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Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the…

Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and Johnson,…

by Gideon Welles

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Roughly the first half of the diary concerns itself about the war and covers the period of some of the bloodiest fighting from the Wilderness on, to the end of the war. Its most poignant part is Welles’ reaction to Lincoln’s death. He was present in the Peterson house (where Lincoln was taken after he was shot in Ford’s Theater) when Lincoln died, having spent the night with Stanton and others keeping vigil. Welles was the epitome of the stern, upright New England patriarch, morally incorruptible, not given to much emotion, but Lincoln’s death was a profound shock that temporarily shattered Welles as it did everyone else. Welles loved and respected Lincoln, revered him, although even such an admirer as he did not truly see Lincoln’s political greatness. But his grief comes across in the pages of his diary.

And this volume of his diary is really split by the two Presidencies--the “before”, of Lincoln’s, and the “after” of Andrew Johnson’s. Until Lincoln’s death, we have Welles as usual--disapproving of Stanton and Seward, sternly doing his upright best to run the Navy Department honestly, trying in vain to root out unscrupulous contractors, dealing with the egos of naval officers, holding out against pressures from various important people for preference, whether for preferment for their friends or relatives in the Navy or in the awarding of contracts or in various rather loathsome political schemes in the Navy Yards. He continues to have a fatherly attitude towards Lincoln, deploring Lincoln’s naiveté about Seward, thinking the President wise but too kind, his love for Lincoln clear in every sentence he wrote about the man.

Then came Johnson and the end of the war. Johnson is widely rated as one of the worst Presidents the United States has had, but Welles in the beginning thought highly of him. He is full of praise of Johnson’s acumen but worries, as he did with Lincoln, about Johnson’s tendency to work too hard.

The break point comes with Reconstruction and the policy towards the former Rebel states--and the 14th amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery.

The US Civil War has received enormous popular attention and rightly so. It was a turning point in the country’s history. However, there’s just about no play given to Reconstruction, which was also a critical period.

Welles was against slavery--but that did not mean he was for ‘negro equality”. Absolutely not. In time, maybe, when the “negroes” were ready--educated, etc--the vote. No doubt there were some who were ready but the majority? Definitely not. Welles was no more racist than the majority of Americans.

Where he did break with the majority, however, was his opposition--along with Johnson--to the 14th amendment granting citizenship to Afro-Americans. Welles had been a Democrat and was a believer in States Rights--not to the point of secession from the Union, but was for a very strict interpretation of the Constitution and very limited Federal power. Theoretically, his objection to the amendment was based on procedure--at the time the amendment was proposed, the 11 rebel states had still not been formally readmitted to the Union. In Welles view, proposing an amendment to the Constituion while eleven states were without what he viewed as legitimate representation in congress was constitutionally illegal. As time went on, more and more states were readmitted, but Welles continued his opposition, and took it to absurd lengths. Page after page of his diary is filled with denunciations of the Radicals and those who voted with them. He refused to believe that decent men would go along with a policy he himself had deemed unconstitutional and wrong; therefore, they were dupes of men like Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, Ben Wade, and Henry Winter Davis. From the disapproval of Stanton and Seward evident in his first volume, he goes to what does certainly appear to be something approaching hatred. He constantly rails at at the weakness, greed, and self-serving of politicians (true since Cain and Abel), bitterly denouncing all those who put partisanship--Republican party discipline--above the good of the country; the irony is that he himself does not realize just how partisan he is. No one is "good and true” unless they opposed the 14th Amendment. No problem with the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, but citizenship for a race he considered inferior? No way.

It is fascinating to follow Welles, as he becomes ever more strident, ever more paranoid. Much as he originally favored Johnson, by the end of 1866, he was severely disapproving of Johnson’s inability, as he saw it, to stand up to the Radicals.

There’s more to the diaries than this. The United States nearly went to war with France over French imperialism in Mexico in this time period, and Welles gives a valuable record of the events. Welles was an honest and able administrator, and his fight against corruption was only partially successful. He does give us a look into the personalities and social scene in Washington at that time, or as much as he can given his extreme views on so many in the Administration and Congress.

This volume of the diary is well worth reading, but I found that reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction was valuable in giving a perspective on the politicians and issues that so obsessed Welles. It’s an invaluable look into attitudes that were prevalent at the times, one part of the political and social spectrum of beliefs that the people of the United States held at that time.

If for nothing else, his eyewitness account of the death of Lincoln and the subsequent mourning is worth reading. But his very personal account of Reconstruction as it was being enacted is priceless.

Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote Joycepa | May 18, 2009 |
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