Goodwin dismisses the contrary assertion that Lincoln didn’t bungle anything, that he had caused the expedition to Sumter to be carried out
just as he had intended. “Critics” she writes,
“later claimed that Lincoln had maneuvered the South into beginning the war. In
fact, he had simply followed his inaugural pledge that he would `hold’ the
properties belonging to the government, `but beyond what may be necessary’ to
accomplish this, `there will be no invasion—no using force.’ . . . Had Lincoln chosen to abandon the fort, he would have violated his pledge to the north. Had he
used force in any way other than to `hold’ government properties, he would have
breached his promise to the South.”
Historian Goodwin’s invocation of Lincoln’s first Inaugural
Address as her factual basis for her claim that the Sumter expedition was
“bungled” by Lincoln’s failing to read orders, is a classic example of glossing
over the textual meaning of words.
The apparent final text of Lincoln’s address is reproduced
by the editors of Rutgers University Press, in The Collected Works of
Abraham Lincoln ((1936). Goodwin’s quotation from the address, in which she
mixes her own words, hardly amounts to a “pledge”, so much as an explicit
threat that Lincoln intended to hold Fort Sumter with military force! The
actual text reads this way:
Lincoln had made himself absolutely clear in his inaugural
address that he would marshal the military forces of the Union to “hold” the
forts situated at Pensacola and Charleston. But was it practical that this
could be done? As for Fort Pickens the answer was plainly “yes.” Fort Pickens is located at the tip of a long spit of land called Santa Rosa Island. Since
January 1861, Captain Israel Vogdes, of the U.S. Army, was on board the Navy
war ship, U.S.S. Brooklyn, off Pensacola Harbor. The U.S.S Brooklyn
was the flag ship of a fleet of naval warships on station in the Gulf of Mexico.
Vodges had on board with him a regiment of soldiers, ready to go ashore Santa Rosa Island and reinforce the fort. But the Buchanan administration had recognized an
armistice with the Confederate forces. Notwithstanding this, by March 1861, Vodges
had gone ashore with his troops and assumed command of the garrison.
According to E.D. Keyes, at the time military secretary to
the general-in-chief, Winfield Scott, the morning of Easter Sunday, March 31, 1861, General Scott handed him a map of Pensacola Harbor and told him to take it to William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State.
Upon Keyes arriving at Seward’s home, Seward told him to go find Captain Montgomery
C. Meigs, an army engineer who was in Washington as the supervisor of the
construction of the Capital dome. When Keyes returned with Meigs to Seward’s
home, Seward told them “to make a plan to reinforce Fort Pickins.” (See, E.D.
Keyes, Fifty Years Observation of Men and Events Charles Scribner’s Sons
Meigs, together, then went to the War Department, pulled maps, and calculated
the tonnage of supplies needed, the amount of cannon and ammunition, and
troops, with sustenance supplies, necessary, in their view, to sustain the Fort
Pickens garrison for a period of six months. Their plans formed, the two army
officers appeared at the White House at 3:00 p.m. and met with Seward and
Lincoln. They presented their plan to Lincoln, who said, according to Keyes,
when they were done—“See General Scott, and carry your plans into execution
Upon leaving the White House, Keyes says he went to General
Scott and dined with him. Scott was not happy that his secretary had gone to
the White House and assumed a position as organizer of the Pickens expedition
without his permission; but he acquiesced.
On Monday morning, April 1, Meigs and Keyes continued their
work, selecting as the expedition’s commander, Colonel Harvey Brown of the
Artillery, and they drew up written instructions for him. This writing was
reviewed by Seward. Keyes then showed it to Scott, who signed his name to it
without comment. The instructions make reference to naval vessels, but is
silent as to the participation of the Navy’s warship, Powhatan. The
instructions read in relevant part:
“You will proceed to New York, where
steam transportation for four companies will be engaged, and putting on board
such supplies as you can ship without delay, proceed at once to your
Captain Meigs will accompany you as
engineer. . . The naval officers in the Gulf will be instructed to cooperate
with you, and to afford every facility in their power for the accomplishment of
the object of the expedition. . .
Lt. Col. Keyes will be authorized to
give all necessary orders and to call upon staff for every requisite material
and for transportation. . . “
Keyes claimed, in his book, that
he drafted an order for himself which he presented to Scott for signature, but
Scott told him to take it to Lincoln. The text as printed by Keyes follows, but
it appears that no authentic copy of this order exists in the record.
