Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Post image for Diary of Gideon Welles.

Diary of Gideon Welles.

August 10, 2012

Diary of Gideon Welles


August 10, 1862, Sunday. The last two days have been excessively warm. Thermometer on the north porch at 100 on each day. A slight breeze from the west makes this day somewhat more comfortable. News unimportant from the army, and but little from the Navy. Shall have something exciting within a few days. Sensation items are the favorite ones of the press. Alarming predictions delight their readers. Am sorry that better progress is not made in the war upon the Rebels. Our squadrons are paralyzed everywhere by the inactive and dilatory movements of the army. Vicksburg should have been taken by the first of June, but no adequate cooperating military force was furnished, and as a consequence our largest squadron in the Gulf and our flotilla in the Mississippi have been detained and injured. The most disreputable naval affair of the War was the descent of the steam ram Arkansas through both squadrons till she hauled in under the batteries of Vicksburg, and there the two flag officers abandoned the place and the ironclad ram, Farragut and his force going down to New Orleans, and Davis proceeding with his flotilla up the river. I have written them both, briefly but expressively, on the subject of the ram Arkansas. I do not blame them in regard to Vicksburg, though had Farragut obeyed his original orders and gone up the river at once after the capture of New Orleans, I think things might have been different. Butler would not, I presume, give sufficient support from the army, for he has proved prompt as well as fearless.

We have sensation articles in yesterday’s New York papers that the steamer Fingal at Savannah has been clad with iron and threatens our army and vessels. Have no word from Admiral Du Pont, who is watchful but slow to express apprehension. Am inclined to believe there is truth in the rumor that the boat has been clad with armor, but have my doubts if there is any immediate intention to attempt to pass outside. She is probably designed for river defense of the city against our gunboats; but may, if there is opportunity, assume the offensive. In the mean time the sensationalists will get up exciting alarms and terrify the public into distrust and denunciation of the Navy Department.

We have similar sensations every few days in regard to Merrimac No. 2, an armored boat at Richmond. As yet she has made no attempt to pass below the obstructions, though two or three times a week we are assured they are in sight, — “Smoke from half a dozen steam-stacks visible.” Wilkes writes he is fully prepared for her and her associates at any time, and Rodgers[1] writes to the same effect. But in a day or two some changes will take place that may affect operations on James River.

Have had to write Wilkes pretty decisively. He is very exacting towards others, but is not himself as obedient as he should be. Interposes his own authority to interrupt the execution of the orders of the Department. Wrote him that this was not permissible, that I expected his command to obey him, and it was no less imperative that he should obey the orders of the Department. He wrote for permission to dismiss from service a class of officers if they did not suit him, and as he thought them inefficient. I told him the suggestion could not be entertained, that the Department must retain the administrative control of the Navy. I have not heard from him in reply, or explanation. It is pretty evident that he will be likely to cause trouble to the Department. He has abilities but not good judgment in all respects. Will be likely to rashly assume authority, and do things that may involve himself and the country in difficulty, and hence I was glad that not I but the President and Secretary of State suggested him for that command. It is the first time that either has proposed a candidate for a command, since taking Stringham from the office of detail in 1861 to go to Pensacola. Seward’s intrigue. It was almost a necessity that something should be done for Wilkes. His act, in taking Mason and Slidell from the Trent, had given him éclat, — it was popular with the country, was considered right by the people, even if rash and irregular; but when and how to dispose of Wilkes was an embarrassment to me, until the command of the James River Flotilla was suggested. He was, however, unwilling to report to Goldsborough, and to have done so would have caused delay. But giving him an independent command caused Goldsborough to take offense, and he asked to resign the command of the squadron. To this I had no objection, for he was proving himself inefficient, — had done nothing effective since the frigates were sunk by the Merrimac, nor of himself much before.

