Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Diary of Gideon Welles: Tuesday, May 12, 1863

We have information that Stonewall Jackson, one of the best generals in the Rebel, and, in some respects, perhaps in either, service, is dead. One cannot but lament the death of such a man, in such a cause too. He was fanatically earnest, and a Christian but bigoted soldier.

A Mr. Prentiss has presented a long document to the President for the relief of certain parties who owned the John Gilpin, a vessel loaded with cotton, and captured and condemned as good prize. There has been a good deal of outside engineering in this case. Chase thought if the parties were loyal it was a hard case. I said all such losses were hard, and asked whether it was hardest for the wealthy, loyal owners, who undertook to run the blockade with their cotton, or the brave and loyal sailors who made the capture and were by law entitled to the avails, to be deprived. I requested him to say which of these parties should be the losers. He did not answer. I added this was another of those cases that belonged to the courts exclusively, with which the Executive ought not to interfere. All finally acquiesced in this view.

This case has once before been pressed upon the President. Senator Foot of Vermont appeared with Mr. Prentiss, and the President then sent for me to ascertain its merits. I believe I fully satisfied him at that time, but his sympathies have again been appealed to by one side.

Mr. Seward came to my house last evening and read a confidential dispatch from Earl Russell to Lord Lyons, relative to threatened difficulties with England and the unpleasant condition of affairs between the two countries. He asked if anything could be done with Wilkes, whom he has hitherto favored, but against whom the Englishmen, without any sufficient cause, are highly incensed. I told him he might be transferred to the Pacific, which is as honorable but a less active command; that he had favored Wilkes, who was not one of the most comfortable officers for the Navy Department. I was free to say, however, I had seen nothing in his conduct thus far, in his present command, towards the English deserving of censure, and that the irritation and prejudice against him were unworthy, yet under the peculiar condition of things, it would perhaps be well to make this concession. I read to him an extract from a confidential letter of J. M. Forbes, now in England, a most earnest and sincere Union man, urging that W. should be withdrawn, and quoting the private remarks of Mr. Cobden to that effect. I had read the same extract to the President last Friday evening, Mr. Sumner being present. He (Sumner) remarked it was singular, but that he had called on the President to read to him a letter which he had just received from the Duke of Argyle, in which he advised that very change. This letter Sumner has since read to me. It is replete with good sense and good feeling.

I have to-day taken preliminary steps to transfer Wilkes and to give Bell command in the West Indies. It will not surprise me if this, besides angering Wilkes, gives public discontent. His strange course in taking Slidell and Mason from the Trent was popular, and is remembered with gratitude by the people, who are not aware his work was but half done, and that, by not bringing in the Trent as prize, he put himself and the country in the wrong. Seward at first approved the course of Wilkes in capturing Slidell and Mason, and added to my embarrassment in so disposing of the question as not to create discontent by rebuking Wilkes for what the country approved. But when, under British menace, Seward changed his position, he took my position, and the country gave him great credit for what was really my act and the undoubted law of the case. My letter congratulating Wilkes on the capture of the Rebel enemies was particularly guarded and warned him and naval officers against a similar offense. The letter was acceptable to all parties, — the Administration, the country, and even Wilkes was contented.

It is best under the circumstances that Wilkes should be withdrawn from the West Indies, where he was sent by Seward's special request, unless, as he says, we are ready for a war with England. I sometimes think that is not the worst alternative, she behaves so badly.

SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 297-9

No comments: