Gideon Welles, President Lincoln’s secretary of the Navy, had a lot of headaches on June 8, 1863, not least of which was the problem of Mrs. Lincoln and the weekly band concert in Washington, D.C.
Welles was 60 years old, a lawyer and journalist who founded two newspapers and strongly supported Lincoln. His diary entry that June day provides a glimpse into the challenges large and small faced by a Cabinet secretary during the Civil War.
He was born in Glastonbury, Conn., on July 1, 1802, the son of a shipping merchant and descendant of Connecticut Gov. Thomas Welles. He was not an ancestor of Orson Welles as the actor had claimed on The Dick Cavett Show.
Gideon Welles abandoned the law in his 20s to found the Hartford Times. For two decades he served in Connecticut government as a Democratic representative to the General Assembly and as an appointed official. He strongly opposed slavery and joined the Republican Party in 1854. Then he founded another newspaper, the Hartford Evening Press, as a Republican party organ. Lincoln appointed him secretary of the Navy in March 1861.
The Civil War
On that June day in 1863, Welles wrote in his diary that Rear Admiral Andrew Hull Foote was hesitating to take over the blockade of Charleston Harbor from his friend Rear Admiral Samuel Du Pont. Welles wanted to replace Du Pont after his disastrous failed attack on Charleston on April 7. But Welles didn’t know that Foote had only 18 days to live. In a shocking development, Foote died suddenly while heading from New York to take over command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron from Du Pont.
Welles also had a problem that started overseas. The Danish government complained that Commodore Charles Wilkes had seized two Confederate commissioners from a British ship. The vessel headed to the neutral port of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, which Denmark owned. Wilkes, though a popular hero, had violated international law.
General Ulysses S. Grant was still laying siege to Vicksburg, and the outcome was not clear. Opposition to the Civil War was growing, Union soldiers weren’t all happy with the increase in African-American troops. However, as Welles wrote, “all our increased military strength comes from the negroes.” The Army of the Potomac wasn’t doing much after losing the Battle of Chancellorsville to a Confederate force half its size.
Gideon Welles was also hearing gossip about his rivals in Lincoln’s Cabinet. from Adam Gurowski. Gurowski, a Polish exile, had worked as a translator in the State Department.
And then there were the band concerts.
June 8, Monday. Wrote Secretary of State on the subject of the complaints of the Danish Government against Wilkes, who is charged with abusing hospitality at St. Thomas. Made the best statement I could without censuring Wilkes, who is coming home, partly from these causes.
Have a letter from Foote, who is not ready to relieve Du Pont. Speaks of bad health and disability. It must be real, for whatever his regard for, or tenderness to D., Foote promptly obeys orders.
Spoke to the President regarding weekly performances of the Marine Band. It has been customary for them to play in the public grounds south of the Mansion once a week in summer, for many years. Last year it was intermitted, because Mrs. Lincoln objected in consequence of the death of her son. There was grumbling and discontent, and there will be more this year if the public are denied the privilege for private reasons.
Welles had a keen awareness of public opinion, which he shared with the president.
The public will not sympathize in sorrows which are obtrusive and assigned as a reason for depriving them of enjoyments to which they have been accustomed, and it is a mistake to persist in it. When I introduced the subject to-day, the President said Mrs. L. would not consent, certainly not until after the 4th of July. I stated the case pretty frankly, although the subject is delicate, and suggested that the band could play in Lafayette Square. The President told me to do what I thought best.
Gideon Welles Sizes Up His Rivals
Count Adam Gurowski, who is splenetic and querulous, a strange mixture of good and evil, always growling and discontented, who loves to say harsh things and speak good of but few, seldom makes right estimates and correct discrimination of character, but means to be truthful if not just, tells me my selection for the Cabinet was acquiesced by the radical circle to which he belongs because they felt confident my influence with the President would be good, and that I would be a safeguard against the scheming and plotting of Weed and Seward, whose intrigues they understood and watched.
Welles liked Gurowski, but kept him at arms’ length.
When I came here, just preceding the inauguration in 1861, I first met this Polish exile, and was amused and interested in him, though I could not be intimate with one of his rough, course, ardent, and violent partisan temperament. His associates were then Horace Greeley, D.D.[David Dudley] Field, [George] Opdyke, and men of that phase of party.
I have not doubt that what he says is true of his associates, colored to some extent by his intense prejudices. He was for a year or two in the State Department as a clerk under Seward, and does not conceal that he was really a spy upon him, or, as he says, watched him.
Undermined By Seward
Gurowski had valuable intelligence for Welles.
He says that when Seward became aware that the radicals relied upon me as a friend to check the loose notions and ultraism of the State Department, he (S) went to work with the President to destroy my influence; that by persisting he so far succeeded as to induce the President to go against me on some important measures, where his opinion leaned to mine; that in this way, Seward and intrenched himself. There is doubtless some truth — probably some error — in the Count’s story. I give the outlines. [Charles] Eames, with whom he is intimate, has told me these things before. The Count makes him his confidant.
This story updated in 2022.