December 26, Saturday. The Dictator, turret vessel, was launched this A.M. in New York. This is one of a class of vessels that has become famous. She is of greatly increased dimensions to any hitherto constructed. I have full confidence that she will be a formidable fighting craft, but am not prepared to indorse her, or the Puritan, which is not yet launched, as cruisers. There are differences among naval men on this subject, but the turret vessels are steadily gaining friends among them, and early friends are becoming enthusiastic. Fox, himself a good sailor, and others give them unqualified approval. Fox is ready, he says, to cross the Atlantic or double Cape Horn with either. For harbor or coast defense these vessels are, I think, invaluable, and almost invulnerable. The fight with the Merrimac made for them rapid converts. When the first turret vessel, the Monitor, was building, many naval men and men in the shipping interest sneered at her as a humbug, and at me as no sailor or judge, until she vindicated her power and worth in that first remarkable conflict. Then I was abused by party men because I had not made preparations for and built more.
There is constant caprice in regard to the Navy. Those who know least clamor most. It is difficult to decide what course to pursue, and yet I must prescribe a policy and be held accountable for it. If I go forward and build large and expensive vessels, I shall be blamed for extravagance, particularly if peace takes place. On the other hand, if I should not build, and we have, not only continued hostilities, but war with England or France, I shall be denounced for being unprepared. Yet it is patent that powerful, and expensive because powerful, structures are conducive to peace. A few strong, powerful vessels will conduce to economy because they will deter commercial nations from troubling us, and if not troubled, we need no large and expensive navy.
During the whole of this civil war, I have been beset and annoyed by interested patriots who had old steamers to sell which no one would buy. The agents of these parties crowded the Department, got Members of Congress to besiege it, and, because I did not think their crafts adapted to our wants, they, and in some instances the press and certain Members of Congress, engaged in abuse of me.
What we needed for this war and the blockade of our extensive coast was many vessels of light draft and good speed, not large, expensive ships, for we had no navy to encounter but illicit traders to capture. I acted accordingly and I have no doubt correctly, though much abused for it. A war with one or more of the large maritime powers would require an entirely different class of vessels.
In naval matters, as in financial, those who are most ignorant complain loudest. The wisest policy receives the severest condemnation. My best measures have been the most harshly criticized. I have been blamed for procuring so many small vessels from the merchant service. But those vessels were not only the cheapest and the most available, but the most effective. In no other way could we have established an effective blockade of our extended coast. We wanted not heavy navy-built ships but such vessels as had speed and could capture neutral unarmed blockade-runners. There was no navy, no fighting craft, to encounter. Half a dozen small vessels required no more men and were not more expensive than one first-class ship, yet either one of the six small craft of light draught which were swift was more effective than the big ship for this particular duty. It was claimed the small light vessels could not lie off the coast in winter and do blockade service. Experience has shown the contrary. The grumblers have said our small naval-built gunboats have not great speed. Small propellers of light draught on duty for months cannot carry sufficient fuel and have great speed.
There is no little censure because fast vessels are not sent off after the Alabama, and yet it would be an act of folly to detach vessels from the blockade and send them off scouring the ocean for this roving wolf, which has no country, no home, no resting-place but such as neutral England and France may give her. When I sometimes ask the faultfinders to tell me where the Alabama is or can be found, assuring them I will send a force of several vessels at once to take her on being satisfactorily informed, they are silenced. Whilst these men blame me for not sending a fleet after the marauders, they and others would blame me more were I to weaken the blockade in an uncertain pursuit. Unreasonable and captious men will blame me, take what course I may. I must, therefore, follow my own convictions.