On All-Fools' Day, 1861, in the midst of a press of business, he obtained Lincoln's signature to some dispatches, which Lincoln, it seems, discussed with him hurriedly and without detailed consideration. There were now in preparation two relief expeditions, one to carry supplies to Pensacola, the other to Charleston. Neither was to fight if it was not molested. Both were to be strong enough to fight if their commanders deemed it necessary. As flagship of the Charleston expedition, Welles had detailed the powerful warship Powhatan, which was rapidly being made ready at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Such was the situation as Welles understood it when he was thinking of bed late on the night of the 6th of April. Until then he had not suspected that there was doubt and bewilderment about the Powhatan at Brooklyn. One of those dispatches which Lincoln had so hastily signed provided for detaching the Powhatan from the Charleston expedition and sending it safe out of harm's way to Pensacola. The commander of the ship had before him the conflicting orders, one from the President, one from the Secretary of the Navy. He was about to sail under the President's orders for Pensacola; but wishing to make sure of his authority, he had telegraphed to Washington. Gideon Welles was a pugnacious man. His dislike for Seward was deepseated. Imagine his state of mind when it was accidently revealed to him that Seward had gone behind his back and had issued to naval officers orders which were contradictory to his own! The immediate result was an interview that same night between Seward and Welles in which, as Welles coldly admitted in after days, the Secretary of the Navy showed "some excitement." Together they went, about midnight, to the White House. Lincoln had some difficulty recalling the incident of the dispatch on the 1st of April; but when he did remember, he took the responsibility entirely upon himself, saying he had had no purpose but to strengthen the Pickens expedition, and no thought of weakening the expedition to Charleston. He directed Seward to telegraph immediately cancelling the order detaching the Powhatan. Seward made a desperate attempt to put him off, protesting, it was too late to send a telegram that night. "But the President was imperative," writes Secretary Welles, in describing the incident, and a dispatch was sent.
Seward then, doubtless in his agitation, did a strange thing. Instead of telegraphing in the President's name, the dispatch which he sent read merely, "Give up the Powhatan...Seward." When this dispatch was received at Brooklyn, the Powhatan was already under way and had to be overtaken by a fast tug. In the eyes of her commander, however, a personal telegram from the Secretary of State appeared as of no weight against the official orders of the President, and he continued his voyage to Pensacola.
The mercurial temper of Seward comes out even in the caustic narrative written afterwards by Welles. Evidently Seward was deeply mortified and depressed by the incident. He remarked, says Welles, that old as he was he had learned a lesson, and that was that he had better attend to his own business. "To this," commented his enemy, "I cordially assented."
Nevertheless Seward's loss of faith in himself was only momentary. A night's sleep was sufficient to restore it. His next communication to the commissioners shows that he was himself again, sure that destiny owed him the control of the situation. On the following day the commissioners had got wind of the relief expedition and pressed him for information, recalling his assurance that nothing would be done to their disadvantage. In reply, still through a third person, Seward sent them the famous message, over the precise meaning of which great debate has raged: "Faith as to Sumter fully kept; wait and see." If this infatuated dreamer still believed he could dominate Lincoln, still hoped at the last moment to arrest the expedition to Charleston, he was doomed to bitterest disappointment.
On the 9th of April, the expedition to Fort Sumter sailed, but without, as we have seen, the assistance of the much needed warship, the Powhatan. As all the world knows, the expedition had been too long delayed and it accomplished nothing. Before it arrived, the surrender of Sumter had been demanded and refused --and war had begun. During the bombardment of Sumter, the relief expedition appeared beyond the bar, but its commander had no vessels of such a character as to enable him to carry aid to the fortress. Furthermore, he had not been informed that the Powhatan had been detached from his squadron, and he expected to meet her at the mouth of the harbor. There his ships lay idle until the fort was surrendered, waiting for the Powhatan--for whose detachment from the squadron Seward was responsible.
To return to the world of intrigue at Washington, however, it must not be supposed, as is so often done, that Fort Sumter was the one concern of the new government during its first six weeks. In fact, the subject occupied but a fraction of Lincoln's time. Scarcely second in importance was that matter so curiously bound up with the relief of the forts--the getting in hand of the strangely vain glorious Secretary of State. Mention has already been made of All-Fools' Day, 1861. Several marvelous things took place on that day. Strangest of all was the presentation of a paper by the Secretary of State to his chief, entitled "Thoughts for the President's Consideration". Whether it be regarded as a state paper or as a biographical detail in the career of Seward, it proves to be quite the most astounding thing in the whole episode. The "Thoughts" outlined a course of policy by which the buoyant Secretary intended to make good his prophecy of domestic peace within ninety days. Besides calmly patronizing Lincoln, assuring him that his lack of "a policy either domestic or foreign" was "not culpable and...even unavoidable," the paper warned him that "policies...both domestic and foreign" must immediately be adopted, and it proceeded to point out what they ought to be. Briefly stated, the one true policy which he advocated at home was to evacuate Sumter (though Pickens for some unexplained reason might be safely retained) and then, in order to bring the Southerners back into the Union, to pick quarrels with both Spain and France; to proceed as quickly as possible to war with both powers; and to have the ultimate satisfaction of beholding the reunion of the country through the general enthusiasm that was bound to come. Finally, the paper intimated that the Secretary of State was the man to carry this project through to success.
All this is not opera bouffe, but serious history. It must have taxed Lincoln's sense of humor and strained his sense of the fitness of things to treat such nonsense with the tactful forbearance which he showed and to relegate it to the pigeonhole without making Seward angry. Yet this he contrived to do; and he also managed, gently but firmly, to make it plain that the President intended to exercise his authority as the chief magistrate of the nation. His forbearance was further shown in passing over without rebuke Seward's part in the affair of Sumter, which might so easily have been made to appear treacherous, and in shouldering himself with all responsibility for the failure of the Charleston expedition. In the wave of excitement following the surrender, even so debonair a minister as Seward must have realized how fortunate it was for him that his chief did not tell all he knew. About this time Seward began to perceive that Lincoln had a will of his own, and that it was not safe to trifle further with the President. Seward thereupon ceased his interference.
It was in the dark days preceding the fall of Sumter that a crowd of office-seekers gathered at Washington, most of them men who had little interest in anything but the spoils. It is a distressing commentary on the American party system that, during the most critical month of the most critical period of American history, much of the President's time was consumed by these political vampires who would not be put off, even though a revolution was in progress and nations, perhaps, were dying and being born. "The scramble for office," wrote Stanton, "is terrible." Seward noted privately: "Solicitants for office besiege the President.... My duties call me to the White House two or three times a day. The grounds, halls, stairways, closets, are filled with applicants who render ingress and egress difficult."