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.

September 12, 2012

Diary of Gideon Welles

September 12, Friday. A clever rain last night, which I hope may swell the tributaries of the upper Potomac.

A call from Wilkes, who is disturbed because I press him so earnestly. Told him I wished him off as soon as possible; had hoped he would have left before this; Rebel cruisers are about and immense injury might result from a single day’s delay. I find the officers generally dislike to sail with him.

A brief meeting of the Cabinet. Seward was not present. Has met with us but once in several weeks. No cause assigned for this constant absence, yet a reluctance to discuss and bring to a decision any great question without him is apparent.

In a long and free discussion on the condition of the army and military affairs by the President, Blair, Smith, and myself, the President repeated what he had before said to me, that the selection of McClellan to command active operations was not made by him but by Halleck, and remarked that the latter was driven to it by necessity. He had arranged his army corps and designated the generals to lead each column, and called on Burnside to take chief command. But Burnside declined and declared himself unequal to the position. Halleck had no other officer whom he thought capable and said he consequently was left with no alternative but McClellan.

“The officers and soldiers,” the President said, “were pleased with the reinstatement of that officer, but I wish you to understand it was not made by me. I put McClellan in command here to defend the city, for he has great powers of organization and discipline; he comprehends and can arrange military combinations better than any of our generals, and there his usefulness ends. He can’t go ahead — he can’t strike a blow. He got to Rockville, for instance, last Sunday night, and in four days he advanced to Middlebrook, ten miles, in pursuit of an invading enemy. This was rapid movement for him. When he went up the Peninsula there was no reason why he should have been detained a single day at Yorktown, but he waited, and gave the enemy time to gather his forces and strengthen his position.”

I suggested that this dilatory, defensive policy was partly at least the result of education; that a defensive policy was the West Point policy. Our Government was not intended to be aggressive but to resist aggression or invasion, — to repel, not to advance. We had good engineers and accomplished officers, but that no efficient, energetic, audacious, fighting commanding general had yet appeared from that institution. We were all aware that General Scott had, at the very commencement, begun with this error of defense, the Anaconda theory; was unwilling to invade the seceding States, said we must shut off the world from the Rebels by blockade and by our defenses. He had always been reluctant to enter Virginia or strike a blow. Blair said this was so, that we had men of narrow, aristocratic notions from West Point, but as yet no generals to command; that there were many clever second-rate men, but no superior mind of the higher class. The difficulty, however, was in the War Department itself. There was bluster but not competency. It should make generals, should search and find them, and bring them up, for there were such somewhere, — far down perhaps. The War Department should give character and tone to the army and all military movements. Such, said he, is the fact with the Navy Department, which makes no bluster, has no blowers, but quietly and intelligently does its work, inspires its officers and men, and brings forward leaders like Farragut, Foote, and Du Pont. The result tells you the value of system, of rightful discrimination, good sense, judgment, knowledge, and study of men. They make ten times the noise at the War Department, but see what they do or fail to do. The Secretary of War should advise with the best and most experienced minds, avail himself of their opinions, not give way to narrow prejudices and strive to weaken his generals, or impair confidence in them on account of personal dislikes. We have officers of capacity, depend upon it, and they should be hunted out and brought forward. The Secretary should dig up these jewels. That is his duty. B. named Sherman and one or two others who showed capacity.

“McClellan,” said B., “is not the man, but he is the best among the major-generals.” Smith said he should prefer Banks. Blair said Banks was no general, had no capacity for chief command. Was probably an estimable officer in his proper place, under orders. So was Burnside, and Heintzelman, and Sykes, but the War Department must hunt up greater men, better military minds, than these to carry on successful war.

Smith complimented Pope’s patriotism and bravery, and the President joined in the encomiums. Said that Halleck declared that Pope had made but one mistake in all the orders he had given, and that was in ordering one column to retreat on Tuesday from Centreville to Chain Bridge, whereby he exposed his flank, but no harm came of his error. Blair was unwilling to concede any credit whatever to Pope; said he was a blower and a liar and ought never to have been intrusted with such a command as that in front. The President admitted Pope’s infirmity, but said a liar might be brave and have skill as an officer. He said Pope had great cunning. He had published his report, for instance, which was wrong, — an offense for which, if it can be traced to him, Pope must be made amenable, — “But,” said he, “it can never, by any skill, be traced to him.” “That is the man,” said Blair. “Old John Pope,[1] his father, was a flatterer, a deceiver, a liar, and a trickster; all the Popes are so.”

