Chaos and Confusion
April 4, 2011 Leave a comment
The following messages are from New York Times. So favorite in this Articles and sharing with my beloved friends. Thanks a lot
March 30 – April 5, 1861
It was Take Your Pick Week in Washington. Do you want your army run by a general or a captain? Do you want your Navy run by the secretary of the Navy, or a naval lieutenant, or an army captain, or a private businessman? Do you want your government’s policies to be set by the president, or by a rival he defeated?
Do not trouble yourself excessively to divine any answers, for these are trick questions: at one time or another this week, you had them all.
At the week’s beginning, President Lincoln had ordered the implementation of the plan for a relief expedition to Fort Sumter that had been devised by Gustavus Fox, a politically connected mill owner from Massachusetts who had once been a naval officer and who had recently impressed the president with his intellect and demeanor.
For all its virtues, confusion was woven into the fabric of the plan from the start. The mission called for a convoy of civilian vessels that would carry supplies and 1,000 troops, and armed military vessels that would protect them. The civilian Fox could not command the military vessels, but Commodore Stringham, who as the Navy’s senior officer was the logical choice to take over the expedition, declined the job because Fox had scouted the harbor and authored the plan. Another officer would have to be named, but because time was fleeting, Fox left for the Brooklyn Navy Yard to begin assembling civilian ships and provisions. Meanwhile, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles ordered the revenue cutter Harriet Lane in Brooklyn and the steamers Pawnee in Washington and Pocahontas in Norfolk to prepare to join the expedition not later than April 6. The next day Welles telegraphed Brooklyn and ordered the steamer Powhatan to be readied as well.
But a mission being readied is far from a mission underway, which meant that William Seward still had time to save the administration from what he felt would be a catastrophic intervention. The secretary of state always believed that the federal government could lose nothing by waiting. The fragile secession bubble would soon pop, crushed by such small irritants like fixing roads and filling positions and collecting taxes. The South would come back soon, assuming the North didn’t make it too hard for the rebels, once they stopped hooting and hollering, to swallow their pride.
And what would fighting at Fort Sumter be about but pride? It has no military necessity to the North. The army doesn’t believe we can relieve it, and the effort to reinforce it in January failed. The army’s presence there is a bone in the prideful confederacy’s throat that they will surely act to remove, and once they do so, our pride will be affected, and the fight will escalate. If we are bent on asserting ourselves, why not do so somewhere like Florida or Texas, where we can win more easily, make our point more cheaply, and leave open the door to reconciliation?
Seward thought he might have a way to open the president’s mind in the person of Montgomery Meigs, a charismatic army captain who had made a name for himself building the Rock Creek Aqueduct and overseeing the construction of the Capitol, and perhaps even more importantly, by openly feuding with his former boss, the treasonous ex-Secretary of War John Floyd, and publically calling for the impeachment of President Buchanan. Seward, sensing that perhaps the president had grown tired of recalcitrant museum pieces like Scott and Totten, thought that Lincoln might like to hear from an officer “who could still get on a horse in the field.’’
Seward and Meigs met with Lincoln and presented a plan for relieving Fort Pickens in Pensacola Harbor. Lincoln was interested, and asked if Meigs could command an expedition that would not only secure Fort Pickens, but also Forts Jefferson and Taylor in the Florida Keys. Certainly, said Meigs, who nonetheless felt obliged to point out that as a mere captain, he would not be able to command the majors who were in charge of the forts. “You must be promoted,’’ said Seward, pretending not to know that the military might be somewhat jealous of its prerogatives in this realm. When Pitt wanted to conquer Quebec, said Seward, he elevated Colonel Wolfe over a number of generals.
Seward left the White House and went to visit General Scott, where he indicated the high likelihood that the president was going to order the relief of Fort Pickens instead of Fort Sumter. Very well, Scott replied, and then met with his aide Erasmus Keyes, who spent a half hour producing maps and charts and explaining the general futility of sending heavy guns and carriages onto the sandy beaches of Fort Pickens. This was not going to be a quick and easy operation. “Go see Seward and tell him just what you told me,’’ a discouraged Scott replied.
But Seward wasn’t swayed by Keyes’s objections; he simply didn’t care. Find Captain Meigs, he ordered, make a plan to relieve Pickens, and then go brief Scott, and then go to the White House and brief President Lincoln.
Which Keyes and Meigs almost did, except that by the time they were finished making their plans, they didn’t have time to see Scott. Instead, Meigs and Keyes presented their plan to Lincoln and Seward. Very well, said Lincoln, go see Scott, and tell him I said go ahead. So ended Easter Sunday, with Seward having a plan he wanted but also a plan he didn’t want, and Scott having to participate in two plans, neither of which he believed in nor had helped draw up.
Lincoln, Seward and Meigs met again the next day. This time Seward brought along not only Meigs, but the 47-year-old Navy lieutenant David Porter, who had a reputation for being dashing, energetic and “given to intrigues.’’ Porter suggested sending a steamer to screen Pickens from confederate batteries while the reinforcements landed. Lincoln liked this idea, and sent Meigs and Porter into an adjacent room to draft the orders needed to put the plan into effect.
Working from Welles’s first list, which showed that the Pocahontas, Pawnee and Harriet Lane had already been assigned, Porter requisitioned the Powhatan for the Pickens expedition. He then relieved its current captain and named himself in his place. Meanwhile, Meigs of the army wrote orders naming Stringham of the Navy to command the operation, and elevating Commodore Samuel Barron, a friend of Porter’s, to replace Stringham as the head of the Office of Detail, the Navy’s personnel department. Lincoln signed each of these orders, and Seward, to round out the exercise in extemporaneous command, transferred $10,000 in state department funds to the Navy to outfit the expedition.
“What will Uncle Gideon say?’’ asked the president.
“I will make it right with Mr. Welles,’’ assured Seward.
But he didn’t, and when Welles received copies of some of the orders, he rushed to the White House and barged in on Lincoln. “What have I done wrong?”’ asked Lincoln, obviously sensing his culpability.
I put Stringham in charge of the Office of Detail, explained Welles, his head shaking under his famously cheap wig, because Stringham is a trustworthy union man, and that office makes all assignments. Barron is pro-secession and says he’s friends with Jefferson Davis. Acknowledging Welles’s superior judgment, Lincoln rescinded the order, and a relieved Welles departed. Two days later, his agitation returned, having only then discovered that the Powhatan still had two different captains with two different missions.
Meanwhile, self-promotion on a grander scale than Porter’s is being attempted by the secretary of state. A pre-emption had long seemed a possibility; Seward has never really gotten over the shock he felt at losing the Republican presidential nomination to a rival he considers his inferior. On those occasions prior to the inauguration when Seward’s excessive self-regard overflowed its banks — in wanting to meet as an equal with Lincoln and Hamlin in Chicago last fall, in his coy indecisiveness about accepting a cabinet post — Lincoln has gently but firmly turned it away. But since taking office, Seward has routinely exceeded his brief: alienating other cabinet officers, discussing administration policy with confederate representatives without authorization; and now usurping other cabinet officers in developing policy.
On Monday he finally went too far, and presented Lincoln with a memo he had written entitled, “Some thoughts for the President’s consideration.’’ Beginning with the bold assertion that “we are at the end of a month’s administration, and yet without a policy domestic or foreign,’’ Seward first reiterated his pro-Pickens, anti-Sumter plan. Then, based on reports that Spain had annexed Santo Domingo and that France was preparing to take Haiti, Seward suggested that the administration deflect attention from the internal conflict by demanding that France and Spain explain their meddlesome behavior, and that Great Britain, Canada and Russia also explain why they have threatened to interfere in our domestic crisis. Seward had long thought that a foreign war would cure secession fever, and he would be happy to start one.
But Seward saved his greatest effrontery for his close: “Whatever policy we adopt, there must be an energetic prosecution of it . . . Either the president must do it himself, or devolve it on some member of his cabinet . . . I seek neither to evade nor avoid responsibility.’’ If you don’t want to be president, I’ll do it.
For whatever reason — perhaps Lincoln truly values Seward’s talents beyond his foibles, or perhaps he has concluded that a new president cannot lose his most accomplished adviser a mere month into his government while a great crisis burns, or perhaps Lincoln is exceptionally merciful — Lincoln did not sack Seward, but simply made it clear that if something needed be done, he, the president, would be the one to do it.
Subject, apparently, to meeting muster with Mr. Welles.
But if this frantic to
-ing and fro-ing and lofted self-regard seems comical, here, possibly, is the real joke: it might have all been unnecessary. On April 4, the delegates of the Virginia Secession Convention overwhelmingly voted against secession. The 88 to 45 vote was a resounding rebuke to the frenetic disunionists of South Carolina and the others who joined her whirlwind of dissolution. “I ask why it is we are placed in this perilous position,’’ asked delegate Jubal Early. “And is it not solely from the action of these states that have seceded from the union without having consulted our views?’’
The issue is not entirely over. There is a suggestion that Virginia meet with the other seven slaveholding states that have not seceded to discuss how their needs and grievances might best be addressed, and the former governor, the militant Henry Wise, continues to agitate for secession on any pretext possible.
But this is clearly a sharp rebuff to the fire-eating disunionists of the nascent confederacy. All along, the secessionists have depended on a momentum of rebelliousness to carry their cause, with one sudden victory buoying the next. Now, in the contest for the most important state in contention, they have been slapped with an abrupt setback. If Virginia won’t go, it is impossible to see why Maryland or Kentucky or North Carolina would, which would leave the Confederacy a small slaveocracy rimming the Gulf of Mexico.
Jefferson Davis needs to do something quick. And in truth, there isn’t more than one something he can do.
Sources: To learn more about these events, please see “Lincoln and His Admirals,’’ by Craig L. Symonds; “Team of Rivals,’’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin; and “Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War,” by Maury Klein.
Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Time, Esquire and Spy, and is the author of the novel “The Coup.”