Gideon Welles


Public life

Occupation 1


Occupation 2

Secretary of the Navy


Civil War


NA/New England region


Age of Steam and Steel (1866-1920)








...was born in Glastonbury, Connecticut, the son of Samuel Welles, a shipbuilder and merchant in the West Indies trade...
...In 1846 Welles became the first civilian bureau chief in the Navy Department, responsible for the department's supply of provisions and clothing during the Mexican-American War. Though an honest and capable administrator, the Whig triumph of 1848 resulted in his dismissal.

...Welles...gained a large following among Republican party leaders, especially in New England. As a result, he was pushed for a cabinet position when the party won the election of 1860. President Abraham Lincoln appointed him secretary of the navy on 4 March 1861.
When Welles took over the Navy Department, he was immediately faced with the loss of more than half of the officer corps, 300 of whom resigned or were dismissed for disloyalty. The Union fleet consisted of forty-five ships, most of which were obsolete. Only twelve vessels were ready for service. The navy was, therefore, unprepared to implement Lincoln's blockade of the southern ports. To make matters worse, Lincoln's attempt to placate Virginia before Fort Sumter resulted in the loss of the Union's best-equipped naval base at Norfolk, Virginia.

Welles moved rapidly to expand the navy. He initiated development of a river fleet that would assist the Treasury Department's internal blockade of the Confederacy as well as cooperate with the army in joint operations. Before northern shipyards could begin to build new vessels, Welles sought merchant shipping that could be quickly converted into gunboats and other auxiliary vessels. He dealt with his brother-in-law George D. Morgan, a New York merchant who purchased ninety vessels, and the Massachusetts magnate John Murray Forbes (1813-1898), who acquired ten more. Morgan drove hard bargains with ship owners and no doubt saved the department large sums, but he received commissions that amounted to $70,000 and that prompted a congressional investigation. Welles was not accused of any wrongdoing, but the unfavorable image fixed on him of a sleepy Rip Van Winkle was long the subject of cartoons.
Welles was fortunate to have associated with him a dynamic former naval officer, Gustavus Vasa Fox, first as chief clerk and ultimately assistant secretary. His staff also included a capable administrator, William Faxon, a business associate on the Press. In all, the navy purchased or had constructed 313 vessels, about one-half of its fleet, and bought or leased another 184 ships from private parties and the War and Treasury Departments. Personnel increased from 7,600 officers and men to 51,500 in 1865.
Welles complemented the navy's expansion program with a comprehensive study of naval strategy, setting up what was called the "Committee of Conference." The committee produced four "Memoirs" that analyzed the blockade problem, divided the southern Atlantic Coast into operational theaters, and recommended where specific lodgments be made. The job required the blockade of the outer coastline and inner bays from the Virginia capes to the Rio Grande.

First fruits of the committee's recommendations were the army-navy capture of the Hatteras forts on 28 August 1861 and Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont's seizure of the harbor of Port Royal, South Carolina, on 7 November 1861. On 6 February 1862 the navy silenced the batteries of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. Two days later a joint army-navy expedition seized Roanoke Island, which dominated Albemarle Sound. On 16 February the army and navy cooperated in the capture of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in Tennessee, and they captured Island Number 10 in the Mississippi on 7 April 1862. The Union navy now controlled most of the inland waterways off the Confederacy's Atlantic Coast, the Tennessee River, the Cumberland River, and much of the Mississippi River. Although the blockade was never completely effective, it did cut off a major source of foreign munitions and other contraband supplies.
The committee also recommended that a squadron already operating in the Gulf of Mexico be made the core of another joint army-navy assault on New Orleans. By the end of 1861 the Navy Department had completed planning for this operation. Welles selected David G. Farragut to head the expedition. On 25 April 1862 Farragut ran the forts that guarded the approaches to New Orleans and captured the city. The army then took control. After the successes of the Port Royal, Fort Henry, and New Orleans expeditions, public and political criticism of Welles diminished, though it never completely ended.

The engagement between the Union ironclad Monitor and the Confederate ironclad Virginia on 9 March 1862 that ended the threat posed to the wooden Union fleet also solidified Welles's status within the Lincoln administration. However, the failure of the ironclads to capture Charleston in 1863 led to attacks on his department in Congress.

By the war's end Welles had been primarily responsible for building a navy second only to that of Great Britain. He had also reorganized the department, improved significantly contract administration, and established an academy of science, the forerunner of all government-sponsored research agencies.

As a cabinet member, Welles gave complete support and loyalty to Lincoln on broad policy measures. He retained, however, much of his Democratic political views. Though he backed emancipation, he was decidedly conservative on extending full civil rights to the former slaves. An ardent believer in states' rights, he insisted such legislation must be left to the states. His views on Reconstruction were similar to those of Andrew Johnson. Welles consulted on many of Johnson's veto messages and consistently approved of his stand against Congressional Reconstruction....

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