The Diary of Gideon Welles
THE MISTAKES OF SEWARD
THE PETERHOFF MUDDLE
[In the autumn of 1862 Mr. Seward, in his eagerness to conciliate British feeling, wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, to which we have referred in an earlier article, stating that “ It is thought expedient that instructions be given to the blockading and naval officers that, in case of capture of merchant vessels suspected or proved to be vessels of the insurgents or contraband,” the mails “ should not be searched or opened, but be put as speedily as may be convenient on the way to their designated destination.” Although entirely unauthorized, the step would have done no harm had not Mr. Seward sent a copy of his letter to Mr. Stuart, in charge of the British legation, through whom its contents were communicated to his government. Lord Lyons, the British minister, was not slow to avail himself of the gratuitous advantage presented by the Secretary of State, for which, as Mr. Welles maintained, there was no existing warrant in international law, and the following April, on the occasion of the capture of the blockaderunner Peterhoff, he wrote to Air. Seward that the opening of her mail-bags in the Prize Commissioners’ office in New York was “ so contrary to your letter to the Secretary of the Navy that I cannot help hoping you will send orders by telegraph to stop them.” The Secretary of State, in distress, urged upon Welles the necessity of sending such an order. Welles refused absolutely, and Seward brought the matter to the attention of the President.]
Saturday, April 11, 1863.
Seward is in great trouble about the mail of the Peterhoff, a captured blockade runner. Wants the mail given up. Says the instructions which he prepared insured the inviolability and security of the mails. I told him he had no authority to prepare such instructions, that the law was paramount, and that anything which he proposed in opposition to and disregarding the law was not observed.
Thursday , April 16, 1863.
Received a singular letter from Seward respecting the mail of the Peterhoff, undertaking to set aside law, usage, principle, established and always recognized rights, under the pretence that it will not do to introduce new questions on the belligerent right of search. He has inconsiderately — and in an ostentatious attempt to put off upon the English legation a show of power and authority which he does not possess and cannot exercise — involved himself in difficulty, conceded away the rights of his country without authority, without law, without a treaty, without equivalent; and, to sustain this novel and extraordinary proceeding, he artfully talks about new questions in the belligerent right of search. The President has been beguiled by ex parte representations and misrepresentations to indorse “approved” on Seward’s little contrivance. But this question cannot be so disposed of. The President may be induced to order the mail to be given up, but the law is higher than an executive order, and the judiciary has a duty to perform. The mail is in the custody of the court.
Friday , April 17, 1863. But little was before the Cabinet, which of late can hardly be called a Council. Each Department conducts and manages its own affairs, informing the President to the extent it pleases. Seward encourages this state of things. He has less active duties than ottiers, and watches and waits on the President daily, and gathers from him the doings of his associates, and often influences indirectly, and not always advantageously, their measures and movements, while he communicates very little, especially of that which he does not wish them to know.
Blair walked over with me from the White House to the Navy Department, and I showed him the correspondence which had taken place respecting captured mails. Understanding Seward thoroughly as he does, he detected the sly management by which Seward first got himself into difficulty and is now striving to get out of it. My course he pronounced correct, and [declared] that the President must not be entrapped into any false step to extricate Seward, who, he says, is the least of a statesman and knows less of public law and of administrative duties than any man who ever held a seat in the Cabinet. This is strong statement, but I have been surprised to find him so unpractical, so erratic, so little acquainted with the books (lie has told me more than once that he never opened them, that he was too old to study). He has, with all his bustle and activity, but little application, relies on Hunter and his clerk, Smith, perhaps Cushing also, to sustain him and hunt up his authorities, commits himself, as in the case of the mails, without knowing what, he is about.
Saturday, April 18, 1863.
Went to the President, and read to him my letter of this date to Mr. Seward, on the subject of the Peterhoff mail. I have done this, that the President may have both sides of the question, and understand what is being done with his “ approval,” without consultation with me and the members of the Cabinet in council. The Secretary of State, for reasons best known to himself, if he has any reason for his action, has advised with no one in a novel and extraordinary proceeding on his part. He has made concessions by which our rights and interests have been given up, and the law disregarded. When confronted, instead of entering upon investigation himself or consulting with others, [he] has gone privately to the President, stated his own case and got the President committed to his unauthorized acts. I therefore prepared my letter of this date, and before sending it to Mr. Seward, I deemed it best that the President should know its contents. He was surprised and very much interested, took the letter and reread it, said the subject involved questions which he did not understand, — that his object, was to “keep the peace,” for we could not afford to take upon ourselves a war with England and France which was threatened if Ave stopped their mails, and concluded by requesting me to send my letter to Seward, who Avould bring the subject to his attention for further action. My object was gained. The President has “ approved,” without knowledge, on the representation of Seward.
