Saturday, January 28, 2017

Diary of Gideon Welles: Thursday, March 17, 1863

Returned last evening from strictly confidential visit to New York.

Some discussion in Cabinet-meeting to-day on letters of marque. Seward and Chase are both strong advocates of the measure. Am surprised that Chase should favor it, for he must be sensible of the consequences. He has, I think, committed himself somewhat hastily to some of the indignant but inconsiderate men in the shipping interest who are sufferers. Seward has no knowledge on the subject, nor any conception of the effect of letting loose these depredators under government sanction. There is such a general feeling against the English, who are conniving with and aiding the Rebels, that privateering is becoming popular with the Administration and country. Statesmen who should check and restrain the excited, erring popular current are carried along with it. I suggested some doubts of the expediency of the proposed proceedings, and the principles involved. In the first place I queried whether Congress could depute legislative power to the Executive, as was assumed. I asked Seward if he had any money to pay the promised bounties, and if he was of opinion there could be fines and criminal punishment inflicted by Executive regulations merely. Seward said he had no money; knew not whether there was any appropriation from which funds could be taken; if not, he must pledge the Government. This I opposed, and no one sustained Seward or expressed an opinion on the subject. As regarded penal inflictions, fines, criminal punishment by regulation he had no doubt whatever, should not hesitate in the least. I could admit no such power on the part of the Executive. My doubts and suggestions, I perceived, set others thinking. Chase became silent.

These notions in regard to privateers and letters of marque, though crude, erroneous, and fraught with evil, have been maturing for some time, and I do not mistake in placing much of the mischief to the State Department, which would be irresponsible for Navy transgressions. The Times of New York and the Chronicle of this city and papers of that particular phase of partyism, which never [act] without prompting from a certain quarter, have been writing up the matter and getting the public mind excited. The Chronicle pronounces the privateers to be a volunteer navy like volunteer forces on land. The Times mixes up letters of marque with the Navy Department, which it blames for delaying to issue the necessary authority, innocently unaware that it is a subject pertaining to that Department of the Government whose head it would never intentionally injure.

Conflicting accounts concerning Farragut's command on the lower Mississippi. The Rebel accounts state he passed Port Hudson with his vessel, the others being driven back, with the exception of the steamer Mississippi, which all say was grounded and blown up. Our account represents that all the fleet passed up except the Mississippi.

The accounts from Porter, above Vicksburg, are not satisfactory. He is fertile in expedients, some of which are costly without adequate results. His dispatches are full of verbosity of promises, and the mail which brings them also brings ludicrous letters and caricatures to Heap, a clerk who is his brother-in-law, filled with laughable and burlesque accounts of amusing and ridiculous proceedings. These may be excusable as a means of amusement to keep up his spirits and those of his men, but I should be glad to witness, or hear of something more substantial and of energies employed in what is really useful. Porter has capabilities and I am expecting much of him, but he is by no means an Admiral Foote.

The progress of the squadron and troops at Charleston is slow and unsatisfactory. I apprehend the defenses are being strengthened much faster than the assailants. Du Pont has attacked Fort McAllister and satisfied himself that the turret vessels are strong and capable of great endurance, but at the same time he doubtless made the Rebels aware of these facts.

SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 247-9

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