Gideon Welles, Party Politics and How to Spend a Good Winter

January 6, 1864 (Wednesday)

Gideon Welles wants this....
Gideon Welles wants this….

Gideon Welles, United States Secretary of the Navy, had quite a bit on his plate. Much of it was currently involved with Republican Party politics and speculation over whether President Lincoln would seek reelection. Senator Charles Sumner was leading the party, but was silent on the issue. “I think his present thoughts are in another direction,” wrote Welles of Sumner, “but not decidedly so.” Though he liked Sumner a great deal – they had a standing dinner date for Sunday nights – he thought the man too radical.

“Towards the slaveholders he is implacable,” he wrote in his diary, “and is ready to go to extremes to break up not only the system of bondage, but the political, industrial, and social system in all the rebellious States. […] He would not only free the slaves, but elevate them above their former masters, yet, with all this studied philanthropy and love for the negroes in the abstract, is unwilling to fellowship with them, though he thinks he is.”

Welles, of course, towed the party line. Slavery was on the way out, but he was unsure it had to take the economy with it. Though his political speculations were a sort of distraction from the war, they were actually rooted in the same ground.

Map of Wilmington, NC area, including Fort Caswell... maybe it won't be so easy, Welles.
Map of Wilmington, NC area, including Fort Caswell… maybe it won’t be so easy, Welles.

At this moment in the war, there were two specific targets for Welles’ Navy. The first was Fort Caswell, near Cape Fear, North Carolina. It was still, despite the blockade, a more or less open port. Welles wished to reduce Caswell and shut down the blockade runners in Cape Fear. “The result of such operation is to enable the naval vessels to lie inside, as is the case at Charleston,” wrote Welles to War Secretary Edwin Stanton, “thus closing the port effectually.” Welles reasoned that since this was “the only port by which any supplies whatever reach the rebels, and as the armies are mostly going into winter quarter, it seems a fit opportunity to undertake such an operation.”

This made quite a bit of sense. Armies in winter quarters don’t just get up and defend forts. Also, they need to be resupplied. Closing the port at Fort Casswell, in Welles’ estimation, was a simple thing. But General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, Welles’ counterpart from the Army, had a wildly different idea. Halleck had gotten a hold of Welles’ letter and on this date raced to put his own ideas forward to the War Department.

“I am of the opinion that all of our available forces not required to hold positions now in our possession should be sent to Louisiana and Texas,” began Halleck, “where they are now very much needed, and where they can operate with advantage during the winter.”

Halleck disagreed with Welles on several points. First, “the reduction of Fort Caswell alone will not secure to us the harbor of Smithville or close to the rebels and blockade-runners access to Wilmington.” Second, he was not convinced that it was really all that simple. To close Smithville and Wilmington, “we must also capture the works on Smith’s Island and those which command the New Inlet, a task not less difficult or requiring less time, even at a favorable season, than the reduction of Fort Sumter and the works on Morris Island.”

This may have been some kind of dig at Welles. Fort Sumter was proving a very tough nut to crack, indeed. The daily bombardment was continuing with seemingly no end in sight. Did the Navy truly want another Sumter on their hands?

And Halleck wants that...
And Halleck wants that…

Halleck went so far as to say that he proposed a similar idea last year, but it was shot down by the Navy in favor of attacking Sumter. Since that time, “the defenses of Wilmington and Cape Fear River have been greatly strengthened, and it will now require a large force and probably a long time to effect their reduction. To attempt this in the present condition of our armies will involve the suspension of other and more important operation.”

And that was the rub. Halleck had another, more important operation in mind: the occupation of Texas and the Red River in Louisiana. In this, he evoked Lincoln’s name. “The occupation of Texas was not simply a military measure; it was one of State policy, decided upon by the President.”

The Department of the Gulf was headed by Nathaniel Banks, headquartered in New Orleans. In Halleck’s mind, he did not have enough troops to “defend Louisiana and the places he now holds in Texas, much less drive the rebels from the portions of these States still in their possession.”

Halleck proposed two choices. They could either give up on Louisiana and Texas entirely, pulling Banks and his army out and giving back New Orleans (something he knew would never happen) or reinforcing the Army of the Gulf so that they could finish the job. But it had to be done quickly so that the troops added to Banks’ numbers could return to their former positions in time for the spring campaign.

The General-in-Chief reminded Stanton that he could not have both. The reduction of Fort Caswell and the invasion of Texas and Louisiana were two separate, inversely proportional things. The armies were reduced in size over the winter because of furloughs given to the men as incentives to reenlist. Because of this, Stanton had to select but one option.

Halleck made known his thoughts, and locally they seemed fairly sound. The Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi was based mostly in Shreveport, Louisiana. For the campaign to be successful, for the Red River to be held and Texas occupied, the Rebel army had to be eliminated.

Which way will Stanton's beard eventually point?
Which way will Stanton’s beard eventually point?

But choosing Halleck’s plan over Welles’ was much like going down the rabbit hole. Banks occupied much of the Texas coast already. President Lincoln, however, was of the mind that, like Louisiana, Texas needed its own loyal state government. Something like that would require many more troops, and it would be much more difficult to return them by spring.

That was a fairly big deal. The Trans-Mississippi was only important to the Trans-Mississippi. The war was being decided in the east – that was clear. Even the western armies under Grant were pushing south and to the east. Anything west of the Mississippi would have no choice but to fall under Union rule.

Gideon Welles was not blind to these facts. As the two ideas were further sussed out in Cabinet meetings, Welles would make known his feelings about Texas and Louisiana. He would explain to Lincoln that “it would be well to take some decisive and more general ground indicating progress towards peace.” Since New Orleans was already a port open to Federal traffic, “why might not the whole Trans-Mississippi country above that place be thrown open to commerce?” Welles had given this idea much thought, it seems, and was against further blockade of the Red River.

Welles would do what he could to gather allies in the Cabinet, and would even have General Banks’ quasi support. But then there would be Grant. This, however, travels us too far into the future, and must again be taken up at another time.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p 326; Vol. 34, Part 2, p29-30; Diary by Gideon Welles, January 2, 1864, January 12, 1864, January 16, 1864; Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandsworth, Jr. []
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Gideon Welles, Party Politics and How to Spend a Good Winter by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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2 thoughts on “Gideon Welles, Party Politics and How to Spend a Good Winter

  1. Didn’t the Republican part temporarily dissolve and form another party for the 1864 election?

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