Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Team of Rivals: U.S.S. Powhatan and the Attack on Fort Sumter...



Lately I have been reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln authored by Doris Kerns Goodwin. It was in the chapter entitled “Mystic Chords of Memory” that I found references to the U.S.S. Powhatan -the same steam-powered ship that brought the ambassadorial delegation from Japan to the Hawaiian Islands in March, 1860, and thenceforth to San Francisco.

Many are familiar with the crisis involving the secession of South Carolina from the United States and the federal installation –still in Union hands- at Fort Sumter in 1861. Supplies were running low. Lincoln’s cabinet debated whether or not to re-supply it. In addition, Fort Pickens in Pensacola Bay, Florida remained in Union control and debate ensued about what to do to avert civil war. There were concerns about the number of “navy men who were openly disloyal to the Union.” As Goodwin reports, the President signed orders on April 1 to Commandant Andrew Foote of the Navy Yard in Brooklyn NY to “fit out the Powhatan without delay” for was to be a secret mission by the Powhatan to Fort Pickens, not Fort Sumter. The Powhatan was under the command of Lt. David Porter.
Goodwin states that, “The Powhatan was the U.S. Navy’s most powerful warship,” on page 343. “Under no circumstances” should “the fact that she is fitting out” be disclosed to the Navy department, Lincoln emphasized. Both Navy Secretary Welles and Captain Fox, whose plans for the relief of Sumter depended on the Powhatan, remained unaware of the secret orders. With its mighty guns and three hundred sailors, the Powhatan was supposed to play an essential role in backing up the tugboats carrying supplies to Sumter.”

In a move that had serious repercussions, President Lincoln signed orders without reading them carefully that committed the Powhatan to both Fort Pickens and Fort Sumter. Gideon Welles, the secretary of the Navy, wrote to Samuel Mercer who was commander at the time of the Powhatan. Goodwin wrote that on April 5, Mercer was instructed to depart New York for Charleston with the goal of arriving there by the morning of the 11th. “If the supply boats were permitted to land at Fort Sumter, he should return to New York at once. If their entry was opposed, then the Powhatan and its supply ships should be used to open the way,” Goodwin writes.

With conflicting orders for the Powhatan to be essentially at two places at once the president’s strategy was “embarrassed by conflicting orders from the Secretary of the Navy.” Discovering the conflicting orders, Navy Secretary Welles and Secretary of State Seward went to the President. Seward was ordered at almost midnight to send Commander Porter a telegram “ordering him to return the Powhatan to Mercer without delay” so that the Sumter expedition could proceed. The Powhatan had already begun its voyage to Florida, not Charleston Harbor. When a Union fast ship finally caught up with the Powhatan, Porter continued to Florida anyway –assuming that “the previous order signed by the president had priority.”

Meanwhile, the Confederates had intercepted orders regarding the Powhatan and the attempt to resupply Fort Sumter. Brig. Gen. Pierre Beauregard sent a note at 3:30 a.m. on April 12 to Commander Anderson that he would commence an attack.

Goodwin wrote, “[Gustavus] Fox lamented, without the Powhatan’s men, howitzers, and fighting launches,” the Union forces had no chance at all to successfully defend themselves.

You can read about this and more about the U.S.S. Powhatan in pages 343-45 of Goodwin’s work. Highly recommended.

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