Gideon Welles, secretary of the navy under
Presidents Lincoln and Johnson, was born in Glastonbury, Connecticut, to Anne
Hale Welles and Samuel Welles, a maritime merchant and shipbuilder. Gideon
Welles graduated from the American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy
(today, Norwich University) in Vermont. He first studied law, then began writing
for the Hartford Times (CT). In 1826 he became part-owner and editor of
that newspaper, helping to transform it into a leading organ for the Democratic
party and the Jackson administration.
From 1827-1835 he served as a Democrat in the
Connecticut state legislature where he sponsored a general incorporation law
after which other states modeled similar legislation. In gratitude for his
support, President Jackson named Welles as Hartfordís postmaster, a position
he held from 1836-1841. For the next few years he concentrated on his editorial
duties with the Hartford Times until 1845 when another Democratic
president, James K. Polk, appointed him to head the Navy Departmentís Bureau
of Provisions and Clothing.
In the mid-1840s Welles became active in the
antislavery movement, privately supporting the Free Soil ticket in 1848. He
anonymously wrote antislavery editorials for newspapers such as the New York
Evening Post and the National Era (Washington, DC). He renewed his
allegiance to the Democrat party, supporting their 1852 presidential nominee,
Franklin Pierce. He finally broke with the Democrats and joined the new
Republican party after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. He and
Niles founded a Republican newspaper, the Hartford Evening Press, and in
1856 Welles ran unsuccessfully as the gubernatorial nominee of the Connecticut
Republicans. He then joined the Republican National Committee, convincing them
to distribute Hinton Helperís antislavery treatise, The Impending Crisis of
the South (1857).
After Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected, the
new president selected Welles to be Secretary of the Navy. Welles faced a
difficult task as the Civil War began. The problems of the small number of
personnel and ships in the U.S Navy were compounded by the defection of about
half of the officer corps to the Confederacy and by the outmoded condition of
the naval vessels. To make matters worse, the Union lost its key naval base in
Norfolk when Virginia seceded. Against such obstacles the Union Navy would have
to enforce the presidentís policy of blockading the Confederate ports. Welles
worked diligently to expand the Navyís capabilities: converting merchant ships
into naval vessels; developing a river fleet; constructing, purchasing, or
leasing hundreds of ships; and increasing Navy personnel from 7,600 to 51,500.
The navy secretary also oversaw a committee that
studied naval military strategy. Implementation of their policy recommendations
resulted in Union victories at (among other places) Hatteras and Roanoke Island,
North Carolina; Port Royal, South Carolina; Fort Henry on the Tennessee River;
Donalson on the Cumberland River; and New Orleans. The Union blockade was never
total, but it proved to be a serious barrier to the Confederacy obtaining
materiel and supplies from outside sources. Welles also turned his attention to
the administration of the Navy Department: reorganizing it, improving
contracting procedures, and creating a science academy within its structure. By
1865 the U.S. Navy was surpassed in strength only by the British Navy.
Welles supported emancipation, but he was more
hesitant about federal government recognition and enforcement of civil rights
for black Americans. His statesí rights views were compatible with those of
President Andrew Johnson, who kept him on as navy secretary. He supported the
Reconstruction policies of the embattled president against the Radical
Republicans. His three-volume Diary provides an insiderís view of the
Lincoln and Johnson administrations. Almost a decade after leaving office,
Welles died in Hartford.
Source consulted: American National Biography.