Why did a ship runaway from it’s mission under direct orders in April 1861? It’s a Civil War Blunder involving the USS Powhatan, Fort Sumter, and an over-ambitious lieutenant named David C. Porter. History recalls this story as the Seward-Meigs-Porter Affair.
As the story goes, at the outset of the Civil War in April 1861, reinforcements were needed at Fort Sumter, South Carolina where Union soldiers were refusing to evacuate, and the newly-formed Confederate Army was attacking the fort with the intent of removing the Union soldiers. It was the battle that opened the Civil War!
It was a time of frantic mess and even level-headed Lincoln was at a loss to try and keep all his efforts coordinated. Enter Secretary of State William H. Seward, who had apparently approved a SECRET MISSION, with Abraham Lincoln, to send the Powhatan to Fort Pickens, Floria to help fight battles over there.
The only thing that messed up Lincoln’s plans was that he had forgotten that he had already promised the ship Powhatan to someone else. Oops!
Lincoln had first promised the USS Powhatan to the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. The Powhatan was supposed to sail to Fort Sumter and relieve the Union soldiers fighting there. He double-booked the Powhatan.
Here’s where it gets juicy. A US Captain named Montgomery Meigs was confused about what was going on as he was in charge of planning the attack defending Fort Sumter. He then questioned Secretary Gideon Welles who then confronted Lincoln who then admitted to the secret mission. I think they would call that a cluster**** now.
Things boiled over even more as the three men kept on arguing over wartime policy. They eventually came to the conclusion that the State Department should not meddle in the affairs of the War Department. Problem solved? Not yet!
By the time all the mouthpieces had finished arguing and posturing over who gets to stand in line first, the Powhatan was gone. In all the delays, Navy Lieutenant David C. Porter had decided he could not wait any longer and took his ship (he was its Captain) to Fort Pickens, Florida. His reasoning was that the Fort Pickens order came first and that was to be his mission.
As a result, Fort Sumter fell to Confederate forces and became the first battle of the Civil War. The other lesson we can gain from this civil war blunder was that President Abraham Lincoln was very much hands-on when it came to his decisions during the war.
Want to read more? Check out the book “Civil War Blunders” by Clint Johnson (1999. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, Publisher).