THE PRESIDENT TAKES A HAND
Tuesday, April 21, 1863.
Only some light matters came before the Cabinet. Chase and Blair were absent.. The President requested SeAvard and myself to remain. As soon as the others left, he said his object was to get the right of the question in relation to the seizure of foreign mails. There had evidently been an interview between him and Seward since I read my letter to him on Saturday, and he had also seen SeAvard’s reply. But. he was not satisfied. The subject was novel to him.
Mr, Seward began by stating some of the embarrassments of the present peculiar contest in which Ave were engaged, — the unfriendly feeling of foreign governments, the difficulty of preventing England and France from taking part with the rebels. He dwelt at length on the subject of mail communications and mails generally, the changes which had taken place during the hist fifty years; spoke of the affair of the Trent, a mail packet, of the necessity of keeping on the best terms we could with England. Said his arrangement with Mr. Stuart, who was in charge of the British legation, had been made with the approval of the President, though he had not communicated that fact to me, etc., etc.
I stated that this whole subject belonged to the courts which had, by law, the possession of the mail; that I knew of no right which he, or even the Executive, had to interfere; that I had not regarded the note of the 31st of October as more than a mere suggestion, without examination or consideration, for there had been no Cabinet consultation; that it was an abandonment of our rights and an entire subversion of the policy of our own, and of all other governments, which I had not supposed any one wdio had looked into the matter would seriously attempt to set aside without consultation with the proper Department and advisement, indeed, with the whole Cabinet; that had there been such consultation the subject would, I was convinced, have gone no farther, for it was in conflict with our stated law and the law of nations; that this “ arrangement,” as the Secretary of State called it, was a sort, of post-treaty, by which our rights w’ere surrendered wnthout an equivalent — a treaty which he was not in my opinion authorized to make.
Mr. Seward said he considered the arrangement. reciprocal, and if it was not expressed in words or by interchange, it was to be [the] inferred policy of England, for she would not require of us what she would not give.
I declined to discuss the question of what might be inferred would be the future policy of England on a subject wdiere she had been strenuous beyond any other government. I would not trust her generosity in any respect. I had no faith that she would give beyond what was stipulated in legible characters; nor did I believe she would, by any arrangement her Charge might make, consent to abandon the principle recognized among nations, and which she had always maintained. If this arrangement or treaty was reciprocal, it should be so stated, recorded, and universally understood. So important a change ought not and could not be made except by legislation or treaty; and if by treaty, the Senate must confirm it, if by legislation, the parliamentary bodies of both countries. There had been no such legislation, no such treaty, and I could not admit that any one Department, or the President even, could assume to make sucli a change.
The President thought that perhaps the Executive had some rights on this subject but was not. certain what they were, what the practice had been, what was the lawr, national or international. The Trent case he did not consider analogous in several respects. I had said in reply to Seward that the Trent was not a blockade-runner but a regular mail packet, had a semi-official character with a government officer on board in charge of the mails. The President said he wished to know the usage, — whether the public official seals, or mail-bags of a neutral power, were ever violated. Seward said certainly not. I maintained that the question had not been raised in regard to a captured legal prize, not a doubt [had been] expressed, and the very fact that Stuart had applied to him for mail-exemption was evidence that he so understood the subject. Where was the necessity of this arrangement, or treaty, if that were not the usage ? The case was plain.
