Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Diary of Gideon Welles: Thursday, December 4, 1862

The Members of Congress from Minnesota are urging the President vehemently to give his assent to the execution of three hundred Indian captives, but they will not succeed. Undoubtedly the savage wretches have been guilty of great atrocities, and I have as little doubt the stories of their barbarities, bad enough in themselves, are greatly exaggerated. What may have been the aggressions and provocations which led the Indians on is not told us. When the intelligent Representatives of a State can deliberately besiege the Government to take the lives of these ignorant barbarians by wholesale, after they have surrendered themselves prisoners, it would seem the sentiments of the Representatives were but slightly removed from the barbarians whom they would execute. The Minnesotians are greatly exasperated and threaten the Administration if it shows clemency.

Some of the Members of Congress begin early to manifest a perverse and bad spirit. Foremost as regards the Navy, of which he should be the friend and organ, is John P. Hale, Chairman of the Senate Naval Committee. He is censorious to all the Administration, but especially to the Navy Department, which, instead of supporting, he omits no opportunity to assail and embarrass. Calvert, of the House, is equally virulent. He thinks he has cause to be angry with me, but has not the courage and manliness to declare the reason or motive which governs him. Some months since he made application to me to order the return of one or two slaves who were on the Potomac Flotilla, or in the navy yard, to his sister, who, he says, is a deserving loyal lady residing in Virginia near the Potomac. I of course declined. I also declined appointing some one to be midshipman under the general clause, whom he wished selected, as I declined in many similar cases. He is also dissatisfied because the Naval School is not immediately returned to Annapolis, which is within his district.

The lowest bidder for one of the large steamers lives at Chester. Other competitors are greatly excited and charge him with being disloyal. This charge is, I think, untrue, though one of the firm is a Democrat and opposed the election of President Lincoln. But the idea of exclusion or favoritism in a matter of this kind, and in disregard of law, is absurd.

Count Adam Gurowski, a Polish exile, who has been employed as a clerk in the State Department, has published a book which I am told is unsparing in its assaults upon almost all in authority, but that he deals gently with me. He is by nature a grumbler, ardent, earnest, rash, violent, unreasonable, impracticable, with no powers of rightfully discriminating character; nor is he a correct judge of measures and results. I have neither sought nor shunned him. Under no circumstances could he be to me a pleasant companion. He wants, I think, to be frank and honest in his way, to be truthful, though given to scandal; brave he is without doubt, a rude, rough Polish bear who is courted and flattered by a set of extreme partisans that delight in listening to his denunciations of public men, and in hearing his enthusiastic praises in broken English of liberty. He is an exile for good and bad qualities, a martyr to his opinions and his manners. Seward gave him a clerkship, — why and for what reason I never understood, for his companions and intimates are Seward's opponents, and the Count himself is and always has been an open, persistent, undisguised opponent of Seward and his course. The Count, it seems, kept a journal or took memoranda while in the Department and wrote scandal and hate in bad English, which he has printed.

The proposition to divide the State of Virginia is before Congress, and I am told it will probably be successful. I am not clear as to its expediency, and I doubt if it can constitutionally be done. Certainly the time is not auspicious for such a step. To me the division of Virginia at this time looks like a step towards a division of the Union, a general break-up. This is intuitive, an impression without investigation. Let us have no separations or divisions at present.

I have answered two resolutions, petty calls of Congress, in relation to the appointment of midshipmen. There are one hundred and forty vacancies, chiefly in consequence of the secession of the Southern States, and I have appointed sixty-two.

Senator Fessenden has been to see me in the case of George H. Preble, who is one of his constituents and a neighbor, who is dismissed for failure to do his duty on the 4th of last September, when he permitted the steamer Oreto (Florida) to run the blockade at Mobile. Senator F. thinks injustice has been done Preble, and asks that he be restored and then tried by court martial. Told him this could not be done by the Department or the President; that, being out of the service, there was but one way of restoring him, and that was by a new appointment. To be reinstated, the President must nominate and the Senate confirm. The act of confirmation would itself absolve him. The Senate would not, however, confirm a man with guilt or wrong upon him. Fessenden said he had taken a different view; thought the President might restore without Congressional action, yet seemed confused and in doubt. Wished me to talk with Admirals Smith and Dahlgren; says the officers generally justify Preble, who, he added, is in Washington and would like to see me. I requested him to call; told F. my view of the case was unchanged, but would hear and give consideration to anything he might advance.

