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  Name:  Gideon Welles
  Born:  July 1, 1802
  Died:  February 11, 1878

  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 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 Helper’s 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 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 Biography (online).


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