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Gideon Welles

Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War

Gideon Welles

Gideon Welles was born in Glastenbury (now Glastonbury), Connecticut, on July 1, 1802. Educated at the Cheshire Academy in Connecticut and at the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy in Norwich, Vermont (now Norwich University), he initially considered studying law, but found that his true passions were politics and journalism. He married Mary Jane Hale in 1835. The two would go on to have nine children, although only three survived to adulthood.

Welles began writing for the Hartford Times in 1825, and became its editor in 1826 (a position he held until 1837). He was also elected, as a Democrat, to the Connecticut General Assembly in 1826, and ultimately served in that body until 1835, when he became State Controller of Public Accounts. His newspaper's support of both Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren earned him an appointment as Postmaster of Hartford, Connecticut, in which position he served from 1836 to 1841. He also served in the administration of President James K. Polk from 1846 to 1849 as chief of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing for the Navy.

By the end of the 1840's Welles had begun to lose faith in the Democratic Party, due to the growing dominance of pro-slavery Southerners, and in 1848 he supported Van Buren’s bid for the Presidency on the ticket of the Free Soil Party. After Van Buren’s defeat, Welles rejoined the Democratic Party, but left it again after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In 1854, he joined the newly formed Republican Party and founded a new newspaper, The Hartford Evening News, to publicize his views. The new Republican ran for Governor of Connecticut in 1856, but was unsuccessful.

Welles headed the Connecticut delegation to the Republican National Convention which nominated Abraham Lincoln for president in 1860, and was subsequently named as the new President's Secretary of the Navy. A highly capable administrator, Welles presided over a massive expansion of the Navy’s size and capabilities. When the Civil War began, the U. S. Navy possessed only 76 ships, many of which were ill-suited for combat, but by war’s end it had used 671 ships. It was Welles who issued the directive that led to construction of the Monitor, the first ironclad ship in the U. S. Navy, and its success led to many more ironclads joining the fleet. He also saw to it that the Navy got better weapons, steam machinery, and heavy cruisers, all of which allowed the North to successfully blockade almost every major Southern port. Welles stayed on as Secretary of the Navy under President Andrew Johnson, but his support for Johnson during his dispute with Congress eventually estranged him from other Republicans and led him back to the Democratic Party.

Welles retired from politics after leaving Washington and spent his remaining years in Hartford writing, editing his journals, and authoring several books before his death, including Lincoln and Seward (1874). He also amended and edited his three-volume diary relating his experiences in presidential cabinets from 1861 to 1869.Published in 1911, that diary is considered one of the war’s most important documentary records. He died in Hartford on February 11, 1878, and was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Civil War Trust
Connecticut History

Andrew Jackson
Martin Van Buren
President James K. Polk
Kansas-Nebraska Act
Abraham Lincoln
President Andrew Johnson

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The Robinson Library >> Civil War Period, 1861-1865 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on July 02, 2018.