Thursday, December 1, 2016

Diary of Gideon Welles: Monday, December 29, 1862

We had yesterday a telegram that the British pirate craft Alabama captured the Ariel, one of the Aspinwall steamers, on her passage from New York to Aspinwall, off the coast of Cuba. Abuse of the Navy Department will follow. It will give the mercenaries who are prostituted correspondents, and who have not been permitted to plunder the Government by fraudulent contracts, an opportunity to wreak vengeance for their disappointments.

I am exceedingly glad it was an outward and not a homeward bound vessel. It is annoying when we want all our force on blockade duty to be compelled to detach so many of our best craft on the fruitless errand of searching the wide ocean for this wolf from Liverpool. We shall, however, have a day of reckoning with Great Britain for these wrongs, and I sometimes think I care not how soon nor in what manner that reckoning comes.

A committee has been appointed by the Legislature of Connecticut, of eight persons, to visit Washington and urge the selection of New London for a navy yard. Twelve hundred dollars are appropriated to defray their expenses. There has been no examination by the Legislature of the question, or investigation of the comparative merits of this and other places, or whether an additional yard is needed, or what the real interest of the country requires; but there is, with excusable local pride, a speculating job by a few individuals and a general idea that a government establishment for the expenditure of money will benefit the locality, which controls the movement. As I am a citizen of Connecticut, there is a hope that I may be persuaded by personal considerations to debase myself,—forget my duty and make this selection for that locality regardless of the wants or true interests of the country. I have proposed to transfer the limited and circumscribed yard at Philadelphia to League Island, where there is an abundance of room, fresh water, and other extraordinary advantages. We do not want more yards, certainly not east of the Hudson. We do need a government establishment of a different character from any we now have, for the construction, repair, and preservation of iron vessels. League Island on the Delaware combines all these required advantages, is far in the interior, remote from assault in war, and is in the vicinity of iron and coal, is away from the sea, etc., etc. New London has none of these advantages, but is located in my native State. My friends and my father's friends are there, and I am urged to forget my country and favor that place. A navy yard is for no one State, but this the Legislature and its committee and thousands of their constituents do not take into consideration; but I must.

The six members of the Cabinet (Smith absent) to-day handed in their respective opinions on the question of dividing the old Commonwealth of Virginia and carving out and admitting a new State. As Stanton and myself returned from the Cabinet-meeting to the Departments, he expressed surprise that I should oppose division, for he thought it politic and wise to plant a Free State south of the Ohio. I thought our duties were constitutional, not experimental, that we should observe and preserve the landmarks, and that mere expediency should not override constitutional obligations. This action was not predicated on the consent of the people of Virginia, legitimately expressed; was arbitrary and without proper authority; was such a departure from, and an undermining of, our system that I could not approve it and feared it was the beginning of the end. As regarded a Free State south of the Ohio, I told him the probabilities were that pretty much all of them would be free by Tuesday when the Proclamation emancipating slaves would be published. The Rebels had appealed to arms in vindication of slavery, were using slaves to carry on the War, and they must be content with the results of that issue; the arbitrament of arms to which they had appealed would be against them. This measure, I thought, we were justified in adopting on the issue presented and as a military necessity, but the breaking up of a State by the General Government without the prescribed forms, innate rights, and the consent of the people fairly and honestly expressed, was arbitrary and wrong. Stanton attempted no defense.

At the meeting to-day, the President read the draft of his Emancipation Proclamation, invited criticism, and finally directed that copies should be furnished to each. It is a good and well-prepared paper, but I suggested that a part of the sentence marked in pencil be omitted.1 Chase advised that fractional parts of States ought not to be exempted. In this I think he is right, and so stated. Practically there would be difficulty in freeing parts of States, and not freeing others, — a clashing between central and local authorities.

There is discontent in the public mind. The management of our public affairs is not satisfactory. Our army operations have been a succession of disappointments. General Halleck has accomplished nothing, and has not the public confidence. General McClellan has intelligence but not decision; operated understandingly but was never prepared. With General Halleck there seems neither military capacity nor decision. I have not heard nor seen a clear and satisfactory proposition or movement on his part yet.

Information reaches us that General Butler has been superseded at New Orleans by General Banks.

The wisdom of this change I question, and so told the President, who called on me one day last week and discussed matters generally. I have not a very exalted opinion of the military qualities of either. Butler has shown ability as a police magistrate both at Baltimore and New Orleans, and in each, but particularly at the latter place, has had a peculiar community to govern. The Navy captured the place and turned it over to his keeping. The President agreed with me that Butler had shown skill in discharging his civil duties, and said he had in view for Butler the command of the valley movement in the Mississippi. Likely he has this in view, but whether Halleck will acquiesce is more questionable. I have reason to believe that Seward has effected this change, and that he has been prompted by the foreigners to do it. Outside the State and War Departments, I apprehend no one was consulted. I certainly was not, and therefore could not apprize any of our naval officers, who are cooperating with the army and by courtesy and right should have been informed. Banks has some ready qualities for civil administration and, if not employed in the field or active military operations, will be likely to acquit himself respectably as a provisional or military governor. He has not the energy, power, ability of Butler, nor, though of loose and fluctuating principles, will he be so reckless and unscrupulous. The officer in command in that quarter must necessarily hold a taut rein.

1 Just what this suggestion referred to does not appear.

SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 207-10

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