Our only present difficulty grew out of the unfortunate letter of the 31st of October — the more unfortunate from the fact that it had been communicated to the British government as the policy of our government, wdnle never, by any word or letter, have they ever admitted it was their policy. It is not the policy of our government, nor is it the law7 of our country. Our naval commanders know of no such policy, no such usage, no such law. They have never been so instructed, nor have our district attorneys. The President (although he had affixed his name to the word “ approved ” in Seward’s late letter, and although he neither admitted nor controverted the statement that the letter of the 31st of October was with his knowledge and approval) was a good deal “ obfusticated ” in regard to the merits of the question and the proceedings of Seward, wTho appeared to be greatly alarmed lest we should offend England, but was nevertheless unwilling to commit himself without farther examination. He said, after frankly declaring his ignorance and that he had no recollection of the question until recently called to his notice, that he would address us interrogatories. Mr. Seward declared, under some excitement and alarm, there was not time — that Lord Lyons was importunate in his demands, claiming that the arrangement should be fulfilled in good faith. I replied that Lord Lyons, or the British government, had no claim whatever except [through] the concession made by him (Seward) in his letter of the 31st of October, while there was no concession or equivalent from England.
Wednesday, April 22, 1863.
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 incontest ible national right, lie 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 influence 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, been a Senator, 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 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 II. Seward.
I have set Watkins and Eames to ransack the books. Upton 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 maintained if the Secretary of State is humiliated.
Thursday, April 23, 1863.
Senator Sumner called this afternoon to talk over the matter of the Peterhoff mail. Says he has been examining the case [and] that he fully indorses my views. Seward, he avers, knows nothing of the international law and is wanting in common sense, treats grave questions lightly and without comprehending their importance and bearings. He calls my attention to the opinion of Attorney General Wirt as to the rights of the Judiciary.
Friday, April 24, 1863.
Little of importance at the Cabinet meeting. Seward left early. He seemed uneasy, and I thought was apprehensive I might bring up the subject of the Peterhoff mails. It suits him better to have interviews with the President alone than with a full Cabinet, especially on points where he knows himself wrong. I did not feel particularly anxious that the subject should be introduced to-day, for I am not fully prepared with my reply, though busily occupied on the subject — giving it every moment I can spare from pressing current business.
Monday , April 27, 1863.
Finished and gave to the President my letter on the subject of mails on captured vessels. It has occupied almost every moment of my time for a week aided by Eames, Watkins, Upton, and suggestions from Sumner, who has entered earnestly into the subject.
The President wras alone when I called on him with the document, which looked formidable, filling thirty-one pages of foolscap. He was pleased and interested, not at all discouraged by my paper, — said he should read every word of it, that he wanted to understand the question, etc. He told me Seward had sent in his answer this morning but it was in some respects not satisfactory, particularly as regarded the Adela. He had sent for Hunter, who, however, did not understand readily the case, or what was wanted.
SUMNER’S STRICTURES ON LINCOLN
Tuesday , April 28, 1863.
Nothing at Cabinet, Seward and Chase absent. The President engaged in selecting Provosts-Marshal.
Sumner called this evening at the Department, was much discomfited with an interview which he had last evening with the President. The latter was just
filing a paper as Sumner went in. After a few moments Sumner took two slips from his pocket, — one cut from the Boston Transcriyt, the other from the Chicago Tribune, — each taking strong ground against surrendering the Peterhoff mail. The President, after reading them, opened the paper he had just filed and read to Sumner his letter addressed to the Secretary of the State and the Secretary of the I\avy. He told Suinner he had received the replies and just concluded reading mine. After some comments on them, he said to Sumner, “ I will not show these papers to you now — perhaps I never shall.” A conversation then took place which greatly mortified and chagrined Sumner, who declares the President is very ignorant or very deceptive. The President, he says, is horrified, or appeared to be, with the idea of a war with England, which he assumed depended on this question. He was confident we should have war with England if we presumed to open their mail-bags, or break their seals or locks. They would not submit to it, and we were in no condition to plunge into a foreign war on a subject of so little importance in comparison with the terrible consequences which must follow our act. Of this idea of a war with England, Sumner could not dispossess him by argument, or by showing its absurdity. Whether it was real, or affected ignorance Sumner was not satisfied.
I have no doubts of the President’s sincerity, and so told Sumner. But he has been imposed upon by a man in whom he confides. His confidence has been abused. He does not comprehend the principles involved nor the question itself. Seward does not intend that he shall comprehend it. While attempting to look into it, the Secretary of State is daily, and almost hourly, wailing in his ears the calamities of a war with England, which he is striving to prevent. The President is thus led away from the real question, and will probably decide it, not on its merits, but on this false issue, raised by the man who is the author of the difficulty.
