-- Aftermath --

Saturday April 13, 1861

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Commentary: Waiting for the Powhatan

Fox claimed that he did not learn that the Powhatan, whose crew and boats were essential to his plan, had been dispatched to Pickens until he boarded the Pawnee on the morning of April 13. The Pawnee's captain, S. C. Rowan, then informed him of the switch.

As Richard N. Current notes, Fox never explained how this oversight occurred. Rowan and Fox had direct, personal communication on the 12th. Yet the information about the Powhatan was not, apparently, revealed, and Fox spent the evening waiting for the arrival of this ship. Failure to communicate the flagship's change of plans constitutes another of the many foul-ups associated with the Sumter expedition.

Although it is impossible to explain conclusively how this slip occurred, some suggestions can be offered. It seems that Captain Mercer, after relinquishing his command to Lieutenant Porter, sent a copy of his original orders, along with an explanation that the Powhatan had been detached from duty at Charleston, to the captain of the Harriet Lane, as it was about to depart. He was to present these papers to the senior officer on the scene when he arrived at the rendezvous point, who turned out to be Captain Rowan of the Pawnee. The documents were transferred to Rowan when the Pawnee arrived, the morning of April 12, just before Fox visited him on board his ship.

It is certainly possible that in the confusion of events, Rowan thought that Captain Mercer might soon arrive in another ship. Rowan's own orders were to report to Mercer at the rendezvous point, and await his arrival "should he not be there." Alternatively, Rowan might not have initially understood that the Powhatan itself had been permanently detached from the Sumter expedition. He may have assumed that the Powhatan would still arrive, though late because of its new orders.

Thus, after his arrival off Charleston, Rowan informed Fox (according to Fox's story) that he was going to await "the Powhatan" at the rendezvous spot. Rowan, however, might well have said he was going to await "Mercer," instead of "the Powhatan," leaving Fox to expect the ship's arrival. In either case, the following day (April 13), when neither Captain Mercer nor the Powhatan had arrived, Rowan may have realized the true significance of the message that he had received from Mercer, and conveyed its substance to Fox.

However it happened, there was evidently a breakdown of communication between Rowan and Fox, and, indeed, the historical documents reveal tension between the two officers. Fox, for example, claimed that Rowan, when he arrived on the morning of April 12, refused at first to assist him in attempting to land supplies. Rowan's account, however, insists that he "immediately" gave the necessary orders to help Fox. Rowan also attributed the delay in launching a second relief attempt the following morning to Fox's "grounding" on the shoal. Fox's account, however, views the grounding as of no consequence, and submits the weather and seas as the reasons for delaying the effort. Finally, Rowan credits himself with the idea of capturing the ice schooner as a means of carrying in supplies and troops to the fort, while Fox's narrative suddenly lapses into the passive voice to avoid crediting any officer with the idea.

Relations between Fox and Rowan, then, were apparently sufficiently strained to explain their failure to communicate openly and fully.

Bibliography: Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, p. 171; ORN, pp. 235-36, 238, 249-50, 253-55; Fox, Confidential Correspondence, 1: 33.

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