Lt. Col. E.D. Keyes Executive Mansion
April 3, 1861
You will proceed forthwith to the city
of New York to carry out the instructions which you have received here. All
requisitions made upon officers of the staff by your authority, and all orders
given by you to any officer of the Army in my name, will be instantly
obeyed. (italics added.)
With Lincoln’s order in hand, Keyes says he left Washington by the night train of April 3, for New York. He says that Meigs accompanied him,
and, for the first time, he mentions the name of Lt. David D. Porter, a naval
officer and puts Porter on the train with him. At Philadelphia, a change of
train was necessary and Keyes chose to remain in Philadelphia for the night,
Meigs and Porter going on alone.
Keyes arrived in New York the morning of April 4 and
immediately began issuing requisitions for supplies upon the various
departments of the Army. At the same time he leased the services of the
transports, Atlantic, Illinois, and Philadelphia.
Two days later, on Saturday, April 6, Meigs and Col. Brown went on board the Atlantic and steamed into the sea for the passage to Pensacola. The Illinois followed on Monday, April 8. Thus, the Fort Pickens expedition was carried
out without incident: all the transport ships arrived and, under cover of the
Gulf fleet, the troops, artillery, and provisions were uneventfully off-loaded
on Santa Rosa Island and, without a shot fired, reinforced the fort. Five
months later, the Confederates attempted to storm the fort but were driven off
In his narrative, Keyes raises the issue of the Powhatan
indirectly. He claims he sent the text of the following message to Seward, on
Tuesday, April 7th. Given the timing of events and the known circumstances
of the case, Keyes’s letter makes little sense. Here it is:
Dear Sir: Captain Meigs received a
telegram to stop a certain vessel. Fortunately it came too late. . .
Coming on (the train ride?) I told
Porter, of the Navy, that the placing of one or two vessels in a certain place
at a certain time, would make the game certain—without, the loss will be
certain. . . .”
Seward made no reply to this, although Seward eventually instructed Keyes to
stop writing him and return to his chain of command. Keyes attempted to return
to Scott, but Scott terminated his services as military secretary. Eventually, Lincoln appointed Keyes a major-general in command of a corps in the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln appointed Meigs the Army’s Quartermaster General. As for the barely
mentioned naval officer, D.D. Porter, Lincoln appointed him an admiral.
The Fort Sumter Expedition
Unlike the straightforward story Keyes tells about the
organization and execution of the Pickens expedition, the story the historians
tell about Sumter is full of confusion. But when the record is broken down into
its separate parts and each part examined in light of the known circumstances,
it becomes reasonably clear what happened to derail the Sumter
expedition—Lincoln, the sly country lawyer, tricked the Confederate government
into believing that he intended to use naval warships to invade the harbor. The
hook for Lincoln’s trick was the U.S.S. Powhatan.
By April 1861, the problem for Abraham Lincoln was how to incite
the Northern people (made up of millions of Democrats) to respond to his
extra-legal call for volunteers, to form an army to invade the South. (“I deem
the Union unbroken,” he had said; “I shall hold the forts,” he had said, and I
shall do it, he said, “unless. . . the American people shall withhold the
requisite means.” The bodies, money, and material war requires, he means.)
When Lincoln came into office on March 4, 1861, he knew it was impossible for him to hold Fort Sumter. According to his general-in-chief,
Winfield Scott, an army of twenty thousand men would be required. The force
would land on Morris Island where it would have to fight battles to maintain
itself in proximity to the fort which rested on a man-made shoal in the middle
of the harbor. But Lincoln had no such army available to him; it was as simple
Relying on the U.S. Navy to penetrate Charleston Harbor and reinforce Fort Sumter was also impossible. The feat might have been accomplished
four months earlier, while Buchanan was still president, but now, in April
1861, the Confederates had built a substantial array of batteries on all points
of land surrounding Fort Sumter and had battery platforms on the waters ringing
the fort. No navy ship of the line could expect to survive the artillery storm
that would fall on it as it came across the bar and entered the harbor. In
addition, fire ships would most certainly be sailed down upon it and there
would be booms of barriers across the mouth of the harbor blocking entrance.
Recognizing the Military Reality, Lincoln Creates a
Buchanan’s last days in office, the son-in-law of Montgomery Blair, Gustavas V.
Fox, had approached Buchanan’s cabinet with a paper plan to effect the
reinforcement of Fort Sumter. The plan called for steamships to carry troops,
munitions and sustenance supplies down to Charleston. The steamers would also
carry whale boats. Tugboats would follow the steamers and naval war ships would
also be present to provide covering fire. Once all these vessels were collected outside the
harbor mouth, at night, and with the tide, the soldiers would occupy the
whaleboats, and the tugboats would tow strings of them into the harbor and
around to the fort’s wharf, where the soldiers would disembark and enter the
This plan was rejected by Buchanan. Instead a single
civilian steamer was sent, with notice given to the Confederates that the ship
carried food supplies only. The steamer—The Star of the West—did enter
the harbor, but was forced to make a U-turn under heavy fire from the shore
batteries and the danger of fire ships crashing into it. Given the military
facts of the situation, no reasonable person standing in Lincoln’s shoes, in
April 1861, could have entertained intelligently, the idea of adopting Fox’s
plan for use against South Carolina.
Most importantly, Lincoln knew that if he actually executed
Fox’s plan, then his government would be viewed, both domestically and
internationally, as the military aggressor, the attacker, and South Carolina would be viewed as the defender of its sovereign territory.
Such a perception certainly would not have had the effect
Lincoln needed; if he was to get his hands on “the requisite means” of waging
war, he first needed to change political opinion one hundred and eighty degrees
from the view taken by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune (a main stay
radical Republican) that there was no point in the Union pinning the South to
it by the bayonet! That was exactly what Lincoln, from his inauguration
day, meant to do: Pin the South to the Union with the bayonet. Can Ms. Goodwin
deny this was Lincoln’s original intent? Can any rational person who reads the
record deny this?
Lincoln’s secretary of the navy, Gideon Welles, in his
posthumously published book—The Diary of Gideon Welles—states
the political climate of the time correctly: “Neither party (Republican or
Democrat) appeared to be apprehensive of or to realize the gathering storm.
There was a general belief, indulged in by most persons, that an adjustment
would in some way be brought about, without any extensive resort to extreme
measures. . . the great body of the people. . . were incredulous as to any
extensive, serious disturbance.”
How, in riling the country to war, was Lincoln to turn on
its head the perception that he was the aggressor? How to make it seem that South Carolina was the aggressor and that Lincoln’s government was merely defending itself
from such aggression. How, in other words, to provoke South Carolina into
bombarding the fort without, apparently, any provocation?
No sooner had Lincoln assumed the executive office but he
was off and running with a plan to do this. He accomplished the plan by
creating the appearance, in the minds of the Confederates, that he had issued
orders that circumstances confirmed were being carried out, to send U.S. Naval
warships to Charlestown, to force an entrance into the harbor.
Charleston Harbor 1861
The Political Situation
On March 5, 1861, commissioners from the Confederate
government arrived in Washington and began communicating with William Seward, the
Secretary of State. They were there to negotiate with Lincoln, the idea being
to establish a treaty between the Union and the Confederacy. In the course of
these communications they pressed for the garrisons be evacuated from forts Pickens and Sumter. Lincoln refused to meet with them, but allowed Seward to string
them along through the month of March and into early April. Seward’s several
messages promised that eventually he would persuade Lincoln to order the evacuations.
According to Gideon Welles’s account, on March 6, two days
after Lincoln’s inauguration, Welles was informed by General Scott, of “the
formidable obstacles which were to be encountered from the numerous and
well-manned batteries that were erected in Charleston Harbor. Any successful
attempt to reinforce or relieve the garrison by sea Scott supposed
The next day, Welles and Scott met with Lincoln at the White
House and Scott repeated his opinion. According to Welles’s story, the “President.
. . was adverse to any offensive measures . . . to forbear giving offense.” Lincoln at this meeting
ordered Scott to prepare a position statement on Sumter and report back.
Plays It Close To The Vest.
At this point, Welles relates, Lincoln established the
practice of not inviting all cabinet members to meetings. Between March 4 and April 6, 1861, Lincoln held the ribbons leading to each minister in his hands, but each
minister was in the dark regarding what was happening in the departments of the
other ministers. In other words, he kept the right hand from knowing what the
left hand was doing. Only William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, seemed
to be in Lincoln’s total confidence although, from the evidence, that is far
from certain. As Welles stated it, “The Secretary of State was apprised of
every meeting. . . The President had only to send word to the State Department
(Seward) at any time, day or night, when he wanted to call his cabinet
together, or any portion of them
. . . “
In the middle of March, at Lincoln’s direction, G. V. Fox
went to Sumter to confer with Major Anderson commanding the garrison. Anderson told Fox, forcing a way in to the harbor was not practical. But when Fox
returned, Welles states, “The President accepted the services of Fox. . . , the
object being the relief of the garrison and the supplies and troops for
reinforcement being from the army, the expedition was a military one and not a
naval one, but with naval aid and cooperation.” Welles’s statement, here, is
contradicted by Welles: “Any successful attempt to reinforce [Fort Sumter] by sea [Scott] supposed impractical. . . The question was, however, one for
naval authorities to decide, for the army could do nothing.” (italics
added; see p. 4.)
us his understanding of Fox’s plan. “The transports which the War Department
was to charter were to rendezvous off Charleston with naval (war) vessels. . .
The steam frigate Powhatan. . . had just arrived (at Brooklyn Naval
Yard), and the crew discharged the day before the final decision of the
President was communicated. Dispatches were sent. . . directing that the Powhatan
be fitted without delay for service. The Pawnee, Pocahontas, and the Harriet Lane, were ordered (by Welles) to be in readiness for sea service on or
before April 6. These orders were given on March 30th.” (The Harriet Lane was at the Washington Naval Yard, the Pawnee and Pocahontas
were at Norfolk Naval Yard.)
Welles, as the “naval authority,” had first called upon
Commander Ward and Commodore Stringham to take command of the expedition to Sumter. According to Welles, both naval officers (of high rank) “were confident that the
Navy could reinforce the garrison.” But in interviews with Scott “Commander
Ward became less confident and was finally convinced that relief was
impracticable.” “Commodore Stringham came ultimately but reluctantly to the
same conclusion.” (Diary at pp. 8-9.) It was at this point, when Lincoln realized that senior naval officers were not willing to recommend the expedition
that he sent G.V. Fox, who had formally been, but was not then, a naval
officer down to Charleston to confer with the garrison commander, Major
At or near the same time as Fox’s
visit to Charleston, Welles states, Lincoln came to him, “and asked me if a
naval expedition could be promptly fitted out to relieve Sumter.” According to
Welles, Fox “again volunteered for the service, and was accepted by Mr.
Unlike the clear narrative
provided by E.D. Keyes, as to his role in organizing the military aspects of
the Pickens expedition, Gideon Welles provides a somewhat incoherent account of
how the Sumter expedition was organized. An examination of all the existing
evidence, however, points to the reasonable conclusion that, in the Sumter
expedition, Fox functioned essentially like Keyes did with Pickens: Fox
calculated the amount of men and material required, obtained authority from
Scott to take certain companies of soldiers, and leased the steamships needed
to transport them to their destination; this included purchasing whale boats
and chartering tug boats. Fox did not get involved in any way, as far as the
record shows, in ordering that any naval warships be assigned to the expedition
as escorts, or participate in getting the ships fit for sea duty. That task,
the record shows, was left by Lincoln in the sole hands of Welles. Welles
performed this task by preparing and sending orders to the captains of the four
ships he had selected to form the squadron: Powhatan, Harriet Lane, Pawnee,
and Pocahontas. This was done in the last week of March and cleared with
Welles reports, “It was arranged,
by the War and Navy Departments that their forces—the naval vessels and
transports—should meet and rendezvous ten miles due east of Charlestown Lighthouse on the morning of April 11. Each of the vessels was to report
to Capt. Samuel Mercer, commanding the Powhatan.”
Welles does not say, but in a courtroom it would be
reasonably found that if Lincoln did not dictate the terms of Welles’s orders
to the sea captains, at least he knew what the terms were. It was through his subsequent
secret order, dated April 1, but delivered to Captain Mercer on April 6 by the
hand of Lt. David D. Porter, that Lincoln pulled off his trick.
Welles sent Capt. Mercer, in command of the Powhatan,
the following instructions, which the record has dated April 5.
“The United States [Navy] steamers Powhatan,
Pawnee, Pocahontas, and Harriet Lane will compose a naval force
under your command, to be sent to the vicinity of Charleston Harbor, for the purpose of. . . carrying out the objects of an expedition of which the War
Department has charge (Scott is supplying the men and material and transports,
Fox is to lead them.).
The primary object. . . is to provision
Fort Sumter. . . Should the authorities at Charleston refuse to permit, or
attempt to prevent the vessels from entering. . .you will protect the
transports or boats, open the way for their ingress, and [remove] all
obstructions to entry. . . The expedition has been intrusted to Captain G. V.
Fox, with whom you will put yourself in communication. . .
You will leave New York with the Powhatan
in time to be off Charleston bar, ten miles distant from and due east of
the lighthouse. . . there to await the arrival of the transports (with Fox on
board). . . The Pawnee, Pocahontas, and Harriet Lane will be ordered to
join you. . . “
Welles sent similar instructions to the captains of the other
three ships: They were to wait on station ten miles due east of the lighthouse
for the Powhatan to arrive and then take their orders from Mercer.
Obviously if Mercer and the Powhatan did not appear nothing would
happen, except three ships and some transports would be floundering at sea.
The Situation Before Lincoln Issues His Secret Orders
Welles’s testimony (or his son’s) the following facts are clear: First, a joint
military mission was underway, the purpose of which was to force an entrance
into Charleston Harbor and reinforce Fort Sumter. General Scott was supplying
the expedition with transports, soldiers, ammunition and supplies; Welles was
supplying four war ships, the total guns of the fleet being approximately forty
guns. G.V. Fox, the originator of the plan, was to lead the force into action.
But, given Welles’s orders (the source of the text of which is not known) the
captains of the four ships were to rendezvous ten miles off the coast, and only
once they were together, was Captain Mercer, the captain of the command ship Powhatan,
to allow the fleet to move toward the harbor mouth.
Lt. David D.
Porter Testifies What Happened Next.
Captain, later Admiral, David D. Porter, provides his point
of view, in a book published in 1885, entitled Incidents and Anecdotes of
the Civil War.
When Porter became involved in the story, he was under
orders from Welles to go immediately to California. (He was not in Welles’s
favor.) But, while he was preparing to leave for the coast, he received a note
from Seward that requested he see him without delay.
When he reached Seward, Seward said, Porter says, “Can you
tell me how we can save Fort Pickens?” Porter says he answered, “I can, sir.”
Porter told Seward that Captain Meigs, of the Army, had told him several days
before that they might get several companies of soldiers together, land them by
sea on the outside of Fort Pickens and in that matter reinforce the fort. (Seward,
then, is working two sets of young men: Keyes and Meigs on the one hand, and
Porter on the other. Porter, a naval officer, has nothing to do in this
scenario, but carry secret sealed orders of Lincoln’s to New York.)
According to Porter’s story, he and Seward then went to the
White House. Porter told Lincoln, he says, that Welles’s department of the navy
was riddled with disloyal officers and spies. If Welles was in the loop, Porter
claims he said, “the news would be at once flashed over the wires.” Porter
continued: “But if you (Lincoln) will issue all orders and let me proceed to New York I will guarantee their execution to the letter.” (This is a proffered excuse for
why Lincoln intentionally keep his secretary of the navy in the dark.) Porter,
in his book, next creates some dialogue:
“But,” the President said, “is not this a most irregular
mode of proceeding?”
“Certainly,” Porter says he replied, “but the necessity of
the case justifies it.”
Seward broke in. “You are commander-in-chief. . . this is
necessary. . . .”
“What will Welles say?” Lincoln asked.
“I will make it right,” Seward replied.
Porter’s narrative, while probably novelistic, contains a
stolid germ of evidence, that Lincoln knew the government’s war and navy
departments were infested with spies. As to Pickens, the spies were irrelevant,
for the fort could be easily reinforced. As to Sumter, however, if Lincoln wanted the Confederate government to believe he intended to force his way into the
harbor, the easiest means of getting the enemy the message was to let Welles
send orders to the ship captains through the usual channels; then, secretly
change just one of the orders. That is exactly what Lincoln did. He had Welles
send Mercer his original orders to be ready to sail the Powhatan to Charleston.
Therefore, the conclusion must reasonably follow that Lincoln intended that the Confederates know the Powhatan was going to sea,
apparently under the command of Captain Mercer and on a mission to storm Charleston Harbor and reinforce Fort Sumter.