The State Department is in constant trepidation, fearing our naval officers do not know their duties, or that they will transcend them. Both points are marked weaknesses in the management of our foreign affairs. We are insulted, wronged, and badly treated by the British authorities, especially at Nassau, and I have called the attention of the Secretary of State repeatedly to the facts, but he fears to meet them. After degrading ourselves, we shall be compelled to meet them. I am for no rash means, but I am clearly and decidedly for maintaining our rights. Almost all the aid which the Rebels have received in arms, munitions, and articles contraband have gone to them through the professedly neutral British port of Nassau. From them the Rebels have derived constant encouragement and support, from the commencement of hostilities. Our officers and people are treated with superciliousness and contempt by the authorities and inhabitants, and scarcely a favor or courtesy is extended to them while they are showered upon the Rebels. It is there that vessels are prepared to run the blockade and violate our laws, by the connivance and with the knowledge of the Colonial, and, I apprehend, the parent, government.

In reorganizing the Department there are some difficulties. I am assailed for continuing Lenthall as Naval Constructor at the head of the bureau. He has not much pliability or affability, but, though attacked and denounced as corrupt and dishonest, I have never detected any obliquity or wrong in him. His sternness and uprightness disappointed the jobbers and the corrupt, and his unaffected manner has offended others. There is an intrigue to prevent his confirmation, in which very great rogues and some honest and good men are strangely mixed up, the last being the dupes, almost the willing victims, of the former.

Admiral Foote reported for duty on Thursday, but his rooms were not prepared, and I advised him, as he was yet lame and on crutches, to delay active duty for a month or so. It is some forty years since we were school-boys together in the quiet town of Cheshire, and it has been a pleasant opportunity to me to bring out the qualities of my early friend. He left yesterday for a few weeks.

Mr. Faxon, Chief Clerk, is absent, and I am somewhat embarrassed in relation to the true disposition of the clerical force. It seems not to have occurred to Admiral Foote that he could not appoint whom he pleased in his bureau, regardless of the claims and capabilities of older and more experienced clerks on less pay. I told him I wished him to have the selection of his chief or at least one confidential clerk, but that I could not displace old and worthy employees. This he said he did not wish, though he was, I think, a little disappointed.

Davis continues in command of the flotilla on the Mississippi. Had he captured the Arkansas, I would have had him come on immediately and take charge of the Bureau of Navigation.

In reorganizing the Navy under the late act, there were nine admirals to be appointed on the retired list. The names of nine were presented, but the Senate failed to confirm or act upon them. After the adjournment of Congress, commissions were sent them under executive appointment. Of course the men superseded were dissatisfied. Aulick was the first who called, complaining that injustice was done, and desiring to know wherein his record was defective and why he had been set aside. I told him that had it been the intention of Congress that the nine senior officers should be the admirals, the act would doubtless have so stated; that as regarded himself, while, personally, our relations had been pleasant if not intimate, he had not made himself known or felt by the Department or the Government in the hour of peril; that he had, just as the Rebellion commenced, applied for six months’ leave to visit Europe, on account of alleged illness of his daughter; that he left about the time of the assault on Sumter; that he remained abroad until notified that his leave would not be extended, and never had made a suggestion for the country, or expressed any sympathy for the cause. Under these circumstances I had felt justified in advising the President to omit his name. He said he had supposed it was other influences than mine which had done him this injustice, that we had been long and well acquainted. I told him I shunned no responsibility in the case, and yet it was due to candor to say that I never had heard a word in his behalf from any one.

Commodore Mervine writes me of his disappointment, feels hurt and slighted. By the advice of Paulding, chiefly, I gave the command of the Gulf Squadron to Mervine in the spring of 1861; but he proved an utter failure. He is not wanting in patriotism, but in executive and administrative ability; is quite as great on little things as on great ones. He was long in getting out to his station, and accomplished nothing after he got there. When I detached him and appointed McKean, he was indignant and applied for a court of inquiry; but I replied that we had not the time nor men to spare, that I had called him to promote the public interest, and recalled him for the same purpose. He is a man of correct deportment and habits, and in ordinary times would float along the stream with others, but such periods as these bring out the stronger points of an officer, if he has them. I had no personal, or political, or general, feeling against him, but as there were other officers of mark and merit superior to him, they were selected. Yet I felt there could not be otherwise than a sense of slight that must be felt by himself and friends, which I could not but regret. Yet any person with whom I consulted commended the course I pursued in regard to him.

Commodore Samuel Breese was a more marked case than Mervine’s, but of much the same character. Nothing good, nothing bad, in him as an officer. A gentleman of some scholarly pretensions, some literary acquirements, but not of much vigor of mind. Paulding was his junior, and the slight, as he conceived it, almost broke poor Breese’s heart. He came immediately to Washington, accompanied by his wife, a pleasant woman, and called on me, sad and heartsore, his pride wounded, his vanity humiliated to the dust. For three nights he assured me he had not closed his eyes; morning and evening the flag of Paulding was always before him. He said Read would not live long and implored that he might have the place.

Charles Stewart, first on the list and the oldest officer in the service, wrote, requesting the permission of the President to decline the appointment. It is a singular letter, and required a singular answer, which I sent him, leaving the subject in his hands.

The Advisory Board, which had to pass on subordinate active appointments, have completed their labors the past week. I am not altogether satisfied with their action, and perhaps should not be with any board, when so much was to be done, and so many men to pass under revision. The omission of Selfridge and Porter (W. D.) were perhaps the most marked cases, and the promotion of Fleming and Poor the most objectionable.

In the action of this board I have taken no part, but scrupulously abstained from any conversation with its members, directly or indirectly. I did say to Assistant Secretary Fox that I regretted the action in the case of the elder Selfridge and Walke, and I think he must have intimated these views in regard to W., for the action of the board was subsequently reversed. But I know not how this may have been.

Had a letter last evening from Lieutenant Budd, stating that he presented me with a chair rumored to have belonged to General Washington, which was captured on the Steamer Memphis, and asking me to accept it. Admiral Paulding had written me there was such a chair, which he had carried to his house, and asking what should be done with it. The chair was private property and sent by a lady to some one abroad, for friendly feeling to the Rebels. I sent word to Admiral P. that the captors could donate it or it might be sold with the other parts of the cargo. It is, I apprehend, of little intrinsic value. If it really belonged to Washington, it seemed to me impolitic to sell it at auction as a Rebel capture; if not Washington’s, there should be no humbug. My impressions were that it might be given to Admiral P. or to the Commandant’s House at the navy yard, and I am inclined to think I will let it take the latter course, at least for the present.

Governor Buckingham was here last week, and among other matters had in view the selection of Collectors and Assessors for our State. There was great competition. The State ticket was headed by Howard, and the Congress ticket headed by Goodman. While personally friendly to all, my convictions were for the State ticket, which was moreover much the ablest. The Secretary of the Treasury gave it the preference but made three alterations.

I met Senator Dixon the next day at the Executive Mansion, he having come on to Washington with express reference to these appointments. He has written me several letters indicating much caution, but I saw at once that he was strongly committed and exceedingly disappointed. He promised to see me again, but left that P.M. to get counter support.

Intelligence reaches us this evening that the Rebel ironclad ram Arkansas has been destroyed. We have also news of a fight yesterday on the Rapidan by forces under General Pope, the Rebels commanded by Stonewall Jackson.

Was told confidentially to-day that a treaty had been brought about between Thurlow Weed and Bennett of the Herald, after a bitterness of twenty years. A letter was read to me giving the particulars. Weed had word conveyed to Bennett that he would like to make up. Bennett thereupon invited Weed to Fort Washington. Weed was shy; sent word that he was engaged the evening named, which was untrue. Bennett then sent a second invitation, which was accepted; and Weed dined and stayed for the night at Fort Washington, and the Herald directly changed its tune.

[1] Captain, afterwards Rear-Admiral, John Rodgers.

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