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.

August 17, 2012

Diary of Gideon Welles

August 17, Sunday. Called this morning on General Halleck, who had forgotten or was not aware there was a naval force in the James River cooperating with the army. He said the army was withdrawn and there was no necessity for the naval vessels to remain. I remarked that I took a different view of the question, and, had I been consulted, I should have advised that the naval and some army forces should hold on and menace Richmond, in order to compel the Rebels to retain part of their army there while our forces in front of Washington were getting in position. He began to rub his elbows, and, without thanking me or acknowledgment of any kind, said he wished the vessels could remain. Telegraphed Wilkes to that effect. Strange that this change of military operations should have been made without Cabinet consultation, and especially without communicating the fact to the Secretary of the Navy, who had established a naval flotilla on the James River by special request to cooperate with and assist the army. But Stanton is so absorbed in his scheme to get rid of McClellan that other and more important matters are neglected.

A difficulty has existed from the beginning in the military, and I may say general, management of the War. At a very early day, before even the firing on Sumter and the abandonment of Norfolk, I made repeated applications to General Scott for one or two regiments to be stationed there. Anticipating the trouble that subsequently took place, and confident that, with one regiment well commanded and a good engineer to construct batteries, with the cooperation of the frigate Cumberland and such small additional naval force as we could collect, the place might be held at least until the public property and ships could be removed, I urged the importance of such aid. The reply on each occasion was that he not only had no troops to spare from Washington or Fortress Monroe, both of which places he considered in great danger, but that if he had, he would not send a detachment in what he considered enemy’s country, especially as there were no intrenchments. I deferred to his military character and position, but remonstrated against this view of the case, for I was assured, and, I believe, truly, that a majority of the people in the navy yard and in the vicinity of Norfolk were loyal, friends of the Union and opposed to Secession. He said that might be the political, but was not the military, aspect, and he must be governed by military considerations in disposing of his troops.

There was but one way of overcoming these objections and that was by peremptory orders, which I could not, and the President would not, give, in opposition to the opinions of General Scott. The consequence was the loss of the navy yard and of Norfolk, and the almost total extinguishment of the Union sentiment in that quarter. Our friends there became cool and were soon alienated by our abandonment. While I received no assistance from the military in that emergency, I was thwarted and embarrassed by the secret interference of the Secretary of State in my operations. General Scott was for a defensive policy, and the same causes which influenced him in that matter, and the line of policy which he marked out, have governed the educated officers of the army and to a great extent shaped the war measures of the Government. “We must erect our batteries on the eminences in the vicinity of Washington,” said General Mansfield to me, “and establish our military lines; frontiers between the belligerents, as between the countries of Continental Europe, are requisite.” They were necessary in order to adapt and reconcile the theory and instruction of West Point to the war that was being prosecuted. We should, however, by this process become rapidly two hostile nations. All beyond the frontiers must be considered and treated as enemies, although large sections, and in some instances whole States, have a Union majority, occasionally in some sections approximating unanimity.

Instead of halting on the borders, building intrenchments, and repelling indiscriminately and treating as Rebels — enemies — all, Union as well as disunion, men in the insurrectionary region, we should, I thought, penetrate their territory, nourish and protect the Union sentiment, and create and strengthen a national feeling counter to Secession. This we might have done in North Carolina, western Virginia, northern Alabama and Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, and in fact in large sections of nearly every seceding State. Instead of holding back, we should be aggressive and enter their territory. Our generals act on the defensive. It is not and has not been the policy of the country to be aggressive towards others, therefore defensive tactics, rather than offensive have been taught, and the effect upon our educated commanders in this civil war is perceptible. The best material for commanders in this civil strife may have never seen West Point. There is something in the remark that a good general is “born to command.” We have experienced that some of our best-educated officers have no faculty to govern, control, and direct an army in offensive warfare. We have many talented and capable engineers, good officers in some respects, but without audacity, desire for fierce encounter, and in that respect almost utterly deficient as commanders. Courage and learning are essential, but something more is wanted for a good general, — talent, intuition, magnetic power, which West Point cannot give. Men who would have made the best generals and who possess innately the best and highest qualities to command may not have been so fortunate as to be selected by a Member of Congress to be a cadet.

Jackson and Taylor were excellent generals, but they were not educated engineers, nor were they what would be considered in these days accomplished and educated military men. They detailed and availed themselves of engineers, and searched out and found the needed qualities in others.

We were unused to war when these present difficulties commenced, and have often permitted men of the army to decide questions that were more political than military. There is still the same misfortune, — for I deem it such.

From the beginning there was a persistent determination to treat the Rebels as alien belligerents, — as a hostile and distinct people, — to blockade, instead of closing, their ports. The men “duly accredited by the Confederate States of America” held back-door intercourse with the Secretary of State, and lived and moved in ostentatious style in Washington for some weeks. Thus commencing, other governments had reason to claim that we had initiated them into the belief that the Federal Government and its opponents were two nations; and the Union people of the South were, by this policy of our Government and that of the army, driven, compelled against their wishes, to be our antagonists.

No man in the South could avow himself a friend of the Union without forfeiting his estate, his liberty, and perhaps his life under State laws of the Confederates. The Federal Government not only afforded him no protection, but under the military system of frontiers he was treated as a public enemy because he resided in his own home at the South.

Previous post:

Next post: