Monthly Archives: January 2014

Gideon Welles – On Lincoln’s Team, But Not Lincoln’s Rival

Gideon Welles House (Source: Historic Buildings of Connecticut)

Gideon Welles House (Source: Library of Congress)

This week, I continue with the theme of Cabinet officers, this time with Gideon Welles, who along with Secretary of State William Seward, were the only Cabinet officers to serve Lincoln throughout his presidency. Unlike Seward, Welles never considered himself better suited than Lincoln for the Oval Office.

Like Lincoln, his principal rivals for the 1860 Republican nomination – William Seward and Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s first secretary of the Treasury – established successful law practices before entering politics. While Gideon Wells obtained a legal education, he left the practice of law at twenty-four years old to run the Hartford Times, a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party. He served in Connecticut’s General Assembly and also was appointed as the state’s postmaster by President Andrew Jackson. In the mid-1850s, he tired of the South’s control over the party and joined the Republican Party. He was 59-years-old when Lincoln chose him to serve in his Cabinet as secretary of the Navy.

Whatever Welles’ talents, historians are unflattering in their physical descriptions.  One describes him as wearing “a wig [that was] a poor match for his voluminous whiskers.” [Catton, The Coming Fury, p. 54 (1961) (2009 Fall River Press edition)] Another says he was “a peculiar-looking man with a curly wig perched on his outsize head, and a flowing white beard.” [Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, p. 232 (2005) (2006 Simon & Schuster paperback edition]

Gideon Welles House (Source: Historic Buildings of Connecticut)

Gideon Welles House (Source: Historic Buildings of Connecticut)

Welles’ Navy included both a “blue water navy” and a “brown water navy,” the latter often supplementing Union armies on America’s rivers, such as on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in the battles of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh, and on the Mississippi River at Vicksburg and New Orleans.

One incident during the Civil War illustrates the contrasting demeanors of Secretary of War Stanton – mercurial, temperamental, prone to panic – with that of cool, calm, and collect Gideon Welles. After the Confederacy’s ironclad, the Merrimack, sank two Union ships in Hampton Roads, Stanton famously panicked at a hastily called Cabinet meeting:

[C]rossing to a window which commanded a long view of the Potomac, he looked out and, trembling visibly, exclaimed: “Not unlikely, we shall have a shell or a cannonball from one of her guns in the White House before we leave this room.”

Welles assured Stanton that the Merrimack would draw too much water if its commander tried to make such a cruise. He also calmly assured President Lincoln and the entire Cabinet that the Navy already had an answer in the form of its own ironclad, the Monitor, which had already reached Hampton Roads. Of course the two ships would fight to a draw, marking the end of the age of wooden warships. [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville, p. 258 (1958) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

Not only did Welles serve in the Cabinet throughout Lincoln’s presidency, he was there at Lincoln’s end when the president succumbed to an assassin’s bullet at a small townhouse across from Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865. [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, pp. 981-982 (1974) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

When he took office, Welles “hardly knew one end of a ship from the other.” [The Coming Fury, p. 283], But this was an age when men took on great tasks without any prior experience in the work they set out to accomplish. (One need only look at the California storekeepers who eight years later would complete the western leg of the transcontinental railroad and meet their eastern counterparts at Promontory Summit, Utah.) Four years after Gideon Welles took office, the United States Navy grew from 76 ships to a fleet of 671 and from 7,600 seamen to 51,000. [Team of Rivals, p. 672]. By all accounts, Welles ably served Lincoln and the country, helping to transform the navy from an insignificant flotilla to a fleet worthy of a world power.

You can gain a clearer understanding of how the brown navy worked hand in hand with General U.S. Grant’s troops by reading about the battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in my novel, New Garden, available on line from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Dog Ear Publishing.

You can find more information about Gideon Welles at the National Parks Service’s website, www.nps.gov/resources, and at www.biography.com.

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Judah Benjamin – Indispensable Adviser to Confederacy President Jefferson Davis

Judah Benjamin (Source: Biography.com)

Judah Benjamin (Source: Biography.com)

Edwin Stanton, President Lincoln’s second Secretary of War was the North’s most brilliant legal mind of the Civil War era. The South’s most brilliant legal mind of the era was Judah Benjamin, former United States Senator from Louisiana. Benjamin served Davis, first as Attorney General, then as Secretary of War, and finally as Secretary of State. He easily was the most prominent Jewish politician of his day (and, yes, I repeat, from Louisiana).

Benjamin was the second Jewish United States Senator, the first being David Levy Yulee of Florida. Both men were born outside the United States, Benjamin in St. Croix and Yulee in St. Thomas.

David Levy Yulee, the first U.S. Jewish Senator

David Levy Yulee, the first U.S. Jewish Senator (Source: bioguide.congress.gov)

Benjamin served as Davis’s most trusted adviser throughout the war. Like his Northern counterpart Stanton, Benjamin succeeded an administrator who was not up to the task. As Secretary of War, he butted heads with many of the South’s strong-minded generals, including Joe Johnston and Stonewall Jackson. Jackson submitted his letter of resignation after one such incident, only to have the letter returned to him.  [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville, p. 224 (1958) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

As Secretary of State, Benjamin joined a unanimous cabinet recommending that Davis dismiss General Joe Johnston during the Atlanta campaign. Of Johnston, Benjamin said, “[he] is determined not to fight, it is of no use to re-enforce him, he is not going to fight.” [Catton, Never Call Retreat, p. 330 (1965) (2009 Fall River Press edition)] Davis’s decision to replace Johnston with John Bell Hood proved disastrous. Hood “was determined to fight,” but suffered twenty thousand casualties in the process, troops the South could ill afford to lose, leaving Georgia and the Carolinas largely defenseless against Sherman’s army. [Id., p. 383]

More in line with his duties as Secretary of State, Benjamin attempted through his ministers to obtain Great Britain’s and France’s official recognition of the Confederacy as a nation independent of the United States. Twin defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July, 1863, doomed any such aspirations. Afterwards, Benjamin expressed his belief that the South never had much hope of securing such recognition from Great Britain:

When successful fortune smiles on our arms, the British cabinet is averse to recognition because “it would be unfair to the South by the action of Great Britain to exasperate the North to renewed efforts.” When reverses occur “it would be unfair to the North in a moment of success to deprive it of a reasonable opportunity of accomplishing a reunion of the States.”

[Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fredericksburg to Meridian, p. 655 (1963) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

Benjamin remained loyal to Davis to the end, traveling with him and his “cabinet on wheels” from Richmond, to Danville, to Greensboro, to Charlotte, and finally into South Carolina. Finally concluding that the cause was lost, Benjamin conferred with Davis and then traveled “south to the Florida coast, then Bimini, and he set out disguised variously as a farmer and a Frenchman, with a ramshackle cart, a spavined horse, and a mismatched suit of homespun clothes.” Remarkably, Benjamin ultimately landed in Great Britain where he enjoyed a long and successful career as a British barrister. [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, pp. 1007 and 1049 (1974) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

Truly, Judah Benjamin was a remarkable man in a remarkable time.

For more information about Judah Benjamin, see Jonathan Tilove, “Judah P. Benjamin, ‘the Confederate Kissinger,’ Featured in Louisiana State Archives Exhibit,” The Times Picayune (April 20, 2010), www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2010/04/judah_p_benjamin.

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Civil War Personalities – Simon Cameron

Cameron LOC

Simon Cameron (Source: Library of Congress)

One of the more colorful politicians of the Civil War era was Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, once accused of being so corrupt that the only thing he would not steal was a red hot stove.

Another politician, Edwin Stanton, served as Lincoln’s Secretary of War during most of the Civil War, but before assuming that position in February, 1862, he served as legal adviser to his predecessor, Simon Cameron.

When Lincoln’s political managers worked for his nomination at the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago, they made many promises, some overt and others subtle, to secure the delegates needed for the nomination. They desperately needed Pennsylvania’s delegates, and no one questioned U.S. Senator Cameron’s ability to deliver them, with the understanding that Pennsylvania would cast its votes for favorite-son Cameron on the first ballot and for Lincoln on subsequent ballots.

Stanton Library of Congress

Edwin Stanton (Source: Library of Congress)

The leading contender, Senator William Seward, thought he had secured Cameron’s support in a visit to the Pennsylvanian’s home in the spring of 1860, trusting the quote often attributed to Cameron that “an honest politician is one who, when he is bought, stays bought.” [Goodwin, Team of Rivals, p. 217]. But when the Republicans convened in May, many Pennsylvania delegates thought Seward was not electable.

While Seward waited at his Auburn, New York estate for word of his nomination, the anti-Seward forces were hard at work in Chicago. In exchange for Pennsylvania’s support, Cameron wanted Lincoln to give him the Treasury post and sole control of all political patronage in Pennsylvania. [Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury, pp. 60-61 (1961) (2009 edition).] Cameron was known as the “Winnebago chief” for purportedly swindling the Winnebago tribe in a supply contract [McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 260 (1988)], and any suggestion that Lincoln would agree to give a reputed crook control of the government’s purse strings is disingenuous. But Lincoln’s men at least gave a wink and a nod of some sort assuring Cameron of a position in the Cabinet. Pennsylvania delivered its support and Seward would have to be satisfied with the State Department rather than the White House.

