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 16, 2012

Diary of Gideon Welles

September 16. Chase called on me this morning. Wishes a secret concerted attack on Richmond. Says Stanton will furnish 10,000 men. Told him we would do all that could be expected of the Navy in a sudden movement, but doubted if a military expedition could be improvised as speedily and decisively as he supposed. He thought it could certainly be effected in six days. I told him to try. We would have a naval force ready in that time, though not so large and powerful as I would wish; but we would do our part.

Chase tells me that Harrington, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, was at Fortress Monroe last Thursday and heard Bankhead, who commands the Minnesota, say that the Government was a poor affair, that the Administration was inefficient, that it is time the politicians were cleared out of Washington and the army in power. Harrington called subsequently and confirmed the statement,—less strong perhaps in words but about as offensive. I requested him to reduce his statement to writing.

At the Executive Mansion, the Secretary of State informed us there was to be no Cabinet-meeting. He was authorized by the President to communicate the fact. Smith said it would be as well, perhaps, to postpone the Cabinet-meetings altogether and indefinitely, — there seemed no use latterly for our coming together. Others expressed corresponding opinions. Seward turned off, a little annoyed.

An unfavorable impression is getting abroad in regard to the President and the Administration, not without reason, perhaps, which prompted Smith and others to express their minds freely. There is really very little of a government here at this time, so far as most of the Cabinet are concerned; certainly but little consultation in this important period. Seward, when in Washington, spends more or less of each day with the President, absorbs his attention, and I fear to an extent influences his action not always wisely. The President has good sense, intelligence, and an excellent heart, but is sadly perplexed and distressed by events. He, to an extent, distrusts his own administrative ability and experience. Seward, instead of strengthening and fortifying him, encourages this self-distrust, but is not backward in giving his own judgment and experience, which are often defective expedients, to guide the Executive. A conviction of this state of things stirred up Smith to make his remarks. The President has, I believe, sincere respect and regard for each and every member of the Cabinet, but Seward seeks, and has at times, influence, which is sometimes harmful. The President would often do better without him, were he to follow his own instincts, or were he to consult all his advisers in council. He would find his own opinions confirmed and be convinced that Seward’s suggestions are frequently unwise and weak and temporizing. No one attempts to obtrude himself, or warn the President, or even to suggest to him that others than S. should be consulted on some of the important measures of the Government. In fact, they are not informed of some of the measures which are of general interest until they see them in operation, or hear of them from others. Chase is much chafed by these things, and endeavors, and to some extent succeeds, in also getting beside the President, and obtaining information of what is going forward. But this only excites and stimulates Seward, who has the inside track and means to keep it. The President is unsuspicious, or apparently so; readily gives his ear to suggestions from any one. Only one of his Cabinet, however, has manifested a disposition to monopolize his attention; but the discussion of important measures is sometimes checked almost as soon as introduced, and, without any consultation, or without being again brought forward, they are disposed of, the Secretary of State alone having had sometimes certainly a view, or car, or eye in the matter. He alone has abbreviated general consultation in many cases. With greater leisure than most of the Cabinet officers, unless it be Smith of the Interior, he runs to the President two or three times a day, gets his ear, gives him his tongue, makes himself interesting by anecdotes, and artfully contrives with Stanton’s aid to dispose of measures without action or give them direction independent of his associates. Under the circumstances, I perhaps am, latterly, as little interfered with as any one, though the duties of the State and Navy Departments run together; yet I am sometimes excessively annoyed and embarrassed by meddlesome intrusions and inconsiderate and unauthorized action by the Secretary of State. The Navy Department has, necessarily, greater intimacy, or connection, with the State Department than any other, for, besides international questions growing out of the blockade, our squadrons and commanders abroad come in contact with our ministers, consuls, and commercial agents, and each has intercourse with the Governments and representatives of other nations. Mutual understanding and cooperation are therefore essential and indispensable. But while I never attempt to direct the agents of the State Department, or think of it, or to meddle with affairs in the appropriate sphere of the Secretary of State, an entirely different course is pursued by him as regards the Navy and naval operations. He is anxious to direct, to be the Premier, the real Executive, and give away national rights as a favor. Since our first conflict, however, when he secretly interfered with the Sumter expedition and got up an enterprise to Pensacola, we have had no similar encounter; yet there has been an itching propensity on his part to have a controlling voice in naval matters with which he has no business, — which he really does not understand, — and he sometimes improperly interferes as in the disposition of mails on captured vessels. The Attorney-General has experienced similar improper interference, more than any other perhaps; none are exempt. But the Secretary of State, while meddlesome with others, is not at all communicative of the affairs of his own Department. Scarcely any important measures or even appointments of that Department are brought before us, except by the President himself or by his express direction. The consequence is that there is reticence by others and the Government is administered in a great measure by Departments. Seward is inquisitive and learns early what is doing by each of his associates, frequently before we meet in council, while the other Cabinet officers limit themselves to their provided duties and are sometimes wholly unadvised of his.