Preble called the next day, and we went over the case. He claims he did his whole duty; says he believed the Oreto was an English vessel, and he wished to keep the peace, was perhaps too prudent. I told him that in his zeal to preserve the peace he forgot his duty as an officer; that he had been placed as a sentinel before the harbor of Mobile, with express orders to prevent ingress or egress, and had, in not obeying these orders, failed to do his whole duty. His excuse was that if he obeyed his orders he would hurt somebody, but in not obeying he had done his country and the service great injury; that the excuse did not become an officer and would not justify a sentinel. We had much discussion on this point. He said he could have boarded and sunk the Oreto, but suppose he had done so and she had been an English vessel with an English flag above, what would have been the consequences to himself? I assured him the Government would never let an officer suffer for fidelity in obeying orders and being vigilant in performing his duty; that it would have been better for him had he not paused to consider consequences to himself, better for the country had he strictly obeyed his orders, and even if the Oreto had been an English vessel and been sunk by him, he would have been justified, and the Englishman condemned for his temerity in violating usage and disregarding the warning of the sentinel.

The subject has given me trouble, and I sent my conclusions by Assistant Secretary Fox to Fessenden. Fox, when he saw Fessenden, did not find it convenient to state his errand, but requested the Senator to call and see me, which he did on Tuesday morning.

I informed him there was no way of instituting a court martial nor even a court of inquiry. The officers who would be required as witnesses were in the Gulf and could not be detached from indispensable duty and brought home on such an errand. That under the circumstances — the feelings of himself and others — and in justice to both Preble and the Government, I would appoint a board of officers, who should take the three reports of Commodore Preble on the 4th and 6th of September and 10th of October, — being his own statements of his case at different dates, — and say whether he had done his whole duty as he claimed and in conformity with the articles of war. That their report I would submit to the President to dispose of, and thus end the matter, so far as the Navy Department was concerned. He asked if I did not prefer the certificates of other officers. I replied no, neither statements, witnesses, nor arguments would be introduced, nothing but Preble's own reports, which I thought all he or his friends could require. F. was a little nonplussed. Said it was certainly fair, he was satisfied with such submission and presumed P. would be.

Within an hour Preble called; said that Senator F. had informed him of my proposition for an informal court, which he thought fair, but wished Admiral Farragut's letter to go to the board, as F. by his hasty letter had made an improper prejudice on me. I assured him he was mistaken, — that my action was based on his own statement. What I proposed was a board that should take his own reports and decide upon the same evidence as the Admiral and I had done, and I should abide their conclusion. The tribunal would necessarily be informal and composed of men whose opinions, if they had formed any, were unknown to me and I hoped to him also.

He said this was all he could ask or expect, but intimated it might relieve me of responsibility if Admiral Farragut's letter was included in the submission. I said no, I evaded no honest responsibility. My convictions were that I had done right, though it had borne hard upon him; that he had been in fault from error in judgment, rather than criminal intent, but the injury was none the less, and the example was quite necessary. Without assenting to my views he said he should be satisfied with the judgment of the board and left me.

I appointed Admiral Foote, Commodore Davis, and Lieutenant-Commander Phelps and shall leave the matter in their hands.

The House has voted to create and admit Western Virginia as a State. This is not the time to divide the old Commonwealth. The requirements of the Constitution are not complied with, as they in good faith should be, by Virginia, by the proposed new State, nor by the United States. I find that Blair, with whom I exchanged a word, is opposed to it.

We have news of a movement of our troops at Falmouth with the intention of crossing the Rappahannock and attacking the Rebels.

The Rebel steamer Alabama was at Martinique and escaped the San Jacinto, Commander Ronckendorff, a good officer.

SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 186-91

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