Sunday, February 11, 2018

Neptune’s Civil War

Gideon Welles, Secretary to the Navy during the Civil War under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, died 130 years ago today. His detailed and interesting cabinet diaries have been edited three times, and remain an important primary source of information about the war, and especially about Abraham Lincoln who gave Welles the nickname Father Neptune.

Welles was born in 1802 in Glastonbury, Connecticut, the son of a shipping merchant. He was schooled at the Episcopal Academy, Cheshire, and at the American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy at Norwich, Vermont. He started out as a lawyer, but soon turned to journalism becoming a founder and editor of the Hartford Times in 1826. He participated in the Connecticut House of Representatives as a Democrat from 1827 to 1835, and was then appointed State Controller of Public Accounts. That same year he married Mary Jane Hale, and they went on to have six children - three of whom died young. The following year President Andrew Jackson made him Connecticut’s postmaster (a position he retained until 1941); and from 1846 to 1849 he was President James Polk’s appointed chief of provisions and clothing for the navy.

Welles fell out with the Democrat Party over its stance on slavery, and helped found the northern-based Republican Party in 1856, and then launching the Hartford Evening Press to promote it. When Abraham Lincoln took office as President in 1861, Welles was given the cabinet post of Secretary of the Navy. He inherited a run-down and demoralised naval department with less than half its vessels serviceable. Moreover, on the outbreak of the civil war, more than 200 officers defected to the South. Nevertheless, Welles’ quiet and strong leadership led to a rapid modernisation and expansion of the service - and to Lincoln giving him the nickname Father Neptune. In particular, Welles oversaw the creation of ironclad ships, the use of improved steam technology, and the effective blockades of Confederate ports. He was also responsible for the enlistment of African-American naval officers who had escaped slavery.

Although not always agreeing with each other, Welles and Lincoln were close, as were their wives; Welles was with Lincoln after he was shot. He remained Secretary of the Navy through Andrew Jackson’s Presidency, and, after the war, administered a scaling down of the navy. He supported Johnson through his impeachment trial, and left office with Johnson in March 1869 (when Ulysses S. Grant took over as President). Welles then returned to Connecticut, writing several books - including a biography, Lincoln and Seward - before his death on 11 February 1878. Further information is readily available online at Wikipedia, Connecticut History, Mr Lincoln’s White House, or the Civil War Trust.

Welles kept a diary all his life, however it is only the diaries he kept while Secretary of the Navy (1861 to 1869) that have been published - three times. The first time was in 1911, a three volume edition edited by his son Edgar: Diary of Gideon Welles Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and Johnson (Houghton Mifflin). Edgar’s preface reads as follows. ‘When in Washington, it was his habit in the evening, after the family had retired, to devote his time to writing in the diary. His public duties at that period gave him no time to devote to the miscellaneous writings to which he had been accustomed. But in the diary are expressed his views on public men and measures, not only of the day but also those gathered throughout his public life. It was a relaxation to him to write; in fact, being thoroughly accustomed to it, it was a pleasure.

The question of the publication of this diary has caused me much serious reflection. It is an unreserved expression of what was from day to day in the mind of the writer. He probably thought that it would be useful as a record of the events of the time. Certainly he did not think it would be wholly unheeded. But his expressions were not shaped by the consideration that it would be given to the world or would not be; the decision of that question he left to me. Accordingly, I have taken the advice of those in whom I know my father would have the most implicit confidence, submitting the material for consideration and review. Without exception, I believe, the decision has been that duty requires of me the publication, and the truth of history demands that under no circumstances must I fail to make this record public.’ All three volumes can be read online at Internet Archive (one, two and three).

The diaries were edited again in 1960 by Howard K. Beale (Norton), and most recently in 2014 (in an ‘original manuscript edition’) by William E. Gienapp and Erica L. Gienapp (University of Illinois Press) - though this latter confines itself to the Lincoln Presidency (see Googlebooks). A review of the modern edition by John Beeler can be read in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association (summer 2016). Beeler gives a good summary of the history of the diary manuscript and why this third edition is likely to be definitive. Here’s part of that summary:

‘The diary entries, made with remarkable diligence until Gideon Welles left office at the end of Johnson’s presidency, were recorded in fifteen leather-bound manuscript volumes now in the Library of Congress. During the remaining nine years of his life, however, Welles “tinkered,” to use the Gienapps’ term, with many of the original entries, “polishing the prose to make it read more smoothly and rewriting sentences to reflect his changing opinions about people and events”(xviii). Edgar Welles, in turn, not only used the revised version as the basis for a typescript but also added his own revisions, spelling “corrections,” and punctuation, as well as excising or amending - sanitizing might be a more apt descriptor - some passages. Moreover, his edition, based on that typescript, contains material of uncertain provenance, neither from the original diary nor from his father’s revisions. In sum, not all of the three-volume 1911 Houghton Mifflin edition was drawn from the diary entries; those portions that were had already been revised by Gideon Welles and then his son; and some of the original text did not appear at all.’

Beemer concludes: ‘The new edition will be the first choice for most researchers or readers interested in Welles’s account of Lincoln’s administration. Aside from its user-friendliness, it is handsomely produced, sumptuously annotated, well indexed, and, value-priced at forty-five dollars.’

