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 18, 2013

Diary of Gideon Welles

September 18, Friday. The proclamation suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus has been generally well received. I have never feared the popular pulse would not beat a heathful response even to a stringent measure in these times, if the public good demanded it.

At the Cabinet-meeting Chase inquired of Seward how he and the Secretary of the Navy got on with the English ironclad rams. Seward treated the matter lightly and turned the conversation aside skillfully, I thought, for I was interested in the question. No one could do this more adroitly than he. On returning from the Cabinet I found upon my table two letters received by the noon mail, one from Consul Dudley of Liverpool of the 5th and one from Consul Cleveland at Cardiff of the 3rd, both private, but each warning me, earnestly, that the English government manifested no intention to detain these vessels, and expressing their belief that they will be allowed to leave.

I went directly to the State Department with these letters, which I read to Seward, and reminded him of our conversation in August when he quieted my apprehension so far that I left Washington to visit the navy yards, by assurances which he had received that we should not be disturbed by these formidable vessels.

He answered very pleasantly that he remembered the interview and the assurances he gave me, and seemed not the least disturbed by the information of threatened danger. On the contrary he appeared gratified and self-satisfied. After a remark or two of assumed indifference, he saw I was in earnest and not to be put off with mere words. He suddenly asked if I was a mason. I replied I was, but this was a matter of public concern. He said he wanted to tell me a secret which I must not communicate to any living person, and he should be unwilling to tell it to me on other consideration while things were in their present condition. He must enjoin upon me especially not to tell the President, nor let him know I had been informed, for he should himself probably let the President have the fact which he was about to disclose to me. “You must promise me,” said he, ” that you will neither communicate nor talk about it.”

I said that any matter thus communicated I should not be likely to repeat, but I must necessarily talk about these rams and communicate with others concerning them, —it was my business and duty to do it. I had come to him to talk about them, and I must, from the information I had, some of which I had just submitted, take action unless I had something from him to justify my abstaining to move.

He had a hesitating and inquiring look. “If,” said he, “England lets these vessels out we must let loose our privateers.”

This I had repeatedly said on previous occasions, and I now fully concurred, but I had delayed extra efforts in consequence of his assurances, and we are in no condition for these troubles. We must act, and with promptness and energy, unless he had something to say as a preventive.

“Well, they won’t come out,” said he. “The English Ministry are our friends with the exception of the chief. His course and conduct are execrable, and with his organ are damnable. I don’t know,” continued S., “what he, the premier, means. For certain reasons they gave out on the 4th of November that the government could do nothing to prevent the rams from coming out. On the 5th of November, the next day, they gave us assurances they should not come out. They will be retained in port, but you must not know this fact, nor must any one else know it. Mr. Adams is not aware of it. No one but you and the President and I must know it here, and it is best that he should not know that you know it.”

“Do you mean to say,” I asked, “that this state of facts was communicated to you last November, — nearly one year ago?” “No,” replied he, “did I say November? I meant September. I have dispatches here. I have not read all. I left the Cabinet early, as you observed.”

After some farther remarks, some additional injunctions, assurances that no member of the Cabinet knew or must be allowed to know anything on the subject, — there was a necessity that I should be informed, but yet appear to the world as if I were not informed, — some allusions to the Emma, recently captured and taken into service, our interview terminated. Before leaving, however, he expressed a wish that we had a fast steamer off Brest to capture the Florida, without recollecting that neither of our good neutral friends of England and France will allow us to coal or remain in port over twenty-four hours.

The information thus given in confidence relieves me of much labor and anxiety, yet I am not without some anxiety. I dislike this mystery, this reticence towards our colleagues in the government. Should the English fail us, or Seward find it convenient under a calamitous condition of affairs to deny what he has told me, or claim that he was misunderstood, I could not escape censure and condemnation. There is no record or writing in my possession. I have, on verbal, confidential assurances, omitted to take precautionary measures, which, without those assurances, I should have taken, and it was my duty to take, last August and now. If the rams come out and damage us, the denunciations against me will be severe, and I am without remedy but must bear the odium of neglect and inaction, for I cannot make public what has been told me.

The Emma was not a naval capture. She was taken by the Arago, an army transport, and was purchased under order of the court by the Navy. Her Majesty’s representative is pressing the question of sale to the Navy of this vessel, captured by an army transport, for a purpose.

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