December, 1863. It has been some weeks since I have opened this book. Such time as I could spare from exacting and oppressing current duties at the Department has been devoted to gathering and arranging materials for, and in writing, my Annual Report. Most of this latter labor has been done in the evening, when I was fatigued and exhausted, yet extending often to midnight. Likely the document itself will in style and manner show something of the condition of the author’s mind. In examining, analyzing, and weighing matters, I have sometimes felt discouraged and doubted my ability to do equal and exact justice to all, injustice to none. Every statement and sentence will be scrutinized, criticized, and scanned; politicians, naval men, legislators, statesmen at home and abroad will in this period of war and controversy study what may be said, with a zeal and purpose beyond what is usual. My wish is to do wrong to no one, to present the facts correctly and to serve my country honestly. The two or three friends to whom I have submitted the paper speak encouragingly of it. Mr. Faxon has been most useful to me and assisted me most. Mr. Fox and Mr. Lenthall have made sensible suggestions. I have found Mr. Eames a good critic, and he twice went over the whole with me. When finally printed and I sent off my last proof, I felt relieved and better satisfied with the document than I feared I should be. There is a responsibility and accountability in this class of papers, when faithfully done, vastly greater and more trying than in ordinary authorship. I believe I can substantiate everything I have said to any tribunal, and have omitted nothing which the Congress or the country ought to know. I do not expect, however, to silence the captious, or those who choose to occupy an attitude of hostility. If what I have said shall lead the government to better action or conclusions in any respect, I shall be more than satisfied.
The President requested that each head of Department would prepare a few paragraphs relating to his Department which might, with such modifications as he chose to make, be incorporated into the message. Blair and myself submitted ours first, each about three weeks since; the others were later.
I was invited and strongly urged by the President to attend the ceremonials at Gettysburg, but was compelled to decline, for I could not spare the time. The President returned ill and in a few days it was ascertained he had the varioloid. We were in Cabinet-meeting when he informed us that the physicians had the preceding evening ascertained and pronounced the nature of his complaint. It was in a light form, but yet held on longer than was expected. He would have avoided an interview, but wished to submit and have our views of the message. All were satisfied, and that portion which is his own displays sagacity and wisdom.
The Russian government has thought proper to send its fleets into American waters for the winter. A number of their vessels arrived on the Atlantic seaboard some weeks since, and others in the Pacific have reached San Francisco. It is a politic movement for both Russians and Americans, and somewhat annoying to France and England. I have directed our naval officers to show them all proper courtesy, and the municipal authorities in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia have exhibited the right spirit. Several of the Russian ships arrived and ascended the Potomac about the 1st instant.
On Saturday, the 5th instant, the Admiral and his staff made me an official visit, and on Monday, the 7th, the Secretary of State and myself with Mr. Usher returned the visit. Taking a steamboat at the navy yard, we proceeded down to the anchorage near Alexandria, where we were received with salutes and dined with the officers. On Monday dined with Baron Stoeckel and the Russian officers at Seward’s. Tuesday we were entertained at Stoeckel’s. On Wednesday, the 9th, received and entertained fifty Russian officers, the Cabinet, foreign ministers, and the officers of our own Navy who were in Washington, and all professed to be, and I think were, gratified. It was a question whether some of the legations would attend, but I believe all were present at our party.
Mr. Colfax was elected Speaker, and the House was organized without difficulty. There was an attempt to elect some one else, but it was an abortion. Washburne of Illinois wanted the place, but found few supporters and finally gave up the effort. Blair, to my surprise, went for Washburne, who, though the oldest, is confessedly the meanest man in Congress. Colfax is exceedingly sore over the course of Blair, who, he says, advised him not to compete with Grow, and now, when the field is open and fairly his, goes for W., whom he (C.) knows B. does not like. I not only preferred Colfax, but did not conceal my contempt for Washburne, whose honesty and veracity I know to be worse than indifferent. Blair tells me his opinion of W. is pretty much the same as mine and that he suggested and spoke of him at the instigation of the President, who, while he has not a very high opinion of Washburne, wants confidence in Colfax, whom he considers a little intriguer, — plausible, aspiring beyond his capacity, and not trustworthy.
In the appointment of committees, Colfax avows a desire to do justice to the Departments, which Grow did not in all cases, but placed some men on the Department committees that were positively bad. In no instance did he consult me. There is a practice by some Secretaries, I understand, to call upon the Speaker and influence his selections. The practice is, I think, wrong, yet courtesy and propriety would lead a fair-minded Speaker to appoint fair committees and consult the Departments and not put upon committees any of the class mentioned, objectionable characters who would embarrass the Secretary or be indifferent to their own duties. The conduct of Colfax is, so far as I am concerned, in pleasant contrast with Grow. Not that I do not appreciate Grow, nor that I am not on friendly terms with him. But C. has called and consulted with me, which G. never did. I neither then nor now undertook to select or name individual members, as I know has been done by others. Colfax named or showed me a list of names from which he proposed to make up the Naval Committee. He says Schenck intimates he would like to be chairman, — that when, in Congress twenty years ago, he was on the Naval Committee, the duties were pleasant and familiar to him. There are, however, family rather than public reasons which now influence him. If on the Naval Committee he would expect to legislate and procure favor for his brother. The Schenck family is grasping and pugnacious. I objected to him, and also to H. Winter Davis, who is Du Pont’s adviser, and who is disappointed because he was not made Secretary of the Navy.
In the Senate there is a singular state of things, I hear. Their proceedings are secret, but I am informed the Senators are unanimously opposed to placing John P. Hale on the Naval Committee, where he has been Chairman, but persistently hostile to the Department. The sentiments of Senators, I am told, confounded Hale, who alternately blusters and begs. Some, very likely a majority, want the moral courage to maintain and carry out their honest convictions, for there is not a Senator of any party who does not know he is a nuisance and discredit to the Naval Committee, and that he studies to thwart and embarrass the Department and never tries to aid it. This movement against Hale is spontaneous in the Senate. It certainly has not been prompted by me, for though he is the organ of communication between the Department and the Senate, I have ceased to regard him with respect, and have been silent respecting him. The Senators have failed to pay attention to him, and do well in getting rid of him, if they succeed in resisting his importunities, which, I hear, are very persistent.
. . . The Senators have, in their secret meetings, let [Hale] know their opinion of him, — that their confidence in him has gone. Should they continue him as Chairman of the Naval Committee, he will have no influence, and his fall, which must eventually take place, will be greater. . . .
The interference of Members of Congress in the organization of the navy yards and the employment of workmen is annoying beyond conception. In scarcely a single instance is the public good consulted in their interference, but a demoralized, debauched system of personal and party favoritism has grown up which is pernicious. No person representing a district in which there is a navy yard, ought ever to be placed on the Naval Committee, nor should a Member of Congress meddle with appointments unless requested by the Executive. It is a terrible and increasing evil.
A strange sale of refuse copper took place in September at the Washington Navy Yard. I have had the subject investigated, but the board which I appointed was not thorough in its labors, and did not pursue the subject closely. But the exhibit was such that I have dismissed the Commandant of the Yard, the Naval Storekeeper, and two of the masters, who are implicated, yet I am by no means certain I have reached all, or the worst.