[On April 27 Hooker began a series of movements which, without the cost of a battle, transferred his army of 130,000 men south of the Rapidan and Rappahannock. The commander was jubilant. “ The operations of the last three days,” he declared, “have determined that our enemy must either ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defence and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.” It was on the next day, May 1, that he gave the order to fall back which marked the beginning of the tragedy of Chancellorsville.]
Wednesday, April 29, 1863.
The atmosphere is thick with rumors of army movements. Hooker is reported to have crossed the river. Not unlikely a portion of his force has done so, and all may. That there may be a battle imminent is not improbable. I shall not be surprised, however, if only smart skirmishes take place.
Senator Sumner called on me this p. M. in relation to the coast defence of Massachusetts. I received a letter from Governor Andrew this A. M. on the same subject. The President has also been to see me in regard to it.
After disposing of that question, Sumner related an interesting conversation which he had last evening with Lord Lyons at Tassara’s, the Spanish Minister. I was an hour or two at Tassara’s party, in the early part of the evening, and observed S[umner] and Lord L[yons] in earnest conversation. Sumner says their whole talk was on the subject of the mails on captured vessels. He opened the subject by regretting that in the peculiar conditions of our affairs, Lord Lyons should have made a demand that could not be yielded without national dishonor, and said that the question was one of judicature rather than diplomacy. Lord Lyons disavowed ever having made a demand; said he was cautious and careful in all his transactions with Mr. Seward ; that he made it a point to reduce all matters with Seward of a public nature to writing; that he had done so in regard to the mail of the Peterhoff, and studiously avoided any demand. He authorized Sumner, who is Chairman of Foreign Relations, to see all his letters in relation to the mails, etc., etc.
To-day Sumner saw the President and repeated to him this conversation, Lord Lyons having authorised him to do so. The President, he says, seemed astounded, and after some general conversation of the subject, said, in his emphatic way, “ I shall have to cut this knot.”
Friday, May 1, 1863.
After Cabinet meeting walked over with Attorney General Bates to his office. Had a very full talk with him concerning the question of captured mails, — the jurisdiction of the courts, the law, and usage, and rights of the government. He is unqualifiedly with me in my views and principles — the law and our rights. He dwelt with some feeling on the courtesy which ought to exist between the several departments, and was by them generally observed. Although cautious and guarded in his remarks, he did not conceal his dissatisfaction with the conduct of the Secretary of State in writing to attorneys and marshals, and assuming to instruct and direct them in their official duties, which were assigned to and required by law to be done by the Attorney General.
We are getting vague rumors of Army operations, but nothing intelligible or reliable.
IGNORANCE OF THE WAR DEPARTMENT
[On May 2 occurred the famous flanking march of Stonewall Jackson and his crushing attack on the Federal right, followed by a mortal wound in the hour of victory. At nine o’clock the next morning Hooker was knocked insensible, when a cannon-ball struck the pillar against which he was leaning at headquarters. Throughout the day great confusion prevailed among the Federal forces, which accoiuits for the delay of authentic news in reaching Washington.]
Saturday, May 2, 1863.
Thick rumors concerning the Army of the Potomac— little, however, from official sources. I abstain from going to the War Department more than is necessary, or consulting operators at the telegraph, for there is a hazy uncertainty there. This indefiniteness, and the manner attending it, is a pretty certain indication that the information received is not particularly gratifying. Whether Hooker refuses to communicate, and prevents others from communicating, I know not. Other members of the Cabinet, like myself, are, I find, disinclined to visit the War Department under the circumct o n rPQ
Monday, May 4, 1863.
Great uneasiness and uncertainty prevail in regard to army movements. I think the War Department is really poorly advised of operations. I could learn nothing from them yesterday or to-day. Such information as I have is picked up from correspondents and news-gatherers, and from naval officers who arrive from below.
I this r. M. met the President at the War Department. He said he had a feverish anxiety to get facts, wras constantly walking up and down, for nothing reliable came from the front There is an impression, which is very general, that our army has been successful, but that there has been great slaughter, and that still fiercer and more terrible fights are impending.
I am not satisfied. If we have success, the tidings would come to us in volumes. We may not be beaten. Stoneman 2 with 13,000 cavalry and six days’ supply, has cut his way into the enemy’s country, but we know not his fate, farther than we hear nothing from him or of him. If overwhelmed, we should know it from the rebels. There are rumors that the rebels again reoccupy the entrenchments on the heights in the rear of Fredericksburg, but the rumor is traceable to no reliable source.