I have administered the Navy Department almost entirely independent of Cabinet consultation, and I may say almost without direction of the President, who not only gives me his confidence but intrusts all naval matters to me. This has not been my wish. Though glad to have his confidence, I should prefer that every important naval movement should pass a Cabinet review. To-day, for instance, Wilkes was given the appointment of Acting Rear Admiral, and I have sent him off with a squadron to cruise in the West Indies. All this has been done without Cabinet consultation, or advice with any one, except Seward and the President. The detail and the reserve are at the instigation of Seward, who wished Wilkes, between whom and himself, since the Trent affair, there seems to be an understanding, to have a command, without specifying where. In due time our associates in the Cabinet will learn the main facts and infer that I withheld from them my orders. My instructions to our naval officers, — commanders of squadrons or single ships, — cruising on our blockade duty, have never been submitted to the Cabinet, though I have communicated them freely to each. I have never read but one of my letters of instructions to the President, and that was to Captain Mercer of the Powhatan in command of the naval expedition to Sumter a few weeks after I entered upon my duties, and those instructions were, covertly, set aside and defeated by Seward.

So in regard to each and all the Departments; if I have known of their regulations and instructions, much of it has not been in Cabinet consultations. Seward beyond any and all others is responsible for this state of things. It has given him individual power, but often at the expense of good administration.

In everything relating to military operations by land, General Scott first, then McClellan, then Halleck, have directed and controlled. The Government was virtually in the hands of the General-in-Chief, so far as armies and military operations were concerned. The Administration had no distinct military policy, was permitted to have none. The President was generally advised and consulted, but Seward was the special confidant of General Scott, was more than any one of McClellan, and, in conjunction with Stanton, of Halleck. With wonderful kindness of heart and deference to others, the President, with little self-esteem and unaffected modesty, has permitted this and in a great measure has surrendered to military officers prerogatives intrusted to himself. The mental qualities of Seward are almost the precise opposite of the President. He is obtrusive and never reserved or diffident of his own powers, is assuming and presuming, meddlesome, and uncertain, ready to exercise authority always, never doubting his right until challenged; then he becomes timid, uncertain, distrustful, and inventive of schemes to extricate himself, or to change his position. He is not particularly scrupulous in accomplishing an end, nor so mindful of what is due to others as would be expected of one who aims to be always courteous towards equals. The President he treats with a familiarity that sometimes borders on disrespect. The President, though he observes this ostentatious presumption, never receives it otherwise than pleasantly, but treats it as a weakness in one to whom he attributes qualities essential to statesmanship, whose pliability is pleasant, and whose ready shrewdness he finds convenient and acceptable.

With temperaments so constituted and so unlike it is not surprising that the obsequious affability and ready assumption of the subordinate presumed on and to an extent influenced the really superior intellect of the principal, and made himself in a degree the centralizing personage. While the President conceded to the Secretary of State almost all that he assumed, not one of his colleagues made that concession. They treated his opinions respectfully, but as no better than the opinions of others, except as they had merit; and his errors they exposed and opposed as they deserved. One or two have always been ready to avail themselves of the opportunity. In the early days of the Administration the Cabinet officers were absorbed by labors and efforts to make themselves familiar with their duties, so as rightly to discharge them. Those duties were more onerous and trying, in consequence of the overthrow of old parties and the advent of new men and new organizations, with the great rupture that was going on in the Government, avowedly to destroy it, than had ever been experienced by any of their predecessors.

Whilst the other members of the Cabinet were absorbed in familiarizing themselves with their duties and in preparing for impending disaster, the Secretary of State, less apprehensive of disaster, spent a considerable portion of every day with the President, patronizing and instructing him, hearing and telling anecdotes, relating interesting details of occurrences in the Senate, and inculcating his political party notions. I think he has no very profound or sincere convictions. Cabinet-meetings, which should, at that exciting and interesting period, have been daily, were infrequent, irregular, and without system. The Secretary of State notified his associates when the President desired a meeting of the heads of Departments. It seemed unadvisable to the Premier — as he liked to be called and considered — that the members should meet often, and they did not. Consequently there was very little concerted action.