Interestingly, during the first year of the war, many military contracts went to manufacturers in Cameron’s home state of Pennsylvania. In addition, military supplies traveled inordinate distances on Pennsylvania railroads. There were also many complaints about the quality of materials furnished to the troops. The war added new words to the vernacular, including “shoddy,” charges of pressed scraps of wool used to make uniforms that fell apart after a few weeks’ wear. [McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, p. 183 (Third Edition, 2001)]

Because he received intense criticism for his poor management of the War Department, Cameron sought to secure his fragile position by kowtowing to the Radical Republicans in Congress. In the War Department’s December 1861 annual report, he advocated freeing and arming slaves who escaped into Union army lines. [Ordeal by Fire, p. 291] This early in the war, Lincoln was struggling to keep the slaveholding border states in the Union. Cameron’s report did not help.

In January, 1862, Lincoln let Cameron know his services in Washington were no longer needed. The President ultimately accepted Cameron’s letter of resignation and appointed him as Minister to Russia, thereby sending him where he could do no further harm to the war effort. [Team of Rivals, pp. 410-412]

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The Willard Hotel and the Civil War

The Willard Hotel

The Willard Hotel, Washington, DC

Every theatrical performance requires a cast and a set. In the never-ending drama that is our nation’s capital, the Willard Hotel has served as one of the sets for Washington’s cast of politicians, generals, and lobbyists for well over 150 years, but perhaps most dramatically since the years leading up to the Civil War. People inside the Washington Beltway and Civil War buffs probably are familiar with the luxury hotel, which sits two blocks east of the White House. Most other Americans probably are not.

I spent three years working in Washington as a young attorney, and I recall the first time I saw the Willard in 1978. I was one of fifteen passengers in a vanpool that operated between D.C. and Columbia, Maryland. One evening, our driver drove past a massive, twelve-story Beaux Arts-style structure that I thought was beautiful but needed some work. I asked another passenger about the building and he said “It’s a dump full of nothing but rats.” I later learned he was not exaggerating.

Lobby of the Willard decorated for Christmas

Lobby of the Willard decorated for Christmas

The current hotel was built in 1901. Its predecessor was a four-story structure built in 1847 (which was preceded by a collection of six buildings built in 1816). The Lincolns lived in the Willard for ten days before Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861. (The Twentieth Amendment, adopted on February 6, 1933, changed the inauguration date to January 20. Inauguration takes place on January 21 if the 20th falls on a Sunday.)

In February 1861, the Willard hosted the obviously unsuccessful Peace Convention, held by delegates from 21 states, in hopes of averting war.

The Willard also served as U.S. Grant’s lodging in March, 1864, when he went to Washington to accept his promotion to Lieutenant General, commander of all the Union armies. In my novel, New Garden (Chapter 76, “A Third Star”), I include a scene where the protagonist, Major Jack Grier, accompanies Grant to the Willard, where Grier meets an old friend, Senator Eli Monroe.

Grant’s registration at the Willard is humorously depicted in Shelby Foote’s three-volume opus on the Civil War (Volume 3, Red River to Appomattox, pages 3-4):

A short, round-shouldered man in a very tarnished major general’s uniform, he seemed to a bystanding witness to have “no gait, no station, no manner,  … as if he was out of office and on half pay, with nothing to do but hang around the entry of Willard’s, cigar in mouth.” *** Still, bright or tarnished, stars were stars; a certain respect was owed, if not to the man who wore them, then in any case to the rank they signified; the clerk replied at last that he would give him what he had, a small top-floor room, if that would do. It would, [Grant] said, and when the register was given its practiced half-circle twirl he signed without delay. The desk clerk turned it back again, still maintaining the accustomed, condescending air he was about to lose in shock when he read what the weathered applicant had written: “U.S. Grant & Son – Galena, Illinois.”

Needless to say, the clerk abruptly changed his attitude.  He suddenly found that he could upgrade Grant and his son to the same suite the Lincoln family had enjoyed four years earlier.

The Willard has hosted many celebrities and politicians over the years, including Jenny Lind, Julia Ward Howe, General Pershing, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others.

Now, back to when the Willard fell on hard times. The hotel closed in 1968, but was restored to its prior grandeur and reopened on August 20, 1986, as the Willard InterContinental. It’s nice to see I’m not the only one who thought it was a magnificent building well worth preserving.

For more information about the Willard, please go to the hotel’s website at http://www.washington.intercontinental.com. Additional information may be found at www.historichotels.org. The hotel is also used as a backdrop for many scenes in Gore Vidal’s historical novel, Lincoln.

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