[A corps of the Federal Army, detached by Hooker for the purpose, took possession of Fredericksburg and of the important strategic position of Marye’s Heights. From this favorable position the Federals were dislodged by an attack of Lee’s main army on May 4. On May 6, Hooker’s forces recrossed the Rappahannock, having suffered the loss of upwards of seventeen thousand men in the fighting about Chancellors ville.]
Tuesday, May 5, 1863.
But little of importance at the Cabinet. The President read a brief telegram which he got last night from General Hooker, to whom, getting nothing from the War Department, he had applied direct to ascertain whether the rebels were in possession of the works on the heights of Fredericksburg. Hooker replied he believed it was true, but if so it was of no importance. This reply communicates nothing of operations, but the tone and whole tiling — even its brevity — inspire right feelings. It is strange, however, that no reliable intelligence reaches us from the army of what it is doing, or not doing. This fact itself forebodes no good.
Sumner came in this afternoon and read to me from two or three documents — one the late speech of the Solicitor of the Treasury, in the British Parliament, on the matter of prize and prize courts, which are particularly favorable to our views in the Peterhoff case.
From this we got on to the absorbing topic of the army under Hooker. Sumner is hopeful, and if be did not inspire me with his confidence, I was made glad by his faith. The President came in while we were discussing the subject, and, as is his way, at once earnestly participated. His suggestions and inferences struck me as probable, hopeful, nothing more. Like the rest of us, he wants facts; without them we have only surmises, and surmises indicate doubt, uncertainty. He is not informed of occurrences as he should be, but is in the dark, with no official data, which confirms me in the belief that the War Department is in ignorance, for they would not withhold favorable intelligence from him; yet it is strange, very strange. In the absence of news, the President strives to feel encouraged and to inspire others, but I can perceive he has doubts and misgivings, though he does not express them. Like my own, perhaps, his fears are the result of absence of facts, rather than from any information received.
Wednesday, May 6, IS Go.
We have news, via Richmond, that Stoneman has destroyed bridges and torn up rails on the Richmond Road, thus cutting off communication between that city and the rebel army. Simultaneously with this intelligence, there is a rumor that Hooker has re-crossed the river and is at Falmouth. I went to the War Department about noon to ascertain the facts, but Stanton said he had no such intelligence nor did he believe it. I told him I had nothing definite or very authentic, that he certainly ought to be better posted than I could be; but I had seen a brief telegram from young Dahlgren, who is on Hooker’s staff, dated this A. M. “Head Quarters near Falmouth — All right.” This to me was pretty significant of the fact that Hooker and his army had re-crossed. Stanton was a little disconcerted. He said Hooker had as yet no definite plan. His headquarters are not far from Falmouth. Of course, nothing further was to be said, yet I was by no means satisfied with his remarks or manner.
An hour later Sumner came into my room, and raising both hands exclaimed, “Lost, lost, all is lost! ” I asked what he meant. He said Hooker and his army had been defeated and driven back to this side of the Rappahannock. Sumner came direct from the President who, he said, was extremely dejected. I told him I had been apprehensive that disaster had occurred; but when I asked under what circumstances this reverse had taken place, he could give me no particulars.
I went soon after to the War Department. Seward was sitting with Stanton, as when I left him two or three hours before. I asked Stanton if he knew where Hooker was. He answered curtly, “ No.” I looked at him sharply, and I have no doubt with incredulity, for he, after a moment’s pause, said, “ He is on this side of the river, but I know not where.” “Well,” said I, “ he is near his old quarters, and I wish to know if Stoneman is with him, or if he or you know anything of that force.” Stanton said he had no information in regard to that force, and it was one of the most unpleasant things of the whole affair that Hooker should have abandoned Stoneman.
The President, uneasy, uncomfortable, and dissatisfied with the meagre information and its gloomy aspect, went himself this evening to the army, with Gen. Halleck.
Thursday, May 1, 1SG3.
Our people, though shocked and very much disappointed, are in better tone and temper than I feared they would be. The press had wrought the public mind to high expectation by predicting certain success, which all wished to believe. I have not been confident, though I had hopes.
[The evacuation by the Confederates of the fortified bluff on the Mississippi known as Grand Gulf, after a vigorous attack by Porter’s gunboats, gave Grant a secure base for his advance upon Vicksburg.]
