Gideon Welles

“The Debtor Assumed to be Crazy”

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May 26, Tuesday.
Much of the tune at the Cabinet-meeting was consumed in endeavoring to make it appear that one Cuniston, tried and condemned as a spy, was not exactly a spy, and that he might be let off. I did not participate in the discussion. It appeared to me, from the statement on all hands and from the finding of the court, that he was clearly and beyond question a spy, and I should have said so, had my opinion been asked, but I did not care to volunteer, unsolicited and without a thorough knowledge of all the facts, to argue away the life of a fellow being.
There was a sharp controversy between Chase and Blair on the subject of the Fugitive Slave Law, as attempted to be executed on one Hall here in the district. Both were earnest, Blair for executing the law, Chase for permitting the man to enter the service of the United States instead of being remanded into slavery. The President said this was one of those questions that always embarrassed him. It reminded him of a man in Illinois who was in debt and terribly annoyed by a pressing creditor, until finally the debtor assumed to be crazy whenever the creditor broached the subject. “I,” said the President, “have on more than one occasion, in this room, when beset by extremists on this question, been compelled to appear to be very mad. I think,” he continued, “none of you will ever dispose of this subject without getting mad.”

Quoted in entry for May 26, 1863, Welles diary, Vol. I (1960 edn.), p. 313. 

“When it was Ripe We did not Harvest It.”

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July 14, Tuesday.

We have accounts of mobs, riots, and disturbances in New York and other places in consequence of the Conscription Act. Our information is very meagre; two or three mails are due; the telegraph is interrupted. There have been powerful rains which have caused great damage to the railroads and interrupted all land communication between this and Baltimore.
There are, I think, indubitable evidences of concert in these riotous movements, beyond the accidental and impulsive outbreak of a mob, or mobs. Lee’s march into Pennsylvania, the appearance of several Rebel steamers off the coast, the mission of A. H. Stephens to Washington, seem to be parts of one movement, have one origin, are all concerted schemes between the Rebel leaders and Northern sympathizing friends, the whole put in operation when the Government is enforcing the conscription. This conjunction is not all accidental, but parts of a great plan. In the midst of all this and as a climax comes word that Lee’s army has succeeded in recrossing the Potomac. If there had been an understanding between the mob conspirators, the Rebels, and our own officers, the combination of incidents could not have been more advantageous to the Rebels.
The Cabinet-meeting was not full to-day. Two or three of us were there, when Stanton came in with some haste and asked to see the President alone. The two were absent about three minutes in the library. When they returned, the President’s countenance indicated trouble and distress; Stanton was disturbed, disconcerted. Usher asked Stanton if he had bad news. He said, “No.” Something was said of the report that Lee had crossed the river. Stanton said abruptly and curtly he knew nothing of Lee’s crossing. “I do,” said the President emphatically, with a look of painful rebuke to Stanton. “If he has not got all of his men across, he soon will.”
The President said he did not believe we could take up anything in Cabinet to-day. Probably none of us were in a right frame of mind for deliberation; he was not. He wanted to see General Halleck at once. Stanton left abruptly. I retired slowly. The President hurried and overtook me. We walked together across the lawn to the Departments and stopped and conversed a few moments at the gate. He said, with a voice and countenance which I shall never forget, that he had dreaded yet expected this; that there has seemed to him for a full week a deter- mination that Lee, though we had him in our hands, should escape with his force and plunder. “And that, my God, is the last of this Army of the Potomac! There is bad faith somewhere. Meade has been pressed and urged, but only one of his generals was for an immediate attack, was ready to pounce on Lee; the rest held back. What does it mean, Mr. Welles? Great God! what does it mean?” I asked what orders had gone from him, while our troops had been quiet with a defeated and broken army in front, almost destitute of ammunition, and an impassable river to prevent their escape. He could not say that anything positive had been done, but both Stanton and Halleck professed to agree with him and he thought Stanton did. Halleck was all the tune wanting to hear from Meade. “Why,” said I, “he is within four hours of Meade. Is it not strange that he has not been up there to advise and encourage him?” I stated I had observed the inertness, if not incapacity, of the General-in-Chief, and had hoped that he, who had better and more correct views, would issue peremptory orders. The President immediately softened his tone and said: “Halleck knows better than I what to do. He is a military man, has had a military education. I brought him here to give me military advice. His views and mine are widely different. It is better that I, who am not a military man, should defer to him, rather than he to me.” I told the President I did not profess to be a military man, but there were some things on which I could form perhaps as correct an opinion as General Halleck, and I believed that he, the President, could more correctly, certainly more energetically, direct military movements than Halleck, who, it appeared to me, could originate nothing, and was, as now, all the time waiting to hear from Meade, or whoever was in command.
I can see that the shadows which have crossed my mind have clouded the President’s also. On only one or two occasions have I ever seen the President so troubled, so dejected and discouraged.
Two hours later I went to the War Department. The President lay upon a sofa in Stanton’s room, completely absorbed, overwhelmed with the news. He was, however, though subdued and sad, calm and resolute. Stanton had asked me to come over and read Dana’s 1 report of the materials found at Vicksburg. The amount is very great, and the force was large. Thirty-one thousand two hundred prisoners have been paroled. Had Meade attacked and captured the army above us, as I verily believe he might have done, the Rebellion would have been ended. He was disposed to attack, I am told, but yielded to his generals, who were opposed. If the war were over, those generals would drop into subordinate positions.

Quoted in Entry for July 14, 1863,Welles diary, p. 371. 

“He Shook his Hands as if Scaring Sheep”

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The session of the Cabinet on that eventful day, the last of President Lincoln’s life, was chiefly occupied on the subject of our relations with the rebels–the communications, the trade, etc. The Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. McCulloch, who had but recently entered upon his duties, was embarrassed in regard to captured cotton, permits, and traffic. It was generally agreed that commercial intercourse with the rebel States should be speedily established. Mr. Stanton proposed that communication should be reopened by his issuing a military order, authorizing and limiting traffic; that the Secretary of the Treasury would give permits to all who wished to trade, and he (Stanton) would order the vessels to be received into any port.

I suggested that instead of a military order from the Secretary of War, the President should issue an Executive order or proclamation for opening the ports to trade, and prescribe therein the duties of the several Departments. Mr. McCulloch expressed his willingness to be relieved from Treasury agents, and General Grant declared himself unequivocally opposed to them and the whole Treasury system of trading within the rebel lines as demoralizing.
In regard to opening the ports to trade, Mr. Stanton thought it should be attended with restrictions, and that traffic should not extend beyond the military lines. I proposed opening the whole coast to every one who wished to trade, was entitled to coast license, and should obtain a regular clearance. I wished the reestablishment of unrestricted commercial and social intercourse with the Southern people with as little delay as possible, from a conviction that it would conduce to a more speedy establishment of friendly relations. Gen- eral Grant concurred with me, and recommended that there should be no restrictions east of the Mississippi. The President referred the whole subject to the Secretaries of the Treasury, War, and Navy, and said he should be satisfied with any conclusions to which they might arrive, or on which they could agree.

At the close of the session Mr. Stanton made some remarks on the general condition of affairs and the new phase and duties upon which we were about to enter. He alluded to the great solicitude which the President felt on this subject, his frequent recurrence to the necessity of establishing civil governments and preserving order in the rebel States. Like the rest of the Cabinet, doubtless, he had given this subject much consideration, and with a view of having something practical on which to base action, he had drawn up a rough plan or ordinance which he had handed to the President.

The President said he proposed to bring forward that subject, although he had not had time as yet to give much attention to the details of the paper which the Secretary of War had given him only the day before; but that it was substantially, in its general scope, the plan which we had sometimes talked over in Cabinet meetings. We should probably make some modifications, prescribe further details; there were some suggestions which he should wish to make, and he desired all to bring their minds to the question, for no greater or more important one could come before us, or any future Cabinet. He thought it providential that this great rebellion was crushed just as Congress had adjourned, and there were none of the disturbing elements of that body to hinder Sand embarrass us. If we were wise and discreet, we should reanimate the States and get their governments in successful operation, with order prevailing and the Union reestablished, before Congress came together in December. This he thought important. We could do better; accomplish more without than with them. There were men in Congress who, if their motives were good, were nevertheless impracticable, and who possessed feelings of hate and vindictiveness in which he did not sympathize and could not participate. He hoped there would be no persecution, no bloody work, after the war was over. None need expect he would take any part in hanging or killing those men, even the worst of them. Frighten them out of the country, open the gates, let down the bars, scare them off, said he, throwing up his hands as if scaring sheep. Enough lives have been sacrificed. We must extinguish our resentments if we expect harmony and union. There was too much of a desire on the part of some of our very good friends to be masters, to interfere with and dictate to those States, to treat the people not as fellow-citizens; there was too little respect for their rights. He did not sympathize in these feelings. Louisiana, he said, had framed and presented one of the best constitutions that had ever been formed. He wished they had permitted negroes who had property, or could read, to vote; but this was a question which they must decide for themselves. Yet some, a very few of our friends, were not willing to let the people of the States determine these questions, but, in violation of first and fundamental principles, would exercise arbitrary power over them. These humanitarians break down all State rights and constitutional rights. Had the Louisianians inserted the negro in their Constitution, and had that instrument been in all other respects the same, Mr. Sumner, he said, would never have excepted to that Constitution. The delegation would have been admitted, and the State all right. Each House of Congress, he said, had the undoubted right’ to receive or reject members; the Executive had no control in this matter. But Congress had nothing to do with the State governments, which the President could recognize, and under existing laws treat as other States, give them the same mail facilities, collect taxes, appoint judges, marshals, collectors, etc., subject, ofcourse, to confirmation. There were men who objected to these views, but they were not here, and we must make haste to do our duty before they came here.

Quoted in Gideon Welles, “Lincoln and Johnson,” Galaxy 13 (April 1872), p. 526.