The President returned from Headquarters of the Army and sent for me this A.M. Seward, Chase, Stanton, and Halleck were present, and Fox came in also. He gave particulars so far as he had collected them, not differing essentially from ours.
An army dispatch received this P.M. from Fortress Monroe says the Flambeau has arrived in Hampton Roads from Charleston; that our vessels experienced a repulse; some of the monitors were injured. The information is as confused and indefinite as the Rebel statements. Telegraphed to Admiral Lee to send the Flambeau to Washington. Let us have the dispatches.
Seward is in great trouble about the mail of the Peterhoff, a captured blockade-runner. Wants the mail given up. Says the instructions which he prepared insured the inviolability and security of the mails. I told him he had no authority to prepare such instructions, that the law was paramount, and that anything which he proposed in opposition to and disregarding the law was not observed.
He called at my house this evening with a letter from Lord Lyons inclosing dispatches from Archibald, English Consul at New York. Wanted me to send, and order the mail to be immediately given up and sent forward. I declined. Told him the mail was properly and legally in the custody of the court and beyond Executive control; assured him there would be no serious damage from delay if the mail was finally surrendered, but I was inclined to believe the sensitiveness of both Lord Lyons and Archibald had its origin in the fact that the mail contained matter which would condemn the vessel. “But,” said Seward, “mails are sacred; they are an institution.” I replied that would do for peace but not for war; that he was clothed with no authority to concede the surrender of the mail; that by both statute and international law they must go to the court; that if his arrangement, of which I knew nothing, meant anything, the most that could be conceded or negotiated would be to mails on regular recognized neutral packets and not to blockade-runners and irregular vessels with contraband like the Peterhoff. He dwelt on an arrangement entered into between himself and the British Legation, and the difficulty which would follow a breach on our part. I inquired if he had any authority to make an arrangement that was in conflict with the express provisions of the statutes, — whether it was a treaty arrangement confirmed by the Senate. Told him the law and the courts must govern in this matter. The Secretary of State and the Executive were powerless. We could not interfere.
SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 266-7