Friday, May S, 1S63.
A telegraph despatch this morning from Admiral Porter states he has possession of ..Grand Gulf. The news was highly gratifying to the President, who had not heard of it until I met him at the Cabinet meeting.
Tuesday . May 12, 1863.
We have information that Stonewall Jackson, one of the best Generals in the rebel, and, in some respects, perhaps, in either service, is dead. One cannot but lament the death of such a man in such a cause too. He was fanatically earnest, and a Christian but bigoted soldier.
Mr. Seward came to my house last evening and read a confidential despatch from Earl Russell to Lord Lyons, relative to threatened difficulties with England, and the unpleasant condition of affairs between the two countries. lie asked if anything could be done with Wilkes, whom he has hitherto favored but against whom the Englishmen, without any sufficient cause, are highly incensed. I told him he might be transferred to the Pacific, which is as honorable but a less active command. That he had favored Wilkes, who was not one of the most comfortable officers for the Navy Department. I was free to say, however, I had seen nothing in his conduct thus far, in his present command, towards the English deserving of censure, and that the irritation and prejudice against him were unworthy; yet, under the peculiar condition of things, it would perhaps be well to make this concession. I read to him an extract from a confidential letter of J. M. Forbes, now in England, a most earnest and sincere Union man, urging that W[ilkes] should be withdrawn, and quoting the private remarks of Mr. Cobden to that effect. I had read the same extract to the President last Friday evening, Mr. Sumner being present. He (Sumner) remarked it was singular, but that he had called on the President to read to him a letter which he had just received from the Duke of Argyll, in which he advised that very change. This letter Sumner has since read to me. It is replete with good sense and good feeling.
I have to-day taken preliminary steps to transfer Wilkes, and to give JBell command in the West Indies. It will not surprise me if this, besides angering Wilkes, gives public discontent. His strange course in taking Slidell and Mason from the Trent was popular, and is remembered with gratitude by the people, who are not aware that his work vTas but half done, and that, by not bringing in the Trent as prize, he put himself and the country in the wrong. Seward at first approved the course of Wilkes in capturing Slidell and Mason, anti added to my embarrassment, in so disposing of the question as not to create discontent by rebuking Wilkes, for what the country approved. But when, under British menace, Seward changed his position, he took my position, and the country gave him great credit for what was really my act, and the undoubted law of the case. My letter congratulating Wilkes on the capture of the rebel enemies was particularly guarded, and warned him and naval officers against a similar offence. The letter was acceptable to all parties — the administration, the country; and even Wilkes was contented.
It is best under the circumstances that Wilkes should be withdrawn from the West Indies, where he was sent by Seward’s special request, unless as lie says we are ready for a war with England. I sometimes think that is not the worst alternative, she behaves so badly.
Wednesday, May 13, 1863.
The last arrival from England brings Earl Russell’s speech on American affairs. Its tone and views are less offensive than some things we have had, and manifest a dawning realization of what must follow if England persists in her unfriendly policy. In his speech, Earl R[ussell], in some remarks relative to the opinions of the law officers of the crown on the subject of mails captured on blockaderunners, adroitly quotes the letter of Seward to me on the 31st of October, and announces that to be the policy of the U. S. Government, and the regulations which govern our naval officers. It is not the English policy, nor a regulation which they adopt, reciprocate or respect, hut the tame, flat concession of the Secretary of State, made without authority, or law. The statement of Earl Russell is not correct. No such orders as he represents have issued from the Navy Department. Not a naval officer or District Attorney has ever been instructed to surrender the mails as stated, nor is there a court in the United States which would regard such instructions, if given, as good law. It is nothing more or less than an attempted abandonment, an ignominious surrender, of our undoubted legal rights by a Secretary of State, who knew not what he was about. The President may, under the influence of Mr. Seward, commit himself to this inconsiderate and illegal proceeding and direct such instructions to be issued; but if so, the act shall be his, not mine, and he will find it an unhappy error. But Seward has been complimented in Parliament for giving away to our worst enemy his country’s rights, — for an impertinent and improper intermeddling, or attempt to intermeddle with and direct the action of another department, and the incense which he has received will tickle his vanity.
C. F. ADAMS AND HIS TROUBLES
Sumner tells me of a queer interview he had with Seward. The first part of the conversation was harmonious, and related chiefly to the shrewd and cautious policy and management of the British ministry, who carefully referred all complex questions to the law officers of her Majesty’s government. It might have been a hint to SewTard to be more prudent and considerate, and to take legal advice instead of pushing on slovenly, as is sometimes done. Allusion was made to Mr. Adams and an unfortunate letter [he had written]. Our Minister, Mr. Adams, was spoken of as too reserved and retiring for his own and the general good. Sumner said, in justification and by way of excuse for him, that it would be pleasanter and happier for him if he had a Secretary of Legation whose deportment, manner, and social position were different, if he were more affable and courteous, in short, more of a gentleman, for he could in that case make up for some of Mr. A[dams]’s deficiencies.
At this point Seward flew into a passion, and, in a high key, told Sumner he knew nothing of political (meaning party) claims and services and accused him of a design to cut the throat of the Secretary of Legation at London. Sumner wholly disclaimed any such design, or any personal knowledge of the man, but said he had been informed, and had no doubt of the fact, that it was the daily practice of [theSecretary] to goto Morlcy’s, seat himself in a conspicuous place, throw his legs upon the table, and, in warm language, abuse England and the English. Whatever might be our grievances and wrong, this, Sumner thought, was not a happy method of correcting them, nor would such conduct on the part of the second officer of the legation bring about kinder feelings or a better state of things, whereas a true gentleman could by suavity and dignity in such a position win respect, strengthen his principal, and benefit the country. These remarks only made Seward more violent, and louder in his declaration that [the Secretary] was a clever fellow and should be sustained.
I read to Attorney General Bates the letters and papers in relation to mails on captured vessels, of which he had some previous knowledge. He complimented my letters and argument, and said my position was impregnable, and the Secretary of State wholly and utterly wrong.
The President called on me this morning with the basis of a despatch which Lord Lyons proposed to send home. He had submitted it to Mr. Seward, who handed it to the President, and he brought it to me. The President read it to me, and when he concluded, I remarked that the whole question of the mails belonged properly to the courts, and I thought unless we proposed some new treaty arrangement it would be best the subject should continue with the courts, as law and usage directed. “ But,” he inquired, “ have the courts ever opened the mails of a neutral government ? ” I replied always when the captured vessels on which mails were found were considered good prize. “ Why then,” he said, “ do you not furnish me with the fact. That is what I w’ant, but you furnish me with no report that any neutral has ever been searched.” I said I was not aware that the right had ever been questioned. The courts made no reports to me whether they opened or did not open the mail. The courts are independent of the departments, to which they are not amenable. In the mails was often the best and only evidence that could ensure condemnation. That I should as soon have expected an inquiry whether evidence was taken, witnesses sworn, and the cargoes examined, as whether mails were examined. But if mails ever are examined, said he, the fact must be known and recorded. “ What vessels,” he asked, “ have we captured where we have examined the mails ? ” “ All, doubtless, that have had mails on board,” I replied. “ Probably most of them were not entrusted with mails.” “ When,” asked he, “ was the first vessel taken ? ” “I do not recollect the name, a small blockade-runner I think; I presume she had no mail. If she had, I have no doubt the court searched it and examined all letters and papers.”
He was extremely anxious to learn if I recollected, or knew, that any captured mail had been searched. I told him I remembered no specific mention —doubted if the courts ever reported to the Navy Department—foreign governments knowing of the blockade, would not be likely to make up mails for the ports blockaded. [I told him] that the Peterhoff had a mail ostensibly for Matamoras, which was her destination, but with a cargo and mails which we knew were intended for the rebels — though the proof might be difficult since the mail had been given up.
I sent for Watkins, who has charge of prize matters, to know if there was any record or mention of mails in any of the papers sent the Navy Department, but he could not call to mind anytlungconelusive. Some mention was made of mails or despatches in the mail on board the Bermuda which we captured, but it was incidental. Perhaps the facts might be got from the District Attorneys; though he thought, as I did, that but few regular mails were given to blockade-runners. The President said he would frame a letter to the District Attorneys, and in the afternoon he brought in a form to be sent to the Attorneys in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.
Read Chase the principal points in the Peterhoff case. He approved of my views, concurred in them fully, and said there was no getting around them.
Saturday, May 16, 1868.
