Thursday, February 9, 2017

Diary of Gideon Welles: Friday, April 3, 1863

Had some side talk with Seward at the Cabinet-meeting, on letters of marque. He persists in the policy, but I think begins to have some misgivings. Insists on having a naval officer assigned him, on whom he can devolve the labor. I requested him to employ some of his own Department force or a civilian in whom he had confidence; told him the subject belonged exclusively to the State Department; the Secretary of State had it in charge in the War of 1812 by law, and I desired the Navy should not now be blended with the proceeding. He admitted his object in asking for a naval officer was to be relieved of responsibility and details. The truth is, he has pressed forward this measure without knowledge or examination, or practical experience, but has vague indefinite notions that privateers may be efficient against the Rebels, that they will constitute a force appendant to his Department, that there will be many of them, and that he will derive credit from their exploits. If his scheme fails, and a naval officer has charge of that part of his duties, the Navy and Navy Department will bear the censure. Foote, whom he most desires should be detailed, adroitly declines the honor of being attached to the State Department in this work, and has recommended Admiral Davis, who is acceptable and willing to take the position which Foote declines.

Seward tells me he already has an application from responsible parties who want a letter of marque, and assures me there will be a flood of applications, but I am still incredulous. Our merchants will not spend their money in the idle scheme of attempting to spear sharks for wool. In the case of this first application Seward wishes me, as he is not yet prepared and the parties are ready, to take the case as I have suggested might be done under the Act of July, 1861; says it will only be temporary.

Late in the day Davis came to me from the State Department with the papers in this case. I find they are not unknown to me. One Sybert, a Prussian, I believe, by birth but a citizen of South Carolina, wants to go privateering. He called on me some days ago for papers, and I sent him to the State Department. I warned Davis to beware of adventurers, and expressed my want of confidence in the man and the movement, though Seward declared the parties were responsible.

SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 259-60

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