Gideon Welles

Gideon Welles

Gideon Welles was born in Glastonbury, Connecticut, on 1st July, 1802. He studied law but went into journalism and in 1826 became the founder and editor of the Hartford Times.

At the age of twenty-five he was elected to the Connecticut legislature. A member of the Democratic Party, Welles was appointed state controller of public accounts in 1835.

Welles also served as postmaster of Hartford (1836-41) and chief of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing for the Navy (1846-49).

In 1854 Welles joined the Republican Party and his newspaper, the Hartford Evening Press, that he established in 1856, gave the party loyal support over many years. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president he appointed Welles as his Secretary of the Navy.

On the outbreak of the American Civil War Welles was responsible for implementing the Anaconda Plan. He gradually built up a fleet that was able to guard the South's 3,500 miles of coastline. With the support of the outstanding naval commander, David Farragut, Welles was able to gradually impose a naval blockade that isolated the South from the rest of the world.

Welles held strongly anti-British views and this brought him into conflict with William Seward, the Secretary of State. His conservative views also caused him to argue with Salmon Chase (Secretary of the Treasury) and Edwin M. Stanton (Secretary of War).

Welles resigned from office in 1869 and was highly critical of President Andrew Johnson and his reconstruction policies. He joined the Democratic Party in 1868 but in 1872 supported Horace Greeley.

In his retirement wrote several books including Lincoln and Seward (1874). Gideon Welles died in Hartford on 11th February, 1878. His fascinating account of the personalities of the American Civil War, The Diary of Gideon Wells, was not published until 1911.

Primary Sources

(1) Gideon Welles went to Abraham Lincoln's bedside when he heard he had been shot. He later recorded his thoughts in his diary (15th April, 1865)

The night was dark, cloudy, and damp, and about six it began to rain. I remained in the room until then without sitting or leaving it, when, there being a vacant chair which someone left at the foot of the bed, I occupied it for nearly two hours, listening to the heavy groans and witnessing the wasting life of the good and great man who was expiring before me.

About 6 a.m. I experienced a feeling of faintness and, for the first time after entering the room, a little past eleven, I left it and the house, and took a short walk in the open air. It was a dark and gloomy morning, and rain set in before I returned to the house, some fifteen minutes later. Large groups of people were gathered every few yards, all anxious and solicitous. Some one or more from each group stepped forward as I passed to inquire into the condition of the President and to ask if there was no hope. Intense grief was on every countenance when I replied that the President could survive but a short time. The colored people especially - and there were at this time more of them, perhaps, than of whites - were overwhelmed with grief.

A little before seven. I went into the room where the dying President was rapidly drawing near the closing moments. His wife soon after made her last visit to him. The death struggle had begun. Robert, his son, stood with several others at the head of his bed. He bore himself well, but on two occasions gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, turning his head and leaning on the shoulder of Senator Sumner. The respiration of the President became suspended at intervals and at last entirely ceased at twenty-two minutes past seven.

(2) Gideon Welles, diary (9th May, 1865)

It was never intended by the founders of the Union that the Federal government should prescribe suffrage to the states. We shall get rid of slavery by constitutional means. But conferring on the black civil rights is another matter. This whole question of suffrage is much abused. The Negro can take upon himself the duty about as intelligently and as well for the public interest as a considerable portion of the foreign element which comes among us. The measure should not, even if the government were empowered to act, be precipitated when he is stolidly ignorant and wholly unprepared. Stanton has changed his position, has been converted, is now for Negro suffrage. These were not his views a short time since. But aspiring politicians will, as the current now sets, generally take the road.