Here, though, are several extracts from the first and second volumes of the original edition.

30 September 1862
‘Little of importance at the Cabinet-meeting. The President laid before us the address of the loyal Governors who lately met at Altoona. Its publication has been delayed in expectation that Governor Bradford of Maryland would sign it, but nothing has been heard from him. His wife was here yesterday to get a pass to visit her son, who is a Rebel officer and cannot come to her. She therefore desires to go to him. Seward kindly procured the document for her. I am for exercising the gentle virtues when it can consistently and properly be done, but favor no social visitations like this. Let the Rebel perish away from the parents whom he has abandoned by deserting his country and fighting against his government.

The President informed us of his interview with Key, one of Halleck’s staff, who said it was not the game of the army to capture the Rebels at Antietam, for that would give the North advantage and end slavery; it was the policy of the army officers to exhaust both sides and then enforce a compromise which would save slavery.’

17 April 1865
‘On Monday, the 17th, I was actively engaged in bringing forward business which had been interrupted and suspended, issuing orders, and in arranging for the funeral solemnities of President Lincoln. Secretary Seward and his son continue in a low condition, and Mr. Fred Seward’s life is precarious.’

10 July 1865
‘A rainy day. We were to have had an excursion to the Pawnee, the flag-ship of Admiral Dahlgren, but the weather has prevented.

I read to the President two letters from Senator Sumner of the 4th and 5th of July, on the subject of negro suffrage in the Rebel States. Sumner is for imposing this upon those States regardless of all constitutional limitations and restriction. It is evident he is organizing and drilling for that purpose, and intends to make war upon the Administration policy and the Administration itself. The President is not unaware of the scheming that is on foot, but I know not if he comprehends to its full extent this movement, which is intended to control him and his Administration.

Seward sent to see me. Had dispatches from the Spanish government that the Stonewall should be given up. Is to send me copies, but the yellow fever is prevalent in Havana and it would be well to leave the Stonewall there until fall.’

17 July 1865
‘Last Tuesday, when on board the Pawnee with the President and Cabinet, Stanton took me aside and desired to know if the Navy could not spare a gunboat to convey some prisoners to Tortugas. I told him a vessel could be detailed for that purpose if necessary, but I inquired why he did not send them by one of his own transports. He then told me he wanted to send the persons connected with the assassination of President Lincoln to Tortugas, instead of a Northern prison, that he had mentioned the subject to the President, and it was best to get them into a part of the country where old Nelson or any other judge would not try to make difficulty by habeas corpus. Said he would make further inquiries and see me, but wished strict secrecy. On Friday he said he should want a boat and I told him we had none here, but the Florida might be sent to Hampton Roads, and he could send his men and prisoners thither on one of the army boats in the Potomac. I accordingly sent orders for the Florida. Yesterday General Townsend called on me twice on the subject, and informed me in the evening that General Hancock would leave in a boat at midnight to meet the Florida. I suggested that General H. had better wait; we had no information yet that the Florida had arrived, and she would be announced to us by telegraph as soon as she did arrive. To-day I learn the prisoners and a guard went down last night, and I accordingly sent orders by telegraph, by request of Secretary of War, to receive and convey the guard and prisoners to Tortugas.’

4 August 1866
‘The Philadelphia movement is gaining strength, but at the same time encountering tremendous and violent opposition from the Radicals. I trust and think it will be successful, but the convention will be composed of various elements, some of them antagonistic heretofore, and the error is in not having distinctive principles on which these prevailing opposing elements can centre. The time has arrived when our countrymen must sacrifice personal and mere organized party hostility for the general welfare. Either the Radicals or the Government are to be overthrown. The two are in conflict.

I have confidence that all will come out right, for I rely on an overruling Providence and the good sense and intelligence of the people. Hatred, deadly animosity towards the whole South, a determination to deny them their Constitutional rights, and to oppress and govern them, not allow them to govern themselves, are the features of Radicalism. It is an unsavory, intolerant, and persecuting spirit, disgraceful to the country and age. Defeat in the elections will temper and subdue its ferocity, while success at the polls will kindle it to flames, which will consume every sentiment of tolerance, justice, and Constitutional freedom.’

12 December 1866
‘Negro suffrage in the District is the Radical hobby of the moment and is the great object of some of the leaders throughout the Union. At the last session the Senate did not act upon the bill for fear of the popular verdict at the fall elections. Having dodged the issue then, they now come here under Sumner’s lead and say that the people have declared for it.

There is not a Senator who votes for this bill who does not know that it is an abuse and wrong. Most of the negroes of this District are wholly unfit to be electors. With some exceptions they are ignorant, vicious, and degraded, without patriotic or intelligent ideas or moral instincts. There are among them worthy, intelligent, industrious men, capable of voting understandingly and who would not discredit the trust, but they are exceptional cases. As a community they are too debased and ignorant. Yet fanatics and demagogues will crowd a bill through Congress to give them suffrage, and probably by a vote which the veto could not overcome. Nevertheless, I am confident the President will do his duty in that regard. It is pitiable to see how little sense of right, real independence, and what limited comprehension are possessed by our legislators. They are the tame victims and participators of villainous conspirators.’

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