Have another dispatch from Du Pont in answer to one I sent him on the 11th enjoining upon him to continue to menace Charleston, that the Rebel troops on that station might be detained for the present to defend the place. In some respects this dispatch is not worthy of Du Pont. He says he never advised the attack and complains of a telegram from the President more than of the dispatch from the Department. If he never advised the attack, he certainly never discouraged it, and, until since that attack, I had supposed no man in the country was more earnest on the subject than he. How have I been thus mistaken? It has been his great study for many months, the subject of his visit, of his conversation, his correspondence. When Du Pont was here last fall, Dahlgren sought, as a special favor, the privilege of taking command, under Du Pont, of the attack on Charleston, — to lead in the assault. But it was denied, for the reason that Du Pont claimed the right to perform this great work in which the whole country took so deep an interest. His correspondence since has been of this tenor, wanting more ironclads and reinforcements. Once there were indications of faltering last winter, and I promptly told him it was not required of him to go forward against his judgment. No doubtful expression has since been heard. His third dispatch since the battle brings me the first intelligence he has thought proper to communicate of an adverse character.
Only some light matters came before the Cabinet. Chase and Blair were absent. The President requested Seward and myself to remain. As soon as the others left, he said his object was to get the right of the question in relation to the seizure of foreign mails. There had evidently been an interview between him and Seward since I read my letter to him on Saturday, and he had also seen Seward's reply. But he was not satisfied. The subject was novel to him.
Mr. Seward began by stating some of the embarrassments of the present peculiar contest in which we were engaged, — the unfriendly feeling of foreign governments, the difficulty of preventing England and France from taking part with the Rebels. He dwelt at length on the subject of mail communications and mails generally, the changes which had taken place during the last fifty years; spoke of the affair of the Trent, a mail packet, of the necessity of keeping on the best terms we could with England. Said his arrangement with Mr. Stuart, who was in charge of the British Legation, had been made with the approval of the President, though he had not communicated that fact to me, etc., etc.
I stated that this whole subject belonged to the courts, which had, by law, the possession of the mail; that I knew of no right which he or even the Executive had to interfere; that I had not regarded the note of the 31st of October as more than a mere suggestion, without examination or consideration, for there had been no Cabinet consultation; that it was an abandonment of our rights and an entire subversion of the policy of our own and of all other governments, which I had not supposed any one who had looked into the matter would seriously attempt to set aside without consultation with the proper Department and advisement, indeed, with the whole Cabinet; that had there been such consultation the subject would, I was convinced, have gone no farther, for it was in conflict with our stated law and the law of nations; that this arrangement, as the Secretary of State called it, was a sort of post-treaty, by which our rights were surrendered without an equivalent, a treaty which he was not in my opinion authorized to make.
Mr. Seward said he considered the arrangement reciprocal, and if it was not expressed in words or by interchange, it was to be inferred to be the policy of England, for she would not require of us what she would not give.
I declined to discuss the question of what might be inferred would be the future policy of England on a subject where she had been strenuous beyond any other government. I would not trust her generosity in any respect. I had no faith that she would give beyond what was stipulated in legible characters, nor did I believe she would, by any arrangement her Chargé might make, consent to abandon the principle recognized among nations and which she had always maintained. If this arrangement or treaty was reciprocal, it should be so stated, recorded, and universally understood. So important a change ought not and could not be made except by legislation or treaty; and if by treaty, the Senate must confirm it; if by legislation, the parliamentary bodies of both countries. There had been no such legislation, no such treaty, and I could not admit that any one Department, or the President even, could assume to make such a change.
The President thought that perhaps the Executive had some rights on this subject, but was not certain what they were, what the practice had been, what was the law, national or international. The Trent case he did not consider analogous in several respects. I had said in reply to Seward that the Trent was not a blockade-runner, but a regular mail packet, had a semi-official character, with a government officer on board in charge of the mails. The President said he wished to know the usage, — whether the public official seals or mail-bags of a neutral power were ever violated. Seward said certainly not. I maintained that the question had never been raised in regard to a captured legal prize — not a doubt expressed — and the very fact that Stuart had applied to him for mail exemption was evidence that he so understood the subject. Where was the necessity of this arrangement, or treaty, if that were not the usage? The case was plain. Our only present difficulty grew out of the unfortunate letter of the 31st of October,—the more unfortunate from the fact that it had been communicated to the British Government as the policy of our Government, while never, by any word or letter have they ever admitted it was their policy. It is not the policy of our Government, nor is it the law of our country. Our naval commanders know of no such policy, no such usage, no such law; they have never been so instructed, nor have our district attorneys. The President, although he had affixed his name to the word “approved” in Seward's late letter, and although he neither admitted nor controverted the statement that the letter of the 31st of October was with his knowledge and approval, was a good deal “obfusticated” in regard to the merits of the question, and the proceedings of Seward, who appeared to be greatly alarmed lest we should offend England, but was nevertheless unwilling to commit himself without farther examination. He said, after frankly declaring his ignorance and that he had no recollection of the question until recently called to his notice, that he would address us interrogatories. Mr. Seward declared, under some excitement and alarm, there was not time; that Lord Lyons was importunate in his demands, claiming that the arrangement should be fulfilled in good faith. I replied that Lord Lyons, nor the British Government, had no claim whatever except the concession made by him (Seward) in his letter of the 31st of October, while there was no concession or equivalent from England.
The two letters of Seward and myself which brought about this interview, of the 18th and 20th instant respectively, are as follows: —
- Gideon Welles to William H. Seward, April 18, 1863
- William H. Seward to Gideon Welles, April 20, 1863
SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 277-80