Saw Seward this morning respecting Wilkes. After talking over the subject he said he cared nothing about Wilkes, that if he was removed he would be made a martyr, and both he (Seward) and myself would be blamed and abused by the people who knew not the cause that influenced and governed us. He then for the first time alluded to the removal of Butler, which he said was a necessity to appease France, nevertheless France was not satisfied, yet Butler’s removal had occasioned great discontent and called down much censure. If I could stand the recall of Wilkes, he thought he could. I answered him that any abuse of me in the discharge of my duty, and when I knew I was right, would never influence my course. In this case I could better stand his recall than the responsibility of sending him into the Pacific, where he would have great power and be the representative of the government; for he is erratic, impulsive, opinionated, somewhat arbitrary towards his subordinates, and is always disinclined to obey orders that he receives if they do not comport with his own notions. His special mission, in his present command, had been to capture the Alabama. In this he had totally failed, while zealous to catch blockaderunners and get prize-money. Had he not been in the AYest Indies, we might have captured her, but he had seized the Vanderbilt, which had specific orders and destination, and gone oft’ with her prizehunting, thereby defeating our plans. Seward wished me to detach him because he had not taken the Alabama, and give that as the reason. I care to assign no reasons — none but the true ones, — and it is not politic to state them.
Monday, May IS, 1863.
Sumner called this evening and read to me a letter he had received from Mr. Cobden, and also one from Mr. Bright. Both in good tone and of right feeling. These two men are statesmen and patriots in the true sense of the word, such as do honor to England and give vigor to the government. They and Sumner have done much to preserve the peace of the two countries.
Senator Doolittle was to see me to-day. Has faith, he says, but fears that General Hooker has no religious faith — laments the infirmities of that officer, and attributes our late misfortune to the want of godliness in the commanding general.
Sunday, May 24, 1863.
We have had gratifying intelligence from the South-West for several days past — particularly in the vicinity of Vicksburg. It is pretty certain that Grant will capture the place. And it is hoped Pemberton’s army also. There is a rumor that the Stars and Stripes wave over Vicksburg, but the telegraph wires are broken and communication interrupted.
Monday, May 25,1863.
Am anxious in relation to the South Atlantic Squadron, and feel daily the necessity of selecting a new Commander. Dupont is determined Charleston shall not be captured by the Navy and that the Navy shall not attempt it, thinks it dangerous for the vessels to remain [near] Charleston harbor and prefers to occupy his palace-ship, the Wabash, at Port Royal to roughing it in a smaller vessel off the port. His prize-money would doubtless be greater without any risk. All officers under him are becoming affected by his feelings, adopt his tone, think inactivity best — that the iron-clads are mere batteries, not naval vessels, and that outside blockade is the true and only policy. Dupont feels that he is strong in the Navy, strong in Congress, and strong in the country, and not without reason. There is not a more accomplished or shrewder gentleman in the service. Since Barron and others left, no officer has gathered [so] formidable a clique in the Navy. He has studied with some effect to create one for himself, and has in his personal interest a number of excellent officers, who I had hoped would not be inveigled. Good officers have warned me against him as a shrewd intriguer, but I have hoped to get along with him, for I valued his general intelligence, critical abilities, and advice. But I perceive that in all things he never forgets Dupont. His success at Port Royal has made him feel that he is indispensable to the service. The modern changes in naval warfare, and in naval vessels, are repugnant to him; and to the turret vessels he has a declared aversion. Pie has been active in schemes to retire officers, he is ILOW at work to retire iron-clads and impair confidence in them. As yet he professes respect and high regard for me personally, but he is not an admirer of the President, and has got greatly out with Fox,3 who has been his too partial friend.
An attack is, however, to be made on the Department by opposing its policy and condemning its vessels. This will raise a party to attack and a party to defend. The Monitors are to be pronounced failures, and the Department which introduced, adopted, and patron’ ized them, is to be held responsible, and not Dupont, for the abortive attempt to reach Charleston! Drayton, who is his best friend, says to me in confidence that Dupont has been too long confined on shipboard, and that his system, mentally and physically is affected; and I have no doubt thinks, but does not say, he ought to be relieved for his own good as well as that of the service. Dupont is proud and will not willingly relinquish his command, although he has in a half-defiant way said, if his course was not approved I must find another [commander].
I look upon it, however, as a fixed fact that he will leave that Squadron, but he is a favorite and I am at a loