and Lieut. Roe of the Navy delivered Mr. Seward's telegram.

Lieut. Porter read it, and decided that there was only one thing for him to do, and that was to disobey it. The artillery for the troops was on board the Powhatan, the steamer Atlantic, with the troops on board, he supposed had sailed at 12 o'clock, and was ten miles ahead of him. His stopping to restore the ship would make the expedition fail, his orders were from the President and he determined to obey them. He telegraphed back:

I received my orders from the President, and shall proceed and execute them.

April, 6, 1861. D. D. Porter.

The boat was hoisted up, the ship's head put seaward, and the Powhatan proceeded on her voyage.

The weather was dreadful, but on the 17th of April the Powhatan arrived off Fort Pickens and found that the chartered steamer Atlantic, with the Army contingent, had arrived the day before. Lieut. Porter stood in towards the bar and had crossed it and was standing for Fort McRea, with his crew at their guns, when Capt. Meigs in a large Government vessel laid right in the track of the Powhatan and signalled that he wanted to communicate. The ship was stopped and Capt Meigs came on board, handing to Lieut. Porter a protest against his going inside the harbor, on the ground that Fort Pickens was unprepared for an attack from the enemy's batteries, and if the Powhatan entered it would draw their fire upon the fort! Capt. Meigs had obtained, before he left Washington, authority from the President to take this course of action in case the officer commanding the troops objected to the ship going in.

There was nothing to be done but listen to Col. Harvey Brown's plea, and obey the implied order of the President; and thus the opportunity was lost of reasserting the authority of the Government to have its vessels go in and out of any port as it pleased their commanders to do. As it happened there was no actual necessity for the ship to go inside, but that was not the question: it was whether the Government had any right to its own forts, ships and harbors; and in starting to enter the harbor, Lieut. Porter wished to test how far the Government rights would be respected, and if not respected to cause them to be so by the power of his guns.

The President and the Secretary of State had shown great decision in fitting out this expedition, and, for the times, great moral courage in permitting it to go on, with the certainty that the guns of the Powhatan would be liberally used in dealing with the insurgents. But the timid policy of Col. Brown and his authority to prevent the commander of the Powhatan from entering Pensacola harbor, took all that was exciting out of this expedition, and turned what would have been a handsome dash into simply convoy duty.

After Lieut. Porter had discussed Col. Brown's protest with Capt Meigs, and carefully considered the matter, he reluctantly turned the Powhatan's head toward the steamer Atlantic, and anchored within 20 fathoms of the beach, with hawsers to keep her broadside bearing on the Navy Yard. The work of unloading the Atlantic went on in safety under the guns of the Powhatan, and that night 600 soldiers were lodged in the fort, with provisions, artillery and other munitions of war sufficient to withstand a seige. Fort Pickens could now bid defiance to the Confederate soldiers, who stood in groups on the opposite shore watching the proceedings, but with no apparent intention of interfering for the present. This indifference arose from the fact that they had no ammunition to use in the guns which they had found in the Navy Yard — but they were biding their time and would no doubt be heard from when the opportunity offered.

On the second day after the arrival of the Powhatan, a flotilla, composed of steam tugs, schooners and large launches, filled with soldiers, was seen to be coming from the direction of Pensacola, and heading for the two ships lying outside of Santa Rosa Island. There were about twenty-five of these small vessels, but the number of troops was not known.

This flotilla approached to within a mile and a half of the beach on Santa Rosa Island, and as they were either going to land there, or reinforce the insurrectionary army, it was time to stop their approach. The 11-inch gun on board the Powhatan was cast loose, and a shell fired, which burst directly over the middle of the flotilla. The consequence was a rapid retreat of the expedition towards Pensacola. No doubt they had taken the Powhatan and Atlantic for two store-ships which they expected to capture. Perhaps it was intended to attack Fort Pickens, for the troops from the Atlantic had been landed [104] at night, and had not been seen by the enemy.

The Powhatan's 11-inch gun was reloaded and pointed in the direction of the Navy Yard, where groups of idle soldiers were watching the operations. It was fired, and the shrapnel shell exploded in the midst of the yard, and at once cleared it of all occupants.

If the Confederates wanted an excuse to commence hostilities the opportunity had been given them; but the fact was, they were not at all prepared for such a contingency, as the troops in Charleston were, and after a year's occupation of Pensacola never advanced sufficiently with their fortifications to keep three steam frigates out of their harbor.

By the 20th of April Fort Pickens was so well protected that it could bid defiance to all the Confederate forces in that quarter, and so it remained until the end of the war.

Pensacola was evacuated by the Confederates about a year afterwards, on a scare — they thinking that Farragut's fleet was on the way to take it. The Confederates knew that they could not hold out twenty minutes against a close naval attack, and therefore wisely decamped in time. Thus the harbor of Pensacola again fell into the hands of the Government, and was of great use to the Gulf blockading squadron as a base for its operations.

The above is a strict account of the relief of Fort Pickens; there were no mistakes made, nor any hitches anywhere. In seventeen days after the matter was first broached to the President Fort Pickens was reinforced with troops enough to hold it, and armed with heavy guns which could far outmatch any possessed by the enemy. With the exception of the attack of the Niagara, Richmond and Fort Pickens on Fort McRae and other forts, Nov. 22, 1861, there were no attempts made to disturb the enemy, who, as long as he remained unmolested, followed a do-nothing course, which in the end was quite as effective as if he had built a thousand-gun fort.

Mr. Boynton, a very clever and pleasant historian, and who has written the only book that has in any way done justice to the Navy, gives a different version of this affair. But Mr. Boynton was not altogether fair when anything regarding the claims of the Navy Department was concerned; he received his information from that source and naturally followed it as that to be put in his history, whereas a historian should leave nothing undone to obtain a true statement of affairs. Mr. Boynton while writing his history held an appointment under the Navy Department. which he could only hold as long as his writings were acceptable to its chief; not that we mean to say that he surrendered the right of an historian to be impartial, but that in his close connection with the Navy Department, where articles were prepared for his book, he could not very well reject or revise them without severing his relations with a party who had given him an easy office, in order that he might have time to devote himself solely to writing his Naval History. Many officers of the Navy say it is simply a history of the Navy Department, but in this we do not altogether agree, for it has given the most vivid accounts of naval battles yet written, and has in most cases done full justice to those who made themselves prominent in the war.

It was only in cases where Mr. Boynton felt called upon to adopt the views of the Navy Department, and not follow the records, that he failed in his history.

In the case of Fort Pickens he followed the information he received from Secretary Welles, who really believed that what he asserted was a fact, viz.: that the expedition to relieve Fort Pickens was all useless, as he had provided against any contingency by instructing the Commander of the Gulf Squadron to hold himself in readiness to assist Fort Pickens in case it was threatened. He, however, did not provide for one thing — the indifference of an officer whose sympathies were with the South; who, in undertaking to carry out the Secretary's order, did it with a reservation, not to do anything to offend his friends on the other side.

Mr. Welles' orders were never carried out. The commander of the squadron laid four miles away from the fort, where he could scarce see a signal by day or by night, and with a strong wind against the boats, he could not have reached the fort to relieve it under two hours after the attack could have been made, even if he desired to do so.

As far back as January, 1861, the question of “State sovereignty” and “no coercion” was discussed in Mr. Buchanan's cabinet, and as the “no coercion” party was in the majority he was influenced by this policy, and it was owing to it and to outside sympathizers that the President refused to re-enforce Sumter. These Southern sympathizers around the President left nothing undone to delude him with the idea of the impolicy of attempting to retain any of the Southern forts by force, and it was in consequence of these representations that the following telegram was sent on January 29, 1861:

To Captain James Glynn, commanding the Macedonian; Capt. W. S. Walker, commanding the Brooklyn, or other naval officers in command; and Lieut. A. J. Slemmer, 1st Regt. Artillery, U. S. A., commanding Fort Pickens:
In consequence of the assurances received from Mr. Mallory in a telegram of yesterday to Messrs. [105] Bigler, Hunter and Slidell, with a request that it should be laid before the President, that Fort Pickens would not be assaulted, and the offer of such an assurance to the same effect from Col. Chase, for the purpose of avoiding a hostile collision, upon receiving satisfactory assurances from Mr. Mallory and Col. Chase that Fort Pickens will not be attacked, you are instructed not to land the company on board the Brooklyn unless said fort shall be attacked or preparations shall be made to attack it. The provisions necessary for the supply of the fort you will land. The Brooklyn and other vessels of war on the station will remain, and you will exercise the utmost vigilance and be prepared at a moment's warning to land the company at Fort Pickens, and you and they will instantly repel any attack on the fort.

The President yesterday sent a special message to Congress, communicating the Virginia resolutions of compromise. The commissioners of the different States are to meet here on Monday, February 4th, and it is important that during their session a collision of arms should be avoided, unless an attack should be made or there should be preparations for an attack. In either event the Brooklyn and the other vessels will act promptly. Your right and that of other officers in command at Pensacola freely to communicate with the Government by special messenger, and its right in the same manner to communicate with yourselves and them, will remain intact as the basis of the present instructions.