When we left the Executive Mansion, Blair, who came out with me, remarked that he was glad this conversation had taken place. He wanted to let the President know we must have a Secretary of War who can do something besides intrigue, —who can give force and character to the army, administer the Department on correct principles. Cameron, he said, had got into the War Department by the contrivance and cunning of Seward, who used him and other corruptionists as he pleased, with the assistance of Thurlow Weed; that Seward had tried to get Cameron into the Treasury, but was unable to quite accomplish that, and after a hard underground quarrel against Chase, it ended in the loss of Cameron, who went over to Chase and left Seward. Bedeviled with the belief he might be a candidate for the Presidency, Cameron was beguiled and led to mount the nigger hobby, alarmed the President with his notions, and at the right moment, B. says, he plainly and frankly told the President he ought to get rid of C. at once, that he was not fit to remain in the Cabinet, and was incompetent to manage the War Department, which he had undertaken to run by the aid of Tom A. Scott, a corrupt lobby-jobber from Philadelphia. Seward was ready to get rid of Cameron after he went over to Chase, but instead of bringing in an earnest, vigorous, sincere man like old Ben Wade to fill the place, he picked up this black terrier, who is no better than Cameron, though he has a better assistant than Scott, in Watson. Blair says he now wants assistance to “get this black terrier out of his kennel.” I probably did not respond as he wished, for I am going into no combination or movement against colleagues. He said he must go and see Seward. In his dislike of Stanton, Blair is sincere and earnest, but in his detestation he may fail to allow Stanton qualities that he really possesses. Stanton is no favorite of mine. He has energy and application, is industrious and driving, but devises nothing, shuns responsibility, and I doubt his sincerity always. He wants no general to overtop him, is jealous of others in any position who have influence and popular regard; but he has cunning and skill, dissembles his feelings, in short, is a hypocrite, a moral coward, while affecting to be, and to a certain extent being, brusque, overvaliant in words. Blair says he is dishonest, that he has taken bribes, and that he is a double-dealer; that he is now deceiving both Seward and Chase; that Seward brought him into the Cabinet after Chase stole Cameron, and that Chase is now stealing Stanton. Reminds me that he exposed Stanton’s corrupt character, and stated an instance which had come to his knowledge and where he has proof of a bribe having been received; that he made this exposure when Stanton was a candidate for Attorney for the District. Yet Seward, knowing these facts, had induced and persuaded the President to bring this corrupt man into the War Department. The country was now suffering for this mistaken act. Seward wanted a creature of his own in the War Department, that he might use, but Stanton was actually using Seward.

Stanton’s appointment to the War Department was in some respects a strange one. I was never a favorite of Seward, who always wanted personal friends. I was not of his sort, personally or politically. Stanton, knowing his creator, sympathized with him. For several months after his appointment, he exhibited some of his peculiar traits towards me. He is by nature a sensationalist, has from the first been filled with panics and alarms, in which I have not participated; and I have sometimes exhibited little respect or regard for his mercurial flights and sensational disturbances. He saw on more than one occasion that I was cool when he was excited, and he well knew that I neither admired his policy nor indorsed his views. Of course we were courteously civil, but reserved and distant. The opposition in the early days of the Administration were violent against the Navy management, and the class of Republicans who had secretly been opposed to my appointment joined in the clamor. In the progress of events there was a change. The Navy and my course, which had been assailed, — and which assaults he countenanced, — grew in favor, while my mercurial colleague failed to give satisfaction. His deportment changed after the naval success at New Orleans, and we have since moved along harmoniously at least. He is impulsive, not administrative; has quickness, often rashness, when he has nothing to apprehend; is more violent than vigorous, more demonstrative than discriminating, more vain than wise; is rude, arrogant, and domineering towards those in subordinate positions if they will submit to his rudeness, but is a sycophant and dissembler in deportment and language with those whom he fears. He has equal cunning but more force and greater capacity than Cameron; yet the qualities I have mentioned and his uneasy, restless nature make him, though possessed of a considerable ability of a certain sort, an unfit man in many respects for the War Department in times like these. I have sometimes thought McClellan would better discharge the duties of Secretary of War than those of a general in the field, and that a similar impression may have crossed Stanton’s mind, and caused or increased his hate of that officer. There is no love lost between them, and their enmity towards each other does not injure McClellan in the estimation of Blair. Should McClellan in this Maryland campaign display vigor and beat the Rebels, he may overthrow Stanton as well as Lee. Blair will give him active assistance. But he must rid himself of what President Lincoln calls the “slows.” This, I fear, is impossible; it is his nature.

[1] General Pope’s father was Judge Nathaniel Pope, of the United States District Court for Illinois.

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