Table of Contents
A Guide to the Gideon Welles Papers at the Connecticut Historical Society
Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, 1861-1869, was born in Glastonbury, CT, on July 1, 1802. Educated at the Episcopal Academy in Cheshire, CT, and at the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy in Norwich, VT (now Norwich University, Northfield, VT), Welles later read law in Hartford under William W. Ellsworth. However, preferring political and literary pursuits, he never practiced.
In 1826 Welles was elected to the Connecticut General Assembly from Glastonbury, serving from 1827 to 1835. As a legislator he worked to outlaw imprisonment for debt and to abolish property and religious qualifications for those serving as witnesses in court.
In 1826 Welles also became part-owner and editor of the Hartford Times, a leading Jacksonian organ in the state. A skilled political organizer and journalist, he used his editorial and legislative positions to promote the initially unpopular Jacksonian Democracy in Connecticut. Welles was also instrumental in carrying the state for Jackson in the presidential contest of 1832, and for Van Buren four years later. He was rewarded with the postmastership of Hartford, a powerful patronage position, which he held from 1836 to 1841.
Through the influence of his associate on the Times, U. S. Senator John M. Niles, Welles was appointed chief of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing during the Polk administration. He was the only civilian to head a bureau in the U. S. Navy Department. Serving throughout the Mexican War, Welles brought an unwonted efficiency to the Bureau's administration and eliminated much of the graft which had previously characterized its operations.
While not an ardent abolitionist, Welles was personally opposed to slavery and to its extension into the territories. In the presidential contest of 1848, he gave quiet encouragement to the Free Soil candidacy of his old associate, Martin Van Buren. By 1854 Welles had broken both with the Democratic administration and the pro-Administration Hartford Times over the Kansas Nebraska Act, joining with other free soil Democrats in opposition to the extension of slavery into Kansas.
A founder of the Republican Party in Connecticut (1855-6), Welles was its first candidate for governor. While he failed to win election, partly from his refusal to court support from the Know-Nothing Party, his strong showing won him a place on the Republican National Committee (1856-1864). In that role he exercised a strong influence on the drafting of the national Republican platforms of 1856 and 1860. He was also instrumental in founding the Hartford Evening Press to promote the interests of the new party. Welles wrote many of its editorials and political articles.
Appointed Secretary of the Navy in 1861, Welles proved to be a firm, efficient and energetic administrator. Under his direction, the department was singularly free from corruption and political favoritism. Versed in international law, Welles, with Charles Sumner, also provided a useful counterweight in the Cabinet to the sometimes ill-conceived policies of Secretary of State William H. Seward. With Montgomery Blair and Edward Bates, Welles represented the conservative position in Lincoln's Cabinet on matters of constitutional law.
Welles was an early and enthusiastic advocate of an ironclad navy. His energetic promotion of the plans of John Erickson led to the construction of the Monitor and ultimately to a highly effective ironclad steam navy. Welles was also an early advocate of giving protection and employment in the navy yards and aboard ship to runaway slaves, with pay equivalent to their white counterparts, and he supported the President's emancipation measures.
Welles also backed the President's moderate reconstruction policies, agreeing with Lincoln that the Union was indissoluble and that the states, as such, had never left the Union. Under Johnson he continued to oppose Congressional reconstruction on constitutional grounds, while deploring the President's often tactless and inept attempts to carry out Lincoln's policies. By 1868 he had returned to the Democratic fold. In 1872 he was acting with the Liberal Democrats, though he had little enthusiasm for their presidential candidate, Horace Greeley.
From 1869 until his death in l878 Welles wrote numerous political and historical articles, including a series of wartime recollections which appeared in The Atlantic and Galaxy. The latter, gathered into a volume entitled Lincoln and Seward, exploded the growing myth that Seward and not the President was the directing force in the Lincoln administration. Welles' extensive Civil War diaries are also an important historical source.They must be read, though, with caution. Welles revised the manuscript extensively, and neither of the published versions (1911 and 1960) are entirely accurate, nor do they adequately reflect the original and subsequent revisions.
No orator, Welles tended to avoid the limelight. But like his rival and sometimes uneasy ally, Thurlow Weed, Welles exerted tremendous influence on the political world through his incisive editorial writing and his able and untiring "behind the scenes" political activity. A man of single-minded integrity, and of unwavering loyalty to both his principles and the administrations under which he served, Welles exercised an incalculable influence on the political life of mid-nineteenth century America.
Collection consists largely of correspondence, drafts of letters and supporting material written in both personal and official roles. Such correspondence is arranged chronologically. Of note are three letter books kept while Welles was Secretary of the Navy. Other naval material consists of commissions to sailors from presidents Madison to Van Buren.
Two slim diaries or commonplace books written by Welles in his youth and a collection of menus, invitations and other societal notices (Series VI: Ephemera) constitute the rest of Welles' personal material in this collection.
Materials are organized into eight series based largely on form.
Series I: Correspondence consists of letters to and from Gideon Welles, written and received in many of his professional roles. Correspondence is arranged chronologically following previous arrangement and contains mixed personal and business matter. Three letter books compiled in 1861 when Welles was Secretary of the Navy are included in this series.
Series II: Printed Political Material consists of notices, adjudications, pamphlets, resolutions, and similar items.
Series III: Ephemera consists of printed and handwritten invitations, obituaries, and other societal notices.
Series IV: Insurance Records consists of policies, receipts for payment, accounts and summaries of account information of Welles' dealings with the Hartford Fire insurance Co.
Series V: Drafts of Letters consists of drafts of letters and documents used in the compilation of those drafts. Drafts are undated but were predominantly written in the 1850s.
Series VI:Naval Commissions consists of Commissions to the Navy issued by Presidents Madison through Van Buren. Commissions are arranged chronologically under issuing president, rather than by name of sailor.
Series VII: Diaries consists of two volumes containing journal entries, jottings and quotations.
Series VIII: Transcriptions comprises transcriptions of the letter books and correspondence in Series I.
Collection is arranged chronologically within in each series.
There are no restrictions on access to the collection.
Use of the material requires compliance with the Connecticut Historical Society's Research Center regulations.
Blair, Francis Preston,
Buckingham, William Alfred,
United States History Civil War, 1861-1865 Naval operations.
Holographs; holographs, signed; typescripts; printed forms completed in manuscript; printed material.
Item, Collection Title, Collection number (Box #, Folder #). Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut.
Original EAD instance compiled in April 1999. Updated to EAD 2002 in December 2010.
An index of catalog cards is available to aid access to this collection and material in other collections. Access is through writer, recipient and date. The card catalog is located in the Research Center reading room.
Microfilm copy available.