Saturday, March 4, 2017

Diary of Gideon Welles: Wednesday, April 22, 1863

Admiral Bailey writes — and I have similar information from other sources — that an immense trade has sprung up on the Rio Grande; that there are at this time from one hundred and eighty to two hundred vessels off the mouth of that river, when before the War there were but six to eight at any one time. Ostensibly the trade is with the little city of Matamoras, but it is notoriously a Rebel traffic. Goods are received and cotton exported by this route under our own as well as foreign flags. I have suggested in one or two conversations with Mr. Seward that it was a favorable opportunity to establish some principle of international law relative to the rights and obligations of adjoining countries having a mutual highway, as the United States and Mexico have in the Rio Grande; that we should require Mexico to prevent this illicit traffic, or that they should permit us to prevent it; but Seward is not disposed to grapple the question, is afraid it will compromise us with the French, says Mexico is feeble, dislikes to make exactions of her, etc., etc. I yesterday wrote the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of War in regard to this illicit trade. Our own countrymen should not have ready clearances and facilities for this traffic, and it may be necessary to establish frontier military posts to prevent it. Perhaps my letters may cause the subject to be taken up in the Cabinet, and lead the Government to adopt some preventive measure; if not, the blockade will be evaded and rendered ineffectual. The Peterhoff with its mail and contraband cargo was one of a regular line of English steamers, established to evade the blockade by way of Matamoras.

Received the President's letter and interrogatories concerning the mail. The evening papers state that the mail of the Peterhoff has been given up by District Attorney Delafield Smith, who applied to the court under direction of the Secretary of State, “approved” by the President. It is a great error, which has its origin in the meddlesome disposition and loose and inconsiderate action of Mr. Seward, who has meddlesomely committed himself. Having in a weak moment conceded away an incontestable national right, he has sought to extricate himself, not by retracing his steps, but by involving the President, who confides in him and over whom he has, at times, an unfortunate influence. The interference with the judiciary, which has admiralty jurisdiction, is improper, and the President is one of the very last men who would himself intrude on the rights or prerogatives of any other Department of the Government, one of the last also to yield a national right. In this instance, and often, he has deferred his better sense and judgment to what he thinks the superior knowledge of the Secretary of State, who has had greater experience, has been Senator and Governor of the great State of New York, and is a lawyer and politician of repute and standing. But while Mr. Seward has talents and genius, he has not the profound knowledge nor the solid sense, correct views, and unswerving right intentions of the President, who would never have committed the egregious indiscretion, mistake, of writing such a letter, and making such a concession as the letter of the 31st of October; or, if he could have committed such an error, or serious error of any kind, he would not have hesitated a moment to retrace his steps and correct it; but that is the difference between Abraham Lincoln and William H. Seward.

I have set Watkins1 and Eames2 to ransack the books. Upton3 must help them. I want the authorities that I may respond to the President. Though his sympathies are enlisted for Seward, who is in difficulty, and I have no doubt he will strive to relieve him and shield the State Department, we must, however, have law, usage, right respected and maintained. The mail of the Peterhoff is given up, but that is not law, and the law must be sustained if the Secretary of State is humiliated.

The Philadelphians are fearful the acceptance of League Island will not be consummated, and have written me. I have replied that there is a courtesy and respect due to Congress which I cannot disregard.

1 A clerk in the Navy Department.

2 Charles Eames, a well-known admiralty lawyer of Washington.

3 Francis H. Upton, counsel for the captors of the Peterhoff and in other prize cases during the War.

SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 283-5

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