Abraham Lincoln’s botched order ensured that Lt. Thomas Stowell Phelps, a blue-water sailor born and raised in Buckfield, missed the Civil War’s opening chorus at Fort Sumter.
However, he subsequently would battle Confederate gunboats and blockade runners throughout the war before participating in a Georgia battle in mid-April 1865.
When the South Carolina Convention approved a secession vote on Dec. 20, 1860, Maj. Robert Anderson commanded Fort Moultrie, built on Sullivan’s Island to guard Charleston Harbor’s primary shipping channel. The newer, three-tiered Fort Sumter rose on a sand spit about a mile west. Sumter’s 135 cannons outnumbered Moultrie’s weaker batteries, but Anderson lacked sufficient troops to man both forts.
Aware that secessionists easily could occupy Moultrie, Anderson shifted his 81 men to Sumter during a daring nighttime evacuation on Dec. 26, 1860. The maneuver incensed Confederate leaders; their soldiers immediately captured Fort Moultrie and placed artillery at key Charleston Harbor points to prevent American supply ships from docking at Sumter.
When the supply ship Star of the West approached the fort on Jan. 9, 1861, Confederate artillery fire drove the vessel away. As winter turned to spring, Anderson informed the War Department that if not resupplied, he must surrender. Confederate officers asked him when he might do so: April 15, he replied.
Writing to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles on March 29, President Abraham Lincoln indicated, “I desire that an expedition, to move by sea, be got ready to sail as early as the 6th of April” to resupply Anderson. Welles ordered the warships Harriet Lane, Pawnee and Pocahontas “to be ready for sea with one month’s stores”; 200 soldiers would accompany the warships, and Capt. Gustavus Fox would command the expedition.
On April 2, Welles ordered the USS Powhatan, a 253-foot steam frigate, ready for sea at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. His telegram reached the ship at 7 p.m.; at 2 p.m., the Navy had officially released the Powhatan’s crew after the ship’s return from Veracruz, Mexico, and most officers already had departed on shore leave.
Yard officials scrambled to recall them. On April 3, Lt. Thomas S. Phelps received a telegram summoning him to the Powhatan. He was already a combat-experienced sailor.
Born in 1822, Phelps left his family’s Buckfield farm in 1840 to join the Navy. After sailing in the Mediterranean and South Atlantic as an enlisted sailor, he graduated from Annapolis in 1846. Phelps fought Indians ashore during the January 1856 Battle of Seattle; a wild charge almost overran the defensive position held by Phelps and the 13 sailors he commanded. The Indians “reached the edge of the chaparral, not twenty feet away” and fired “a terrific volley” before they retreated, Phelps later wrote.
On April 5, Welles officially ordered the Powhatan to join the Fort Sumter relief expedition. Packing a powerful broadside, the big frigate would “be off Charleston bar … on the morning of the 11th, there to await the arrival of the transport or transports with troops and stores,” he wrote.
Welles envisioned the expedition shooting its way into Charleston Harbor; if Confederate artillery fired on the supply ships, the warships could shoot back.
Meanwhile, at the urging of Secretary of State William Seward later that day, Lincoln signed an order diverting the Powhatan to protect the beleaguered Union garrison at Fort Pickens on Pensacola Bay. No one told Welles; finally learning about the diversion after dark on April 5, he hustled to the White House and almost blew a gasket while meeting with Lincoln and Seward.
A chagrined Lincoln countermanded his initial order. On April 6, hours after the Powhatan had sailed, Welles wired the frigate’s commander, Lt. David Dixon Porter, a telegram redirecting him to Charleston. Sailing on a fast tug, two officers caught the Powhatan in outer New York Harbor and delivered the telegram to Dixon.
Citing Lincoln’s signature on the Florida order, Dixon ignored Welles and set course for the Gulf of Mexico. His decision eliminated any possibility that Gustavus Fox could prevail against Charleston’s Confederate artillery and sent the Powhatan and Lt. Thomas Phelps on a wild goose chase to the Florida Panhandle.
So only three warships converged on Charleston. Sailing aboard the steamer Baltic, Fox arrived off Charleston Bar at 3 a.m. April 12. Learning about the relief expedition, Confederate officers decided to attack Fort Sumter rather than await its surrender. Thomas Phelps, that redoubtable Maine sailor, was not offshore when virulent Yankee hater Edward Ruffin fired a cannon at Sumter from Confederate-held Fort Johnson at 4:30 a.m.
Fort Sumter gunners returned fire about 6:30 a.m. Fox watched from the Baltic; “as we neared the land, heavy guns were heard, and the smoke and shells from the batteries which had just opened fire on Sumter were distinctly visible,” he wrote.
Beset by a storm and “a heavy sea,” the American warships remained offshore as “a great volume of black smoke issued” from Sumter, where “the quarters … were on fire,” Fox wrote. On April 14, Anderson surrendered the fort; his men transferred to the Baltic, and Confederate troops occupied Fort Sumter.
The Civil War had begun.
So, thanks to Abraham Lincoln, Lt. Thomas Phelps did not witness Fort Sumter’s surrender. He later participated in maritime derring-do against Confederate shipping and commanded a warship during the mid-January 1865 assault on Fort Fisher, N.C. Phelps remained in the Navy until retiring as a rear admiral in 1885; he lies buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
The Maine farm boy was a true American hero.
Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. An avid Civil War buff, he has extensively explored and photographed Civil War battlefields throughout the South. Brian may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.