Gideon Welles (1802-1878), a member of Lincoln's Cabinet, is known especially for the diary he kept throughout the Civil War period.
Gideon Welles was born at Glastonbury, Conn. He was educated at the Episcopal Academy at Cheshire, Conn., and at the American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy at Norwich, Vt. (later Norwich University). Though he studied law, his interest in writing led him, at the age of 24, to become part owner and editor of the Hartford Times. His writing up until then had consisted of "romantic trifles, " but his style now developed rapidly, and his vigorous editorials in support of Andrew Jackson attracted wide attention. Soon the Times was one of the leading Democratic papers in New England.
Welles's effort for the Democratic party revealed important mental and moral qualities which were to characterize his life. Few New Englanders had much use for Thomas Jefferson or those who came after him. The courage it took to support Jackson revealed a sincere and honest mind. With Welles's support the Democratic party gained in respectability.
In 1826 Welles was elected to the Connecticut Legislature. He labored for reform: his most important act was that of pushing through a bill removing the requirement that a person profess belief in God and in a future life in order to qualify as a witness in court. Although Welles himself was a deeply religious man, he insisted that this requirement denied religious liberty and freedom of thought. His efforts brought bitter criticism and insinuations that he had been corrupted by the lack of belief of men such as Jefferson and Jackson. He left the legislature in 1835 with the blunt statement, "I am ashamed to say regarding the civil and judicial complexion of my state, that a degraded, bigoted, hidebound, autocratic, proud, arrogant and contemptible policy governs her, through … unprincipled knaves."
Jackson appointed Welles postmaster at Hartford in 1836, a post he held to 1841. This office made him virtually the Democratic leader in the state. In 1845 President James K. Polk appointed him chief of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing in the Navy Department. It was not a particularly important post, but it did give him some naval experience and connected him in the minds of others with the Navy.
Meanwhile Welles continued to write political articles for important newspapers and established friendly relations with such prominent men as jurist David Dudley Field and poet and editor William Cullen Bryant. He broke with his party over the slavery issue and in 1854 helped to organize the Republican party. He served as a national committeeman from 1856 to 1864 and headed the Connecticut delegation to the 1860 convention and favored Salmon P. Chase as the Republican presidential nominee. He did not support Abraham Lincoln even on the important third ballot, but he was completely satisfied with the final choice of Lincoln.
In his effort to construct a Cabinet which represented all sections and all parties, Lincoln knew he must appoint someone from New England and that this person must be a former Democrat. Welles was by all odds the best choice and was offered the Navy Department.
With only the limited experience gained earlier in the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing, Welles took over a Navy Department short on both men and ships. The secession of the Southern states had created an even more serious problem. As he himself said: "When I took charge of the Navy Department, I found great demoralization and deflection among the naval officers. It was difficult to ascertain who among those that lingered about Washington could [be trusted] and who were not to be trusted." Furthermore Congress had adjourned without providing funds or authorizing the enlistment of additional seamen. Almost all of the naval force was scattered about the world, some in European waters and most of "the small Home Squadron" in the Gulf or the West Indies, "nearly as remote and inaccessible."
Welles reorganized his department, bought ships where possible, and did his best to keep the Norfolk Navy yard from falling into Confederate hands. He might have saved the navy yard if Gen. Winfield Scott had been able to supply troops and if Lincoln, anxious to avoid provoking Virginia into seceding, had not insisted on a fatal delay. Welles made mistakes at first, but he was well ahead of public opinion in the building of ironclad ships. While congressmen ridiculed the idea, he went ahead and was ready with these ships when the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac made them a national necessity.
Welles checked favoritism in building new navy yards. He opposed the blockade of the South at first, but when the tactic was adopted, he made it increasingly efficient. In all he created an adequate navy where there had been almost none.
As a member of the Cabinet, Welles was loyal both to Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson. He was rather conservative even regarding slavery and opposed Radical Reconstruction and military rule of the South after the war. He disapproved of the suppression of newspapers, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and the too rapid granting of Negro suffrage.
Most important of all, Welles kept a diary. Always tolerant and fair-minded, with a keen ability to understand men and their basic worth, he made a record which is an invaluable historical document. He was on the inside of events, and from his early newspaper days he had acquired an uncanny ability to pass judgment on men and events. He recognized Lincoln as "in every way large—brain included."
Further Reading on Gideon Welles
Welles's Diary, edited by Howard K. Beale (3 vols., 1960), offers considerable insights into his life. A full-length work is Richard S. West, Jr., Gideon Welles: Lincoln's Navy Department (1943).
Additional Biography Sources
Niven, John, Gideon Welles: Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.