Welles Gideon

Gideon Welles (1802-1878), 5th cousin 7x removed

Gideon Welles was the United States Secretary of the Navy from 1861-1869.  His buildup of the Navy to successfully execute blockades of Southern ports was a key component of Northern victory of the Civil War.  Welles was also instrumental in the Navy’s creation of the Medal of Honor.  He was the son of Samuel Welles and Ann Hale.  His father was a shipping merchant, a fervent Jeffersonian and a member of the Convention which formed the first state Connecticut Constitution in 1818 that abolished the colonial charter and officially severed the political ties to England.  This constitution is also notable for having reversed the earlier Orders and provided for freedom of religion.  He was a member of the seventh generation of his family in America.  His original immigrant ancestor was Thomas Welles, who arrived in 1635 and was the only man in Connecticut’s history to hold all four top offices: governor, deputy governor, treasurer, and secretary. He was also the transcriber of the Fundamental Orders. Welles was the second great grandson of Capt. Samuel Welles and Ruth (Rice) Welles, the daughter of Edmund Rice, a 1638 immigrant to Sudbury and founder of Marlborough, Massachusetts.

Welles was a Jacksonian Democrat, who worked very closely with Martin Van Buren and John Milton Niles.  His chief rival in the Connecticut Democratic Party was Isaac Toucey, whom Welles would later replace at the Navy Department. While Welles dutifully supported James K. Polk in the 1844 election, he would abandon the Democrats in 1848 to support Van Buren’s Freesoil campaign.  Mainly because of his strong anti-slavery views, Welles shifted allegiance in 1854 to the newly-established Republican Party, and founded a newspaper in 1856 (the Hartford Evening Press) that would espouse Republican ideals for decades thereafter.  Welles’ strong support of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 made him the logical candidate from New England for Lincoln’s cabinet, and in March 1861 Lincoln named Welles his Secretary of the Navy.  Welles found the Naval Department in disarray, with Southern officers resigning en masse.  His first major action was to dispatch the Navy’s most powerful warship, the USS Powhatan, to relieve Fort Sumter.  Unfortunately, Lincoln had simultaneously ordered the Powhatan to both Fort Sumter and Pensacola, Florida, ruining whatever chance Major Robert Anderson had of withstanding the assault.  Several weeks later, when Secretary of State William H. Seward argued for a blockade of Southern ports, Welles argued vociferously against the action but was eventually overruled by Lincoln.  Despite his misgivings, Welles’ efforts to rebuild the Navy and implement the blockade proved extraordinarily effective.  From 76 ships and 7,600 sailors in 1861, by 1865 the Navy expanded almost tenfold.  His implementation of the Naval portion of the Anaconda Plan strongly weakened the Confederacy’s ability to finance the war through limiting the cotton trade, and while never completely effective in sealing off all 3,500 miles of Southern coastline it was a major contribution towards Northern victory.

Despite his successes, Welles was never at ease in the Cabinet. His anti-English sentiments caused him to clash with Seward, and Welles’s conservative stances led to arguments with Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and War Secretary Edwin M. Stanton.  After Lincoln’s assassination Welles was retained by President Andrew Johnson as Secretary of the Navy.  In 1866, Welles, along with Seward, was instrumental in launching the National Union Party as a third party alternative supportive of Johnson’s reconciliation policies.  Welles also played a prominent part in Johnson’s ill-fated “Swing Around the Circle” campaign that fall.  Although Welles admitted in his diary that he was dismayed by Johnson’s behavior on the trip, particularly the president’s penchant for invective and engaging directly with hecklers, Welles remained loyal to Johnson to the end, even congratulating him in 1875 when Johnson, now an ex-president, was launching a comeback political bid with his election to the U.S. Senate from Tennessee.  Welles ultimately left the Cabinet on 3 Mar 1869, having returned to the Democratic Party after disagreeing with Andrew Johnson’s reconstruction policies but supporting him during his impeachment trial.  After leaving politics, Welles returned to Connecticut and to writing, editing his journals and authoring several books before his death, including a biography, Lincoln and Seward, published in 1874.  Towards the end of 1877, his health began to wane, and Welles died at the age of seventy-five on 12 Feb 1878.

Welles’ three-volume diary, documenting his Cabinet service from 1861-69, is an invaluable archive for Civil War scholars and students of Lincoln alike, allowing readers rare insight into the complex struggles, machinations and inter-relational strife within the President’s War Cabinet.  Although offering a unique and quite non pareil portrayal of the immense personalities and problems facing the men who led the Union to ultimate victory, the first edition (published in 1911) suffers from rewrites by Welles himself and after his death, by his son; the 1960 edition is drawn directly from his original manuscript.  Refer to the 1911 edition –> Welles, Gideon. Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and Johnson (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company) 1911. Volume I; Volume II; Volume III.


Gideon Welles (1802 – 1878), 5th cousin 7x removed – Samuel Welles (1754 – 1834) – Samuel Welles (1731 – 1800) – Thaddeus Welles (1695 – 1780) – Samuel Welles (1660 – 1731) – Samuel Welles (1630 – 1675) – Thomas Welles (1590 – 1660) – Ann Welles (1619 – 1680) – Mary Thompson (1653 – 1691) – Joseph Hawley (1675 – 1752) – Elizabeth Hawley (1700 – 1779) – Elizabeth Newell (1721 – 1791) – Elizabeth Clark (1758 – 1840) – Betsy Andrews (1783 – 1856) – David Handley (1809 – 1895) – Elizabeth Handley (1835 – 1917) – Florence Henderson (1869 – 1956) – Florence Eugenie Watkins (1903 – 1985) – Penelope Jane Walholm (1939 – ) – Tor Martin (Majerus) Hylbom



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