Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Diary of Gideon Welles: Saturday, January 24, 1863

Had a telegram at midnight from Admiral Porter of captures on White River.

Senator Foot yesterday resigned his seat on the Naval Committee. Some disagreement with Hale, the chairman, who plays the part of a harlequin as well as a demagogue, — is, I am told, a constant marplot and very contentious in the Committee, does nothing to assist but much to embarrass and counteract the Department. Grimes also asked to be excused for the same reason as Foot; does not conceal his dislike and detestation of Hale. The Senate did right in refusing to excuse him.

F. A. Conkling1 who, the President says, is "a mighty onhandy man," called to give me a lecture and instructions relative to the appointment of midshipmen. Said Congress had the right to nominate and it was the duty of the Secretary to appoint. He could not tell me where Congress got that right, or the right to locate them in districts. Was compelled to admit that Congress could not dictate or nominate who should be judges of the Supreme Court, or say from what circuit or State the President should select them, but after a little controversy he acknowledged the cases were analogous. Forgetting his first starting-point, he wanted to know by what authority the Secretary of the Navy appointed midshipmen. I referred him to the Constitution and the laws, which I pointed out. Told him the  President by and with the consent and approval of the Senate could make appointments, but Congress could by law confer or vest inferior appointments in the courts of law, heads of Departments, or the President alone; that Congress had, by law, vested the inferior appointment of midshipmen in the Secretary of the Navy, and I had, under that law, made appointments and should continue to do so. After tumbling over the statutes for some time, he found himself unable to controvert my position or to answer me, and left, apparently with a “flea in his ear.” No man ever came upon me more dogmatically, or left more humble.

In answer to Senator Fessenden, who is pushed forward by Preble to urge his restoration, I replied that in my opinion the time had not yet arrived, but, having made known my views, I should leave the subject with the Senate, claiming no infallibility for myself. F. expresses a willingness to take upon himself any responsibility, but did not wish to act in opposition to me, who, he said, had some, but not many, unscrupulous assailants who were anxious to get him in collision with me. He complimented my administration of the Department, which he had honestly sustained because he honestly approved it, and had been annoyed with the mischievous manoeuvres of the Chairman of the Naval Committee, which, however, were well understood in the Senate and did me no harm. Preble's note seeking restoration was surly and crusty. I suggested that on his own account he had better form a different one. Fessenden said he would consult any one I might name. Told him Davis or Smith were pretty good in such matters. F. laughed and said Smith wrote the note.

A California committee was on Tuesday before the Cabinet relative to the gauge of the Pacific Railroad. They gave each their views, — every one, I believe, in favor of the five-feet gauge. When they left, the President proposed a vote without discussion, — not that it should be conclusive but as an expression of the unbiased opinion of each. I was, for the present at least, for four eight and one half, chiefly for the reason that a change could be made from the wide to the narrow at less expense than the reverse; the aggregate cost will be millions less; that usage, custom, practical experience, knowledge proved the superiority of that gauge if they had proved anything, etc., etc. I believe the majority were for that gauge.

The Chronicle contains the argument of Judge-Advocate Holt in Fitz John Porter's case. It seems to have been made after the finding of the Court instead of before, and is sent out with it as if in defense of the decision. The proceeding is singular and will be likely to cause censure. There is much of partisanship on both sides of Porter's case. I have abstained from being mixed up in it, and have not had the time, nor am I called upon, to read the voluminous proceedings and comments. If the conviction is correct, the punishment is hardly adequate to, or commensurate with, the offense. I have thought Porter not alone in fault. More than one appeared to me culpable for the disasters of that period.

There is a change of commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside relinquishes to Hooker. I hope the change may be beneficial, but have apprehensions. The President asked me about the time of the Second Battle of Bull Run, when Pope was to leave and McClellan was out of favor: “Who can take command of this army? Who is there among all these generals?” The address to me was unexpected, and without much consideration I named Hooker. The President looked approvingly, but said, “I think as much as you or any other man of Hooker, but — I fear he gets excited,” looking around as he spoke. Blair, who was present, said he is too great a friend of John Barleycorn. I have mingled but little in the social or convivial gatherings of the military men, have attended fewer of the parades than any member of the Cabinet, and have known less of their habits. What I had seen and observed of Hooker had impressed me favorably, but our interviews had been chiefly business-wise and in the matter of duty, but there was a promptness, frankness, and intelligence about him that compared favorably with some others. I remarked, “If his habits are bad, if he ever permits himself to get intoxicated, he ought not to be trusted with such a command,” and withdrew my nomination. From what I have since heard, I fear his habits are not such as to commend him, that at least he indulges in the free use of whiskey, gets excited, and is fond of play. This is the result of my inquiries, and, with this reputation, I am surprised at his selection, though, aside from the infirmities alluded to, he doubtless has good points as an officer.

1 A Representative from New York, brother of Roscoe Conkling.

SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 227-30

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