Skip to main content

Gideon Welles

Gideon Welles

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

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 Sources

Niven, John, Gideon Welles: Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gideon Welles." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Gideon Welles." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gideon-welles

"Gideon Welles." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved May 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gideon-welles

Welles, Gideon

Welles, Gideon (1802–1878), secretary of the navy, 1861–69.A prominent political leader from Connecticut, Welles first served in the Navy Department during the Polk administration as chief of the navy's Bureau of Provisions and Clothing.

As Lincoln's secretary, he resisted public demands of ships for the Northern coastline while concentrating on blockading and strangling the Confederacy during the Civil War. Welles used monitors for Southern harbors and ironclad riverboats for the Mississippi River. In July 1861, he allowed ships to keep contrabands on board. By September, he authorized enlisting contrabands under the same regulations as other enlistments. And in July 1862, he ordered the East Gulf Blockading Squadron actively to recruit contrabands (runaway slaves).

Administratively, through Congress, Welles reorganized the navy. In July 1861, he established the post of assistant secretary and temporary volunteer officers to fill wartime needs. That August, he retired older, infirm officers. Automatic officer retirement for over‐age and service limits began in December. In July 1862, line officers received nine ranks, and staff bureaus were raised to eight. The bureau changes reflected the new technologies developing in gunnery and steam engineering. With minor modifications, Welles's administrative changes would remain in place until newer technologies after World War II demanded further reorganization.
[See also Navy, U.S.: 1783–1865; Navy, U.S.: 1866–1898; Union Navy.]

Bibliography

Gideon Welles , Diary, 3 vols., 1911.
John Niven , Gideon Welles, 1973.

George E. Buker

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Welles, Gideon." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Welles, Gideon." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/welles-gideon

"Welles, Gideon." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved May 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/welles-gideon

Welles, Gideon

Gideon Welles (wĕlz), 1802–78, American statesman, b. Glastonbury, Conn. He was (1826–36) editor and part owner of the Hartford Times, one of the first New England papers to support Andrew Jackson. An organizer of the Jacksonian forces in Connecticut, Welles served in the state legislature (1827–35). He was three times elected state comptroller of public accounts and was postmaster of Hartford. He was also chief of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing for the U.S. navy (1846–49). Leaving the Democratic party on the slavery issue, he helped found (1856) the Hartford Evening Press, a Republican paper, and in 1861 became Secretary of the Navy in Abraham Lincoln's cabinet. Incorruptible, efficient, and something of a curmudgeon, Welles built the powerful Union navy of the Civil War. The construction of the Monitor and the other ironclads resulted largely from his support, and the victorious admirals David C. Farragut and David D. Porter were men of his choice. One of the first to recognize Lincoln's essential greatness, he thoroughly disliked some of his cabinet colleagues, notably William H. Seward and Edwin M. Stanton. Welles was a moderate who favored Lincoln's Reconstruction plan and, retaining his post under Andrew Johnson, stood by the President in his struggle with the radical Republicans in Congress. He returned to the Democratic party in 1868. Welles wrote Lincoln and Seward (1874), and his salty diary (ed. by H. K. Beale, 3 vol., 1960) is of immense value to the historian.

See A. Mordell, ed., Selected Essays by Gideon Welles (1959); H. K. Beale, ed., Diary of Gideon Welles (3 vol., 1960); biographies by R. S. West, Jr. (1943) and J. Niven (1973).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Welles, Gideon." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Welles, Gideon." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/welles-gideon

"Welles, Gideon." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved May 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/welles-gideon