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Summary Article: Welles, Gideon
from The Civil War Naval Encyclopedia

Birth Date: July 1, 1802

Death Date: February 11, 1878

U.S. secretary of the navy (1861-1869). Born on July 1, 1802, in Glastonbury, Connecticut, Gideon Welles came from a prosperous family, his father being a shipbuilder and West Indies merchant. Welles received an excellent education, first at the Episcopal Academy at Cheshire (one of his classmates was future admiral Andrew H. Foote) and then at Captain Alden Partridge's military institute at Norwich, Vermont (later Norwich University). Welles then became involved in journalism and politics.

Welles associated himself with John M. Niles in publishing the Hartford Times and Weekly Advertizer, the only Jeffersonian newspaper in Connecticut. Welles took a leading role in organizing the Democratic Party in Connecticut and was an ardent supporter of Andrew Jackson for the presidency in the election of 1828. When Jackson won, Welles helped advise him on political patronage regarding Connecticut. In 1835 Welles became comptroller of Connecticut, a post he again held in the 1840s. In 1836 he was postmaster of Hartford, and the next year he was elected to the state legislature. He backed Martin Van Buren for the presidency in 1844, but when James K. Polk won the nomination, Welles shifted his support to him. Polk won the election, and at the end of 1845 he offered Welles the post of chief of the naval Bureau of Provisions and Clothing. There was some opposition among naval officers to a civilian in this position, but Polk persisted, and Welles quieted concerns by doing an admirable job. He held the position during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), from April 1846 until new Whig president Zachary Taylor removed him in 1849.

Gideon Welles of Connecticut was the U.S. secretary of the navy during 1861-1869. Welles proved an extraordinarily able administrator. A good judge of people, he appointed able subordinates. Welles oversaw ship procurement, the development of Union naval strategy, and personnel assignments. (Library of Congress)

Welles returned to Connecticut in the autumn of 1849 and wrote for a number of Democratic journals. He opposed the Fugitive Slave Law and broke with the Democratic Party over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Welles opposed fellow Democrat Franklin Pierce's ambiguous stance on slavery, and when the new Republican Party formed in 1855, Welles became the first Republican candidate for governor of Connecticut. Although he failed to win the 1856 election, in May 1860 he was a member of the Connecticut delegation to the national Republican convention and contributed significantly to the nomination of Abraham Lincoln for the presidency.

Certainly Welles was one of Lincoln's top choices for his cabinet, and shortly after becoming president, Lincoln appointed him secretary of the navy on March 5, 1861. This proved a very astute choice, and not just because Welles had more experience with the department than any of his predecessors.

Welles took over a department in disarray. Morale was quite low throughout the navy. Many of the department's clerks were openly hostile to the government, and Welles's predecessor, Isaac Toucey, had allowed many officers from the South to resign. Others had been fired, and the officer corps was thus at about only half strength. Some of those in key posts who remained were of dubious loyalty, including chief of the Bureau of Ordnance Captain George Magruder and commander of the Washington Navy Yard Captain Franklin Buchanan.

The navy was far from ready for war. In early 1861 it had about 90 ships, designed to carry a total of 2,415 guns, but only 42 of them were in commission, and Toucey had scattered most of these on foreign station. At the start of the war the home squadron numbered only 12 vessels mounting a total of 187 guns.

The navy clearly needed a strong hand and effective leadership and required these immediately. Welles had these qualities in ample measure and was certainly one of the great U.S. secretaries of the navy. A capable administrator, he was not afraid to experiment with new ideas; direct in his dealings with others, he was also a good judge of people. He appointed such capable individuals as Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Vasa Fox and Chief Clerk William Faxon. Welles also oversaw the development of naval strategy and the direction of operations. He seems to have had the respect and loyalty of the officers in the U.S. Navy.

The first major problem Welles faced was securing ships. To enforce the blockade of the Confederate coast (proclaimed by Lincoln on April 19), the Navy Department had to convert its small and, for the most part, obsolete collection of ships into an effective force. Welles immediately launched a large naval construction program. This included building ironclads, but for immediate use the navy purchased ships of all types and assigned them to blockade duty. By midsummer the Union blockade of some 3,500 miles of the southern Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts was well under way. By 1865 the U.S. Navy, with 700 vessels of all types, including 60 ironclads, was the second largest in the world, behind only Great Britain.

Another problem was manning the ships. In this regard Welles recruited a large number of African Americans. Ultimately they made up about 16 percent of U.S. Navy personnel. Under Welles the number of seamen and officers went from 7,600 men to some 51,500.

Welles served until the end of the administration of Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson and oversaw the shrinkage of the U.S. Navy back to peacetime size. Welles left office on March 4, 1869. His tenure as secretary is the longest in the history of the Navy Department.

Welles remained active in retirement. He spent part of his time editing the very detailed diary he kept while in office; this sheds much light on the inner workings of the federal government under Lincoln and Johnson as well as on the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. The diary was published after Welles's death, which occurred at Hartford, Connecticut, on February 11, 1878.

See also

African American Sailors; Blockade Board; Blockade of the Confederacy; Buchanan, Franklin; Foote, Andrew Hull; Fox, Gustavus Vasa; Ironclad Board, U.S. Navy; Lincoln, Abraham; Navy, U.S.; Seamen, Recruitment of; Strategy, Union Naval; Toucey, Isaac

  • Niven, John. “Gideon Welles.” In American Secretaries of the Navy, Vol. 1, 1775-1913, edited by Paolo Coletta, 321-361. Naval Institute Press Annapolis, MD, 1980.
  • Niven, John. Gideon Welles, Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy. Oxford University Press New York, 1973.
  • Welles, Gideon. Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and. Johnson. Edited by John T. Morse. 3 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911.
  • West, Richard S. Jr. Gideon Welles: Lincoln's Navy Department. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943.
  • Tucker, Spencer C.
    Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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