With regard to the Confederacy, Seward's policy was one of non-resistance. For this he had two reasons. The first of these was his rooted delusion that the bulk of the Southerners were opposed to secession and, if let alone, would force their leaders to reconsider their action. He might have quoted the nursery rhyme, "Let them alone and they'll come home"; it would have been like him and in tune with a frivolous side of his nature. He was quite as irresponsible when he complacently assured the North that the trouble would all blow over within ninety days. He also believed that any display of force would convert these hypothetical Unionists of the South from friends to enemies and would consolidate opinion in the Confederacy to produce war. In justice to Seward it must be remembered that on this point time justified his fears.
His dealings with the Confederate commissioners show that he was playing to gain time, not with intent to deceive the Southerners but to acquire that domination over Lincoln which he felt was his by natural right. Intending to institute a peace policy the moment he gained this ascendency, he felt perfectly safe in making promises to the commissioners through mutual friends. He virtually told them that Sumter would eventually be given up and that all they need do was to wait.
Seward brought to bear upon the President the opinions of various military men who thought the time had passed when any expedition for the relief of Sumter could succeed. For some time Lincoln seemed about to consent, though reluctantly, to Seward's lead in the matter of the forts. He was pulled up standing, however, by the threatened resignation of the Postmaster-General, Blair. After a conference with leading Republican politicians the President announced to his Cabinet that his policy would include the relief of Sumter. "Seward," says Welles, "...was evidently displeased."
Seward now took a new tack. Fort Pickens, at Pensacola, was a problem similar to that of Sumter at Charleston. Both were demanded by the Confederates, and both were in need of supplies. But Fort Pickens lay to one side, so to speak, of the public mind, and there was not conspicuously in the world's eye the square issue over it that there was over Sumter. Seward conceived the idea that, if the President's attention were diverted from Sumter to Pickens and a relief expedition were sent to the latter but none to the former, his private negotiations with the Confederates might still be kept going; Lincoln might yet be hypnotized; and at last all would be well.
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.