Porter Thinks Lincoln Fooled Welles
Porter switches his narrative at this point from reporting dialogue
to giving exposition: “At this very time Welles was—or supposed he was—fitting
out an expedition for the relief of Fort Sumter. All the orders were issued in
the usual way, and of course, telegraphed to Charlestown, as soon as written,
by the persons in the department through whose hands they passed.” (Italics
Let’s stop and reflect here: So, far, according to the
narratives of Welles and Porter, Lincoln has ordered that two separate
expeditions put to sea; one expedition led by Fox is to force its way into Charleston Harbor; and the other, led by Colonel Brown, to go to Pensacola. The Sumter expedition is to have four ships of the line, with the command ship being the Powhatan,
while Brown’s expedition has only those war vessels which are already on
station in the Gulf. Lincoln issued orders to Welles for the Sumter expedition
and Welles issued the formal orders to the ship captains, while Keyes and
Meigs, working under Seward’s supervision, wrote the orders for the Pensacola expedition. Both Fox, on the one hand, and Meigs on the other, were to go to New York to board their respective steamers for the ocean voyage.( Fox left New York on one of the transport steamers, while the Powhatan remained in port, as
did Meigs. Fox did not learn that the Powhatan had been taken by Porter
to Pensacola until April 13th.)
What now actually happened to cause, as Ms. Goodwin put it
in her book, Lincoln’s bungling?
On April 6, Porter went abroad the Powhatan and handed
secret orders to Captain Mercer, written by Lincoln, which told Mercer he was relieved
of command of the vessel, and that Porter was taking the Powhatan..(We
do not know in whose handwriting, Porter’s original order was written, as
Porter never apparently produced it.)
(See, The Official Records of the Rebellion, Series
1, Vol. 4, 1885; and The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Rutgers University Press, 1953, Vol IV, pp. 314-315. In a footnote the Rutgers editors
state this:”The several communications addressed to Foote (Navy Yard
commandant), Mercer, and Porter on April 1, as printed in various sources are
all in general agreement, but our failure to locate the original documents
issued in connection with the Powhatan episode leaves much to be desired in
clarifying the circumstances which occasioned the several communications. . .
Hence the editors have relied on the Official Records for the texts here
reproduced.” (Who has possession of the original of the orders is an issue
someone with the time someday may resolve. Are they written in Lincoln’s hand?)
To Porter, Lincoln gave sealed orders, to be opened once he was
abroad the Powhatan and had handed Captain Mercer his orders.
Note the fact that Seward’s name appears on Porter’s order
but not on Mercer’s order, though both are dated the same day. (Note, too, that
both, while dated April 1, were not opened and read until April 6)
William Seward’s Role in This
From other correspondence in the Official Records, it
appears that Seward either did not know of the Sumter expedition, or did not
know that Lincoln had ordered Mercer to give command of the Powhatan to
Porter, or, if he did know, pretended he didn’t.
The relationship between Lincoln and Seward in 1861 is
subject to some controversy. Was Lincoln treating Seward as an equal, someone
whose consent he needed as a matter of politics when he was intending to do
something radical, like invade native states, or issue proclamations of
freedom for slaves? Or did he use Seward’s signature when he wanted to, as a
mask to hide behind, ignoring Seward when it suited him?
Lincoln’s Trick Was to Paralyze The Sumter Expedition
What does Lincoln’s secret order to Mercer mean for the Sumter expedition? It means that since the Powhatan will never be appearing “ten
miles off the Charleston lighthouse,” as Welles’s orders to all the ship
captains specify, none of the ships can leave their station and force an entry
into the harbor. To the extent transport steamers arrive and tugs arrive,
nothing will happen. As Porter says, Welles’s orders, and Lincoln’s for that
matter, at least those transmitted by telegraph to the commander of the
Brooklyn Naval Yard (but not Mercer’s order carried by hand by Porter), were
Confederate spies and the information transmitted to President Davis.
Furthermore, spies at the ports of the various ships confirmed that in fact the
ships put to sea with troops on board. Therefore, a reasonable person in Confederate
president Davis’s shoes would know that, in fact, the Lincoln government had
launched a naval invasion of South Carolina—its objective, to reinforce a fort
that was intended by all concerned when it was built, to defend the
harbor for the benefit of South Carolina, not to be used as a base of
offensive operations against South Carolina. But in fact, unknown to Davis,
the Powhatan was not bound for Charleston, but, by Lincoln’s truly
secret order, bound for Pensacola.
The Difference Between History and Evidence
Unlike ordinary trial lawyers, historians like Ms. Goodwin are
not concerned with digging deeply into a mass of material to ferret out the
facts, the inconsistencies, the contradictions between what one witness says
happened and what another says; they are too caught up in the rendition of
their narrative to be constrained by the rigorous presentation of evidence
that is required by a lawyer in a courtroom.
A trial lawyer cannot hope to win his case unless he has
gathered together in his arsenal, all the statements of the witnesses, in order
to show the trier of fact where the witness must be in error. Had Lincoln been
put in the witness chair, how was he to explain Ms. Goodwin’s story of his
bungling, when confronted with the fact that he had met with Porter, been told,
according to Porter, that Welles’s department was a sieve of information; that
anything passed through it would go directly into the Confederates’ hands.
Why would Lincoln adopt Porter’s suggestion to keep Welles
in the dark, and, yet allow Welles to pass to the sea captains his orders about
the Charleston Harbor adventure? Indeed, why order the Sumter expedition at all
when, to every competent military mind, it was plain the expedition could not
possibly succeed in the face of the Carolinians’ artillery batteries? The
reasonable inference plainly arises from these facts that Lincoln intended the
Confederate government to believe he meant to attack South Carolina, when in
fact he had orchestrated events to prevent the happening of that very thing.
Later, Lincoln made sure Porter escaped controversy over the
direction the Powhatan took when it put to sea under his command.
No Reasonable Person in Lincoln’s Shoes Would Make
Welles, in the book—Diary of Gideon Welles—tells this
story: “My instructions to Captain Mercer were read to the President on April
5, who approved them (this is four days after Lincoln has himself written
Mercer’s order to be carried by Porter). . . . Between eleven and twelve that
night, Mr. Seward and his son Frederick came to my rooms at Willard’s, with a
telegram from Captain Meigs at New York, stating in effect that the movements
were retarded by conflicting orders from [me].
I asked an explanation, for I could not understand the [confusion]. I assured
Seward that Porter had no command, and that the Powhatan was the
flagship, as he was aware, of the Sumter expedition. . . . [We went to the
White House]. The President. . . looked first at one then the other of us, and
declared that there must be some mistake. . . I assured him there was no
mistake; reminded him that I had read to him my confidential instructions to
Captain Mercer. He said that he remembered that fact, and that he approved of
them, but he could not remember that the Powhatan was the vessel. He
then turned to Seward and said `the Powhatan must be restored to Mercer,’
that on no account must the Sumter expedition fail. . . .”
In the courtroom, Lincoln would be burned by the fact
that, according to Welles, he did not disclose, at the time of Welles’s
confrontation, that he had indeed send a secret order to Mercer, relieving him
of the Powhatan’s command. Instead, he said, “There must be some mistake.”
Hardly a truthful statement under the circumstances.
Porter tells what happened next. “Captain Foote (commandant
of the Brooklyn Naval Yard) handed me a telegram from Welles, `Prepare the Powhatan
for sea.’ . . .I must telegraph to Mr. Welles.”
“Don’t make any mistake,” Porter claims to have replied.
“You must obey the Commander-in-chief,” and he quoted Lincoln’s order as: “Under
no circumstances will you make known to the Navy Department the object of this
expedition.” (More evidence of Lincoln’s intentional duplicity)
Porter, now abroad the Powhatan, continues his story.
“I slipped on board the Powhatan, and locked myself in the captain’s
stateroom. Captain Mercer was to remain in command until we got to Staten Island, when he was to go ashore. . . After the ship passed the bar and the pilot
had left, I was to appear. Just after Mercer had been put ashore, a fast
steamer signaled us. Perry, the first lieutenant, then in command of the ship,
did not know who was captain, so he stopped. Lieutenant Roe came on board and
delivered a telegram. It read as follows: `Deliver up the Powhatan at
once to Captain Mercer,’ signed Seward. Porter telegraphed back, “Have
received confidential orders from the President, and shall obey them, D.D.
Porter then went on deck, he says, and gave the order to go
ahead fast. In an hour and a half, the Powhatan was over the bar.
(Despite what Welles says Lincoln said in their meeting of April 5, Lincoln did
not in fact countermand his personal order to Porter, and therefore, quite
reasonably, Porter refused to accept Seward’s signature as sufficient to cause
him disobey the order—yet more evidence of Lincoln’s duplicity)
The Confederate Government Realizes Sumter Is to be
As for the Confederate commissioners, they were, of course,
duped. On April 9, with the Sumter naval expedition presumably in operation,
the Confederate commissioners in Washington. wrote to Seward, demanding to know
when Sumter would be evacuated; by this time they had received word of the
departure of the various ships and the text of Welles’s orders to Mercer and
the other captains. Seward replied through Supreme Court Associate Justice, Campbell, “Faith as to Sumter fully kept; wait and see.”
The commissioners wired General Beauregard at Charleston, on April 10: “The Tribune of today declares the main object of the
expedition to be the relief of Sumter, and that a force will be landed which
will overcome all opposition.”
. The Confederate Government’s Message to Beauregard
General G.T. Beauregard, Charleston Montgomery, 10th
If you have no doubt of the authorized
character of the agent who communicated to you the intention of the Washington
government to supply Sumter by force, you will at once demand its evacuation,
and, if this is refused, proceed, in such manner as you may determine, to
Walker, Secretary of War
was reported to Beauregard that the Harriet Lane had crept through the
Swash Channel and was close to the bar, with other ships lights sighted at sea,
Beauregard gave the order to commence the bombardment.
Lincoln, Like Any President, Should Not Be Immune From Criticism
upon the news of the bombardment, and the garrison’s subsequent surrender, Lincoln issued his call to the governors of the loyal states to furnish troops to suppress
the rebellion, and the governors, except for those of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, fell into line and the thing was done: The United States was
at war with the Confederacy. (Think here of Johnson with Vietnam, Bush with Iraq. Lincoln was their role model, not a good thing for the republic)
Why did Ms. Goodwin write her story as she did? Look through
the biographies of Lincoln, going back to Tarbell’s Life of Lincoln, or
Herndon’s, and you will hardly find mentioned the fact of Lincoln’s
manipulation of Welles, and his deceit in causing South Carolina to fire on
William Marvel, not quite the romantic as Goodwin,
acknowledges, in his book—Mr Lincoln goes to War (2006)—the essential
truth about Lincoln. “The example of the popular furor (caused by the
Confederates firing on the Star of the West) may have provided Lincoln’s principal purpose in dispatching the ships. Sumter stood for the most volatile
element of a delicate crisis, and Lincoln chose to handle it aggressively
rather than diplomatically; he gambled on provoking a war to assure the
dominance of federal authority . . . the decision to push the issue at Sumter strongly suggested a readiness to provoke an armed clash.”
Lincoln Gets What He Wants
On April 14, 1861, the Congress of the United States not in
session, Lincoln made the following “proclamation: “I, Abraham Lincoln,
President of the United States, in virtue of the power in me vested by the
Constitution and the laws (none that a lawyer can see), have thought fit to
call forth the militia of the several states of the Union, to the aggregate
number of seventy-five thousand, in order to suppress said [rebellion]. . . .”
The signature line reads: “By the President, William H. Seward, Secretary of
State.” (In whose handwriting is it written?)
As Carl Sandburg put it, in 1936, “Thus the war of words was
over and the naked test by steel weapons, so long foretold, was at last to
begin. It had happened before in other countries among other peoples bewildered
by economic necessity, by the mob oratory of politicians and editors, by the
ignorance of educated classes, by the greed of the propertied classes, by
elemental instincts touching race and religion, by the capacity of so many men
and women, and children for hating and fearing what they do not understand
while believing they do understand completely and perfectly what no one
understands except tentatively and hazardously.” (Abraham Lincoln: The War
Years, Vol. 1.)
. Fort Pickens is
located on a spit of land outside Pensacola Harbor. For Sumter is located
inside the harbor mouth about equal distance from the north and south shoulders
of the bay.
Of her? Of Lincoln? Of the War? Goodwin does not say.
The fleet consisted of Sabine, St. Louis, Wyandotte, and Brooklyn.
In 1909, a three volume book appeared on the market, entitled Diary of
Gideon Welles. The book was put together by Welles’s son, Edgar T. Welles.
The book was represented to be based on a hand-written diary that Welles had
kept during his tenure as Lincoln’s scretary of navy; except for the first
chapter from which this article quotes. Edgar Welles wrote in a footnote: “This
first chapter is not a part of Mr. Welles’s diary, having been written several
years after the events narrated,” and before Welles actually began to keep a
diary. The son does not state when, exactly, the narrative was written, or who
wrote and why.
This narrative of Welles makes no sense. Meigs had no reason to think the
Pickens expedition was to be delayed, because of “confusion” over who was to
command the Powhatan or where it was to go.
Again, this narrative of Welles is unintelligible, it makes no sense in the
context of the known circumstances.