-- Final Orders --

Saturday April 6, 1861

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Commentary: The Powhatan Fiasco

Who was to blame for the detachment of the Powhatan from the Sumter expedition? Lincoln himself accepted responsibility, at least for the initial allocation of the ship to the Pickens operation. At Seward's urging, he had agreed to a secret expedition to reinforce Pickens. He had not, he confessed, been sufficiently careful and attentive to the orders he was signing, and had not recognized that the ship he was assigning to the Pickens expedition was also intended for Sumter. According to his private secretaries, Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln "doubtless supposed" the orders he signed for the two missions were entirely consistent, particularly because General Scott was "perfectly cognizant of both expeditions." The extreme secrecy of the Pickens operation, of which the secretaries of war or navy were both ignorant, was an "error," which Lincoln never repeated.

Secretary Welles, however, blamed Seward, not Lincoln. Welles alleged that Seward deliberately undermined the Sumter expedition by detaching the Powhatan, which was "indispensable" to the Sumter expedition, but which was not needed at Pensacola where a large portion of the home squadron was already stationed. The historian Ari Hoogenboom, who has investigated the Sumter relief attempt, seems to agree with Welles. Hoogenboom notes that Seward only reluctantly complied with Lincoln's order to return the Powhatan to the Sumter force, that his order to Lieutenant Porter to return the ship became "one of the slowest telegrams ever sent," and that his use of his own signature instead of Lincoln's was "a stroke of malevolent genius."

The evidence that Seward deliberately sabotaged the Sumter expedition is circumstantial. Many historians think that Seward's actions are better attributable to his over-zealous determination to avoid a confrontation at Charleston. David M. Potter, for example, points out the likelihood that none of the key people involved-- Lincoln, Welles, and Seward-- knew of the conflicting orders. Lincoln acknowledged that he did not realize that he was assigning the Powhatan to different operations under different commanders when he signed the papers, and there is no evidence that Seward did, either. Indeed, since Welles's initial order preparing the Powhatan for the Sumter expedition was issued on the same day, April 1, it is possible that Seward assigned the Powhatan to the Pickens operation before Welles issued his order. Since Welles's order of April 1, was not signed by Lincoln, Seward would probably not have known about it anyway.

Thus, on April 1, two similarly phrased telegrams were sent to the New York Navy Yard directing the Powhatan to be readied for duty. One was signed by Welles, the other by Lincoln. One order intended the ship to go to Sumter, the other intended it to go to Pickens. Neither Welles nor Lincoln (and Seward) was aware of the other's action, and the commandant of the Navy Yard probably thought both orders concerned the same mission.

The Powhatan fiasco is probably best explained as a result of Seward's desperate desire to focus attention on Fort Pickens, and Lincoln's poor judgment in placing the Pickens operation under a cover of secrecy that included the secretaries of war and navy. Even Montgomery Blair, a chief rival of Seward at that time, charged Seward only with "improper meddling," rather than intentionally crippling the Sumter expedition.

Finally, any assessment of the Powhatan affair must appreciate how time influenced events. A matter of hours, if not minutes, might have changed the Sumter expedition's outcome. Seward's telegram reached the New York Navy Yard shortly after the Powhatan had sailed, and while a steamer managed to overhaul the ship, Captain Porter decided on his own to disregard Seward's order. Had Seward's telegram reached Porter before he sailed, it is possible that Foote or other navy authorities would have insisted on a clarification of Porter's order before permitting him to leave. Furthermore, one of Porter's arguments for continuing to Pickens was that the Atlantic had already departed with its troops and supplies. To be sure, the evidence indicates that the Atlantic was scheduled to leave soon after the Powhatan. And Porter's progress out of the harbor was so slow that he might have assumed the Atlantic was well under way. But the Atlantic did not leave as expected. Instead, it left its berth and remained in the port area taking on cargo throughout the night. It did not actually weigh anchor for Pickens until the following morning. Since the Atlantic remained behind, one of Porter's major reasons for proceeding was, in fact, invalid. Whether Porter was aware of the Atlantic's actual situation has never been determined.

Bibliography: Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, ed. Morse, 1: 24-28; Welles, Essays by Gideon Welles: Civil War, ed. Mordell, pp. 36-82, 102-13; Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 3: 438-41; Hoogenboom, "Gustavus Fox and Sumter," p. 392; Potter, Lincoln and His Party, pp. 365-68; Van Deusen, Seward, p. 285; Montgomery Blair to Martin Van Buren, 29 April 1861, Van Buren Papers; OR, pp. 368-69, 372; ORN, p. 238; Meigs, "General M. C. Meigs," p. 302; Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, pp. 20-21; Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 4: 6.

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