Seward called this morning and had quite a story to tell of foreign affairs and the successes that have attended his management. For a time, he says, matters looked a little threatening with France, but Count Mercier tells him all is now right, — we can do, on certain points which have been controverted, pretty much as we please.
All this was a prelude to a proposition, the object of which was to make excellent friends of the French, who have ten thousand hogsheads of tobacco in Richmond which they declare was purchased before the Rebellion, and which they cannot get out by reason of the blockade. This tobacco was being heavily taxed by the Rebels, and what the French Government now wants, and what he very much wanted, was an arrangement by which this French tobacco might be got from Richmond. It would be such a capital thing, and the favor would be so highly appreciated by the French, that they would become our very good friends.
I informed Mr. Seward it was a plain case and easily disposed of. We had only to lift the blockade and the French tobacco and everybody else's tobacco would leave Richmond. I did not see how this favor could be granted to the French Government and denied to other governments, and if extended to foreigners, our own citizens, many of whom had large amounts of property in the Rebel region, could not be interdicted from its exportation. In plain words the blockade must be maintained in good faith or be abandoned. I was not aware that we were under any special obligation to the French Government; I would not purchase or bribe, and I was opposed to favoritism as a principle in government. He said his idea was that a distinction might be made in this, — that the tobacco belonged to the Government, and therefore was an isolated case which could not be claimed as a precedent, and furthermore it was bought and paid for before the blockade was established. I told him the principle was the same with governments as with individuals; that the Belgian and others had made haste to remove their tobacco within the time limited when the blockade was declared; that their sympathies were with us, they had no faith in the Rebel movement, but it was different with the French Government. It did not pain or grieve me that they were taxed and heavy losers by the Rebels, and the rules of blockade ought not in my opinion to be relaxed for their benefit.
Mr. Seward was, I saw, discomfited, and he no doubt thinks me impolitic, unpractical, and too unyielding and severe to successfully administer the Government. I on the other hand deem it a misfortune that at a period like this there should be any disposition to temporize and indulge in expedients of a questionable character or loose and inconsiderate practices. “What we have most to fear,” said Sir Vernon Harcourt, “is not that America will yield too little, but that we shall accept too much.” It was not, nor will it be, my conduct that prompts this humiliating characterizing of the American Government. No improper concessions will be made by me to France or her Minister.
Neither Seward nor Stanton was at the Cabinet-meeting. Mr. Bates has left for Missouri. The President was with General Hooker at the War Department when we met, but soon came in. His countenance was sad and careworn, and impressed me painfully. Nothing of special interest was submitted. The accustomed rumor in regard to impending military operations continues.
Chase, who evidently was not aware that General Hooker was in Washington until I mentioned it, seemed surprised and left abruptly. I tried to inspire a little cheerfulness and pleasant feeling by alluding to the capture of the Fingal. For a few moments there was animation and interest, but when the facts were out and the story told there was no new topic and the bright feelings subsided. Believing the President desired to be with General Hooker, who has come in suddenly and unexpectedly and for some as yet undisclosed reason, I withdrew. Blair left with me. He is much dispirited and dejected. We had ten or fifteen minutes' talk as we came away. He laments that the President does not advise more with all his Cabinet, deprecates the bad influence of Seward, and Chase, and Stanton, Halleck, and Hooker.
Had two interviews with Dahlgren to-day in regard to his duties as successor of Du Pont in command of the South Atlantic Squadron. Enjoined upon him to let me at no time remain ignorant of his views if they underwent any change, or should be different in any respect from mine or the policy proposed. Told him there must be frankness and absolute sincerity between us in the discharge of his official duties, — no reserve though we might differ. I must know, truthfully, what he was doing, what he proposed doing, and have his frank and honest opinions at all times. He concurs, and I trust there will be no misunderstanding.
My intercourse and relations with Dahlgren have been individually satisfactory. The partiality of the President has sometimes embarrassed me and given D. promotion and prominence which may prove a misfortune in the end. It has gained him no friends in the profession, for the officers feel and know he has attained naval honors without naval claims or experience. He has intelligence and ability without question; his nautical qualities are disputed; his skill, capacity, courage, daring, sagacity, and comprehensiveness in a high command are to be tested. He is intensely ambitious, and, I fear, too selfish. He has the heroism which proceeds from pride and would lead him to danger and to death, but whether he has the innate, unselfish courage of the genuine sailor and soldier remains to be seen. I think him exact and a good disciplinarian, and the President regards him with special favor. In periods of trying difficulties here, from the beginning of the Rebellion, he has never failed me. He would, I know, gallantly sustain his chief anywhere and make a good second in command, such as I wished to make him when I proposed that he should be associated with Foote. As a bureau officer he is capable and intelligent, but he shuns and evades responsibility. This may be his infirmity in his new position.
The official reports of the capture of the Fingal, alias Atlanta, are very gratifying and confirm our estimate of the value of the monitor class of vessels and the fifteen-inch guns. The Department, and I, as its head, have been much abused for both. Ericsson, the inventor of the monitor or turret vessels, wanted a twenty-inch gun. His theory is impregnability in a vessel and immense calibre for his guns, which shall be irresistible. Dahlgren would not himself consent to take the responsibility of more than a thirteen-inch gun. Fox and Admiral Smith favored a fifteen-inch, which the Department adopted, though with some hesitation, without the approval of D., the Ordnance Officer, who, however, did not remonstrate against it, but went forward under orders, the responsibility being with me and not on him.
SOURCE: Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Vol. 1: 1861 – March 30, 1864, p. 338-42