Witness To History: Lincoln's Trusted Friend Gideon Welles
February 08, 2009
Even after so many years, the scene inside the White House in February 1862 remains heart-wrenching.
With civil war raging across the country, Willie and Tad Lincoln, the two youngest sons of President Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, lay deathly ill, stricken with typhoid fever.
Willie, 11, eventually succumbs after an agonizing bedside vigil, leaving his 8-year-old brother clinging to life. The grieving president, his wife exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown, sends a brief, desperate note to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and his wife, Mary Jane Hale Welles, a Connecticut couple who have become one of Mary Lincoln's few friends in Washington, D.C.
"Mr. and Mrs. Welles please call and see us," the president pleads. The Welles arrive at once, and Mary Welles spends the following days and weeks nursing Tad back to health and comforting her friend.
That Lincoln, born 200 years ago this month, turned to the Welleses at such a dark time in his life illustrates the esteem and growing comfort level that he felt for Gideon Welles, a Glastonbury native and influential Hartford journalist.
The Welleses would be called to a deathbed watch again, this time as Lincoln himself lay dying in 1865, across the street from Ford's Theatre.
Building The Navy
Lincoln is enjoying a huge resurgence of popularity this year, partly because Feb. 12 will be the 200th anniversary of his birth, and partly because of President Barack Obama's avowed passion for the man.
The essence of Lincoln's legacy — successful wartime president, Great Emancipator, masterful politician and peerless political philosopher — owes an appreciable debt to Welles.
Appointed to head the Department of the Navy early in 1861, Welles proved an invaluable member of the talented, testy Team of Rivals (to borrow historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's phrase) who made up Lincoln's seven-member cabinet. Unlike the group's more prominent members — Secretary of State William H. Seward, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Attorney General Edward Bates — Welles had not sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1860 that Lincoln eventually captured.
"In 1861, [Welles] was the only member of the Cabinet who didn't think he should be president instead of Lincoln. He never had any pretenses about the presidency," said Welles authority Gary Wait, archivist for the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford.
Lincoln learned that he could accept or reject Welles' counsel at face value, without trying to divine the subtext.
Hard-working, honest and politically savvy, Welles played a significant role in the Union victory in the Civil War. He rebuilt the Navy from the ground up, overcoming years of neglect, the loss of key facilities and personnel defections to the Confederacy. Gunboats and ships were built and competent commanders and subordinates appointed, even as congressional critics whose friends weren't awarded contracts or given jobs were demanding Welles' removal.
By the end of the war, the Union's Naval blockade of the coast had starved the Confederacy of critical war materials, engineers had designed and launched the Navy's first ironclads, and Navy forces had achieved spectacular successes at New Orleans, Mobile Bay and Fort Fisher, N.C.
"I'm always happy to see Mr. Welles because he always brings me good news," Lincoln once remarked about the man he playfully referred to as "Neptune."
Agreement On Slavery
Welles was socially conservative and an ardent believer in constitutionalism and state's rights. He became, in Wait's words, "a reluctant abolitionist" whose views on emancipation evolved much as Lincoln's did.
Both Lincoln and Welles had opposed the spread of slavery into the Western territories, but Lincoln repeatedly sought to assure the South that he would not abolish slavery in states where it already existed. The realities of the war led Lincoln to rethink his position, and during a carriage ride with Welles and Seward in July 1862, Lincoln broached his plan to free all slaves within the rebellious states. Welles backed Lincoln; he already had taken steps to employ runaway and freed slaves aboard Union ships and naval facilities at wages comparable to their white co-workers'.
Sooner perhaps than any of his colleagues, Welles grew to appreciate Lincoln's greatness. Welles' diary, published in 1911, provides glimpses of the kind-hearted, humorous, politically astute prairie politician revered by successive generations of Americans.
"Called upon the President to commute the punishment of a person condemned to be hung," Welles recorded on Christmas Eve 1864. "He at once assented. Is always disposed to mitigate punishment and to grant favors. Sometimes this is a weakness."
A Connecticut Yankee
"He was kind of a bashful guy. He was like me, he didn't like the stage. He wanted to be a player. He avoided public speaking," Thomas Gideon Welles Jr. said in a recent interview about his great-great-grandfather.
An amiable man with deep-set blue eyes and shock of white hair, Thomas Gideon Welles Jr., 63, owns a real estate agency in Coventry established by his grandfather during the Depression. There is much to admire about his illustrious ancestor, Welles said, particularly Gideon's reputation for honesty, his work ethic and his devotion to his family.
Three sons of Gideon and Mary Welles survived to adulthood, including Col. Tom Welles, a Union army officer and the great-grandfather of Thomas Gideon Welles Jr.
The Welles family has been part of Hartford and Connecticut history since the dawn of European settlement. Thomas Welles, a member of Thomas Hooker's party from Massachusetts to found Hartford, held several offices with the Connecticut colony and was its fourth governor. The Glastonbury house where Gideon Welles was born in 1802 to Revolutionary War Capt. Samuel Welles and Anne Hale Welles still stands on Hebron Avenue.
Young Gideon studied law but found it boring. Instead, he was drawn to journalism and political activism. He began writing editorials for the Hartford Times and Weekly Advertiser, which he reorganized as the Hartford Times in 1828.
He was elected to the Connecticut legislature in 1825, and became a full-time Hartford resident and one of the state's leading Jacksonian Democrats, supporting Andrew Jackson. He spent several terms in the state legislature, held the office of state comptroller and was appointed Harford postmaster under President Martin Van Buren, Jackson's successor.
Later, Welles left Connecticut to head the Navy's Bureau of Provisions and Clothing, which gave him experience critical to his later career.
Disenchanted with the Democrats over the party's stance on slavery and other issues, Welles had a flirtation with the Free Soil Party before joining the fledging Republican party in the mid-1850s. In 1856, he established the Hartford Evening Press to promote the party agenda and launched a failed campaign for governor.
In March 1860, a presidential campaign swing to the Northeast brought Abraham Lincoln to Hartford. He and Welles met for the first time, spending several hours over two days in political discussions. Welles headed the state's Republican delegation — pledged to Salmon P. Chase — to the nominating convention. During voting, Welles refused to throw his support to William Seward, the acknowledged front-runner, which enabled the less well-known Lincoln to capture the nomination on the third ballot.
After the election, Welles visited Lincoln in Springfield, and his name quickly surfaced as a possible Cabinet appointee.
The Fateful Hours
During their time in office together, the relationship between Lincoln and Welles was "cordial and mutually respectful," Bryon Andreasen, a research historian for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, said in an e-mail for this article.
The pain of losing young children seared the bonds between the two families. Welles and his wife had lost a young son and their only daughter, 18-year-old Anna Jane, within a space of nine months in the 1850s, a decade that began for the Lincolns with the loss of their 4-year-old son, Eddie. Months after Willie Lincoln's death, Gideon and Mary's youngest child, Hubert, died unexpectedly from diphtheria.
On Saturday, April 15, 1865, a distraught Mary Todd Lincoln called for Mary Jane Hale Welles again as her husband lay dying in the Petersen House, across the street from Ford's Theatre, the victim of John Wilkes Booth's bullet.
Gideon Welles vividly recorded those fateful hours in his diary, from a strange dream the president related to his Cabinet on the last day of his life to being roused from his bed and told that the president, the secretary of state and Seward's son had been assassinated. Welles rushed to Seward's home to learn of the near-fatal attacks there by Lewis Powell, an associate of Booth's, before going on to the bedside of the dying Lincoln.
"The giant sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed, which was not long enough for him," Welles wrote. "He had been stripped of his clothes. His large arms, which were occasionally exposed, were of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance. His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hour, perhaps that I was there. After that, his right eye began to swell and that part of his face became discolored."
Welles continued serving in government until the completion of President Andrew Johnson's turbulent tenure. Retiring to private life in 1869, he returned to his Hartford home, where he lived until his death in 1878. He is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford.
With the exception of Jesus Christ, more words have been written about Lincoln than about any other historical figure, according to historian Eric Foner, whose observation was made in advance of the rash of books and articles timed for the Lincoln bicentennial and Obama's well-documented homage to the 16th president.
Welles was among those in the vanguard of shaping the public mythology.
"Mr. Lincoln was in many respects a remarkable, though I do not mean to say an infallible, man," Welles wrote in 1874. "His vigorous and rugged, but compre- hensive mind, his keen and shrewd sagacity, his intellectual strength and mental power, his genial, kindly temper- ament — with charity for all and malice toward none — his sincerity, unquestioned honesty and homely suavity made him popular as well as great."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at