||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Welles, Gideon (July 1, 1802 – February 11, 1878)
Gideon Welles was secretary of the U. S. Navy under Presidents Abraham
Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.
He was born on July 1, 1802, 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, and 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 to 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 Hartford’s 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 Department’s Bureau of Provisions and
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 Helper’s antislavery treatise, The Impending Crisis of the South
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 president’s
policy of blockading the Confederate ports. Welles worked diligently to expand
the Navy’s 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
states’ 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 insider’s view of the Lincoln and Johnson administrations. Almost a
decade after leaving office, Welles died in Hartford on February 11, 1878.
Source consulted: John Niven, “Welles, Gideon,” American National