J. Holt, Secretary of War. J. Toucey, Secretary of the Navy.

There was no mistaking the purport of this telegram. The Confederates could assemble any number of troops they pleased at Pensacola, erect batteries, and prepare for any contingency,without the commanders of our naval vessels being able to interfere with them; at least, so these instructions were construed by Capt. Adams, the commanding naval officer, and when Gen. Scott (subsequent to Mr. Lincoln's inauguration) sent an order to land the company of troops that was on board the Brooklyn and place them in Fort Pickens, Capt. Adams refused to obey the order, and tried to justify himself on the ground that it would be violating the armistice which had been entered into with the Confederate leaders.

How could the government hope to put down a rebellion in the South when there was such rebellion against its orders by a captain in the Navy? The order directing the landing of these troops was dated March 12, 1861.

On April 1, 1861, Captain Adams, in a letter addressed to the Secretary of the Navy, says:

I declined to land the men as it would be in direct violation of the orders of the Navy Department, on which I was acting; the orders to land the troops may have been given without a full knowledge of the condition of affairs — there would be no justification in taking such a step without the clearest orders from the proper authority — it would be regarded as a hostile act, and could be resisted to the utmost. It would be considered by Gen. Bragg and his officers not only a debarkation, but an act of war; it would be a serious thing to bring on, by any precipitation a collision which may be against the wishes of the Department. Both sides are faithfully observing the agreement entered into by the U. S. government with Mr. Mallory and Col. Chase. This agreement binds us not to reinforce Fort Pickens unless it shall be attacked or threatened; it binds them not to attack it unless we should attempt to reinforce it.

I saw Gen. Bragg on the 30th ultimo, who reassured me that the conditions on their part should not be violated. While I cannot take on myself, under such insufficient authority as Gen. Scott's order, the fearful responsibility of an act which seems to render civil war inevitable, I am ready at all times to carry out whatever orders I may receive from the Hon. Secretary of the Navy.

In conclusion, I beg you will please to send me instructions as soon as possible, that I may be relieved from a painful embarrassment.

Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,

H. A. Adams, Captain, Senior officer present.

This officer's motto should have been “Festina lente.” He was pursuing just the course that would soonest throw Fort Pickens into the hands of the Confederates. And the date of writing (April 1, 1861), was the very day President Lincoln started on foot the Fort Pickens expedition. There were only twenty-five men in the fort under Capt. Slemmer, and at that time Naval Historian Boynton states that Mr. Welles had taken all the necessary precautions to secure Fort Pickens against an attack from the enemy.

It was not until April 6, 1861, the day on which the Powhatan and Atlantic left New York for Pensacola, that Mr. Secretary Welles answered the letter of Capt. Adams as follows:

Navy Department, April 6, 1861.
To Capt. H. A. Adams, Commanding Naval Force off Pensacola.
Sir — Your dispatch of April 1st is received. The department regrets that you did not comply with the request of Capt. Vodges to carry into effect the orders of General Scott, sent out by the Crusader under the orders of this department.

You will immediately, on the first favorable opportunity after the receipt of this order, afford every facility to Capt. Vodges by boats and other means to enable him to land the troops under his command, it being the wish and intention of the Navy Department to co-operate with the War Department in that object.

I am, respectfully yours,

Gideon Welles. Secretary of the Navy.

These orders were sent to Capt. Adams by a special messenger (Lieut. John L. Worden), who crossed the rebellious States to deliver them. He committed the orders to memory, in case the papers should be lost or he be arrested, but he arrived in safety, and delivered the document to Capt. Adams on the 12th of April. Capt. Vodges' company was immediately landed at Fort Pickens.

Thus from the time Capt. Vodges arrived [106] and was placed on board the Brooklyn, and from the time of General Scott's orders to land the troops, dated March 12, 1861, twenty-four days elapsed before any thing was done to relieve Fort Pickens, Capt. Slemmer remaining in command of the fort all that time with only twenty-five men. Where, then, is the protection that was granted by the Navy Department?

Three days after Mr. Welles issued his instructions to have General Scott's orders obeyed, the steamer Atlantic, chartered by Capt. Meigs, arrived and threw 600 men into the fort, with all that was necessary to resist a seige, and the next day the Powhatan was there to protect the fort with her batteries.

The military relief that was placed in the fort from the Brooklyn (75 men) was not at all adequate to its defence against Gen. Bragg's forces; not one man was ordered by the Navy Department to be landed from the ships at that time anchored off Pensacola, and this help never would have been afforded, for on or about the 20th, when a concerted signal was said to have been made for succor, the Powhatan's boats with marines were the only ones that responded to it. One of these boats got alongside the flagship by mistake and was detained there until daylight, with the remark that they knew nothing about concerted signals!

The historian Boynton rather sneers at the manner in which Pickens was relieved by the Powhatan and Atlantic, and reflects on the brilliancy of the exploit. Certainly there was nothing brilliant about it, but it was successful, and it must have reassured the Northern people when they heard that there was some decision still left in President Lincoln's Cabinet, when they saw that a merchant steamer had thrown 600 men into Fort Pickens and that a frigate was protecting them with her guns; best of all, that the President had asserted his right to man and use the Government forts as he pleased.

If there was any compact between the Confederates and the Government, it was broken on the arrival of the Powhatan--for she fired upon them the moment they attempted a water expedition towards Santa Rosa Island.

All the claims for saving Fort Pickens from the enemy, put forward by anyone in favor of the Navy Department, are null and void.

Capt. Meigs puts the matter truthfully and squarely, when in answer to questions concerning the expedition, he stated:

An order was issued on the recommendation of Secretary Seward, detaching the “Powhatan ” from the Sumter expedition, and sending her to Fort Pickens.

In conclusion permit me to remark that this, the first successful military expedition of the war, originated with Mr. Seward; until it sailed the United States had declined every where.

The above account, in relation to the steps taken to relieve Sumter and Pickens, is perfectly correct, and the attempt of any one to detract from the credit of the Fort Pickens expedition is unworthy of consideration.

Several attempts were made to credit the Navy Department with the merit of saving Fort Pickens to the Union, and the same authority attempted to show that the Fort Pickens expedition caused the failure at Sumter. There was no necessity for making an excuse for the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Fox, or anybody else who was concerned in the attempt to rescue Sumter. War was a foregone conclusion with the leaders at Charleston, but they still retained sufficient right feeling to wish to have some valid excuse for striking the first blow. Mr. Secretary Welles gave them the opportunity by sending down the relief vessels: the first blow had to come and the sooner it came the better.

No one can cast any reflection on Secretary Welles or Mr. Fox for the failure (if it may be so called) at Charleston. It was a matter beyond their control; they were both loyal men and did all they could to bring about the relief of the men in Fort Sumter, and their loyalty and determination to put down the rebellion was unceasing during a four years war, which required the most eminent ability to conduct the Department in which each of them exercised that control best suited to his capacity.

If Mr. Secretary Welles does not deserve the credit of succoring Pickens in time, it is because he had not an officer in command of the squadron at Pensacola who would anticipate orders, or who was enough interested in the Union cause to take the responsibility of using active measures without instructions. Secretary Welles also labored under the disadvantage of having the general of the army sending down orders to the captain of the company on board the Brooklyn to land, without properly passing his orders through the Navy Department, so that there might be perfect concert of action between the commander of the troops and the commander of the vessel.

When Mr. Welles was called on to act he did act promptly, and if late in doing so it mattered very little, for the expedition inaugurated by Mr. Seward arrived a day or two after, and made the place so secure that no Confederate force could have any effect upon it.

These two places, Sumter and Pickens, on which at one time so much depended [107] (whether war or peace would rule the day), are too prominent subjects to pass over lightly, and if the writer has dwelt on the matter longer than the reader may think justifiable, it is because he desired to give a true account of the whole affair.

The operations of the Gulf and East Gulf blockading squadrons were mostly confined to blockading duty, with an occasional smart skirmish with the enemy. The names of the following officers are spoken of as active in the performance of all the duties which fell to their lot in this limited sphere of action: Lieut.-Commander Francis Winslow, Commander Geo. F. Emmons, Lieuts. J. C. Howell and A. F. Crossman, Commander H. S. Stellwagen, Lieut. Abbot, Capt. Cicero Price and Act.-Master Elnathan Lewis.

These officers all did good service, and gave evidence of loyalty and zeal which promised greater usefulness when employed in a wider sphere of action.

The duty in the Gulf was harrassing, and at the same time tedious and monotonous; and if not as brilliant as that performed by the Navy in other localities, it performed its share of the work of putting down the rebellion by maintaining the blockade of the Southern Coast, the most severe duty performed by any officers during the war.

Gulf Squadron, 1861, vessels and officers.

Note.--Names of officers obtained mostly from Navy Register of August 31, 1861.

Flagship Niagara.

Captain Wm. W. McKean, Flag Officer; Lieuts., John Guest, Wm. F. Spicer, J. C. P. De Krafft, Robt. L. May and Edw. E. Potter; Fleet Surg., G. R. B. Horner; Surgeon, J. Foltz; Asst. Surg., James McAllister; Chaplain, C. S. Stewart; Paymaster, G. B. Barry; Masters, J. D. Marvin, James O'Kane, T. L. Swan, H. B. Robeson and Silas Casey, Jr.; Capt. Marines, Josiah Watson; First Lieut., Geo. Butler; Chief Engineer, Robt. H. Long; Asst.-Engineers, D. B. Macomb, C. B. Kidd, E. A. C. DuPlaine, L. R. Green, R. H. Grinnell, A. H. Fisher and Robt. Potts; Boatswain, A. M. Pomeroy; Gunner, R. J. Hill; Carpenter, John Rainbow; Sailmaker, Stephen Seaman.

Frigate Santee.

Captain, Henry Eagle; Surgeon, T. M. Potter; Lieuts., James E. Jouett, J. J. Mitchell. B. N. Wescott, James H. Spotts; Act.-Master's Mate, Charles W. Adams; Asst.-Surg., C. H. Burbank; Paymaster, L. Warrington; Midshipmen, Frederick Rodgers, George M. Brown, S. H. Hunt; Boatswain, William Black; Carpenter, Wm. H. Edgar; Gunner, William Carter; First Lieut. of Marines, C. D. Hebb.

Steamer Richmond.

Capt., F. B. Ellison; Lieuts., N. C. Bryant, A. B. Cummings, Robert Boyd, Jr., Edward Terry, Byron Wilson; Surgeon, A. A. Henderson; Asst.-Surgeon, William Howell; Paymaster, Geo. F. Cutter; Boatswain, I. T. Choate; Sailmaker, H. T. Stocker; Carpenter, H. L. Dixon; Gunner, James Thayer; Act.-Master's Mate, H. W. Grinnell; First Lieut. Marines, Alan Ramsey; Chief Engineer, John W. Moore; Asst.-Engineers, Eben Hoyt, J. L. Butler, Wm. Pollard, A. W. Morley, G. W. W. Dove, R. B. Plotts, C. E. Emery.

Sloop-of-war Vincennes.

Commander, Robert Handy; Lieut., John E. Hart; Surgeon, S. A. Engles; Paymaster, R. C. Spalding; Asst. Surgeon, Somerset Robinson; Midshipmen, O. A. Batcheller, B. F. Haskin, M. W. Sanders and E. M. Shepard; Boatswain, Jos. Shankland; Gunner, William Wilson; Sailmaker, Nicholas Lynch; Second Lieut. Marines, J. H. Higbee.

Sloop-of-war Preble.

Commander, Henry French; Lieut., William E. Hopkins; Surgeon, Stewart Kennedy; Paymaster, C. P. Wallach; Boatswain, John Bates; Gunner, E. J. Waugh; Carpenter, James Kinnear; Sailmaker, G. A. Wightman.

Steamer water Witch.

Commander, Wm. Ronckendorff (in August); Lieut., Francis Winslow (in October); Lieuts., J. L. Davis, James Stillwell, C. H. Cushman and Allan V. Reed; P. Asst.-Surgeon, P. S. Wales; Asst.-Engineers, Wm. C. Selden, Reynolds Driver, Edw. Scattergood, A. H. Able.

Frigate Potomac.

Capt., L. M. Powell, Lieuts., Samuel Marcy, Lewis A. Kimberly; Geo. E. Law; Master, W. S. Schley; Surgeon, J. D. Miller; Asst.-Surgeon, A. O. Leavitt; Paymaster, James D. Murray; Midshipmen, Wm. T. Sampson, C. H. Humphrey, Merrill Miller, John H. Reed, D. D. Wemple; Boatswain. C. E. Bragdon; Gunner, W. H. French; Carpenter, O. T. Stimson; Sailmaker, Geo. Thomas.

Steamer Huntsville.

Com. Cicero Price; Lieut., Henry Erben: Midshipmen, E. C. V. Blake, Louis Kempff.

Steamer R. R. Cuyler.

Lieut. Francis Winslow; Act.-Lieut., J. Van Ness Philip; Act.-Master, Henry K. Lapham; Midshipmen, L. R. P. Adams, A. C. Alexander, Wm. R. Bridgman.

Steamer Hatteras.

Com., Geo. F. Emmons; Act.-Master, Hoffman; Master's Mates, McGrath and Hazlett.

Steamer Massachusetts.

Com., Melancton Smith.

Steamer New London.

Com., James Alden.


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