At the earlier meetings there was little or no formality; the Cabinet-meetings were a sort of privy council or gathering of equals, much like a Senatorial caucus, where there was no recognized leader and the Secretary of State put himself in advance of the President. No seats were assigned or regularly taken. The Secretary of State was invariably present some little time before the Cabinet assembled and from his former position as the chief executive of the largest State in the Union, as well as from his recent place as a Senator, and from his admitted experience and familiarity with affairs, assumed, and was allowed, as was proper, to take the lead in consultations and also to give tone and direction to the manner and mode of proceedings. The President, if he did not actually wish, readily acquiesced in, this. Mr. Lincoln, having never had experience in administering the Government, State or National, deferred to the suggestions and course of those who had. Mr. Seward was not slow in taking upon himself to prescribe action and doing most of the talking, without much regard to the modest chief, but often to the disgust of his associates, particularly Mr. Bates, who was himself always courteous and respectful, and to the annoyance of Mr. Chase, who had, like Mr. Seward, experience as a chief magistrate. Discussions were desultory and without order or system, but in the summing-up and conclusions the President, who was a patient listener and learner, concentrated results, and often determined questions adverse to the Secretary of State, regarding him and his opinions, as he did those of his other advisers, for what they were worth and generally no more. But the want of system and free communication among all as equals prevented that concert and comity which is really strength to an administration.

Each head of a Department took up and managed the affairs which devolved upon him as he best could, frequently without consulting his associates, and as a consequence without much knowledge of the transactions of other Departments, but as each consulted with the President, the Premier, from daily, almost hourly, intercourse with him, continued, if not present at these interviews, to ascertain the doings of each and all, though himself imparting but little of his own course to any. Great events of a general character began to impel the members to assemble daily, and sometimes General Scott was present, and occasionally Commodore Stringham; at times others were called in. The conduct of affairs during this period was awkward and embarrassing. After a few weeks the members, without preconcert, expressed a wish to be better advised on subjects for which they were all measurably responsible to the country. The Attorney-General expressed his dissatisfaction with these informal proceedings and advised meetings on stated days for general and current affairs, and hoped, when there was occasion, special calls would be made. The Secretary of State alone dissented, hesitated, doubted, objected, thought it inexpedient, said all had so much to do that we could not spare the time; but the President was pleased with the suggestion, if he did not prompt it, and concurred with the rest of the Cabinet.

The form of proceeding was discussed; Mr. Seward thought that would take care of itself. Some suggestions were made in regard to important appointments which had been made by each head of Department, the Secretary of State taking the lead in selecting high officials without general consultation. There seemed an understanding between the Secretaries of State and Treasury, who had charge of the most important appointments, of which understanding the President was perhaps cognizant. Chase had extensive patronage, Seward appointments of high character. The two arranged that each should make his own selection of subordinates. These two men had political aspirations which did not extend to their associates (with perhaps a single exception that troubled neither). Chase thought he was fortifying himself by this arrangement, but he often was overreached, and the arrangement was one of the mistakes of his life.

Without going farther into details, the effect, and probably the intention, of these proceedings in those early days was to dwarf the President and elevate the Secretary of State. The latter also circumscribed the sphere of [the former] so far as he could. Many of the important measures, particularly of his own Department, he managed to dispose of, or contrived to have determined, independent of the Cabinet.

My early collision with him in some complications connected with the Sumter and Pensacola expeditions, when he was so flagrantly wrong as to be overruled by the President, caused us to get along thenceforward without serious difficulties, though, our duties being intimate, we were often brought together and had occasional disagreements. Between Seward and Chase there was perpetual rivalry and mutual but courtly distrust. Each was ambitious. Both had capacity. Seward was supple and dexterous; Chase was clumsy and strong. Seward made constant mistakes, but recovered with a facility that was wonderful and almost always without injury to himself; Chase committed fewer blunders, but persevered in them when made, often to his own serious detriment. In the fevered condition of public opinion, the aims and policies of the [two] were strongly developed. Seward, who had sustained McClellan and came to possess, more than any one else in the Cabinet, his confidence, finally yielded to Stanton’s vehement demands and acquiesced in his sacrifice. Chase, from an original friend and self-constituted patron of McC, became disgusted, alienated, an implacable enemy, denouncing McClellan as a coward and military imbecile. In all this he was stimulated by Stanton, and the victim of Seward, who first supplanted him with McC. and then gave up McC. to appease Stanton and public opinion.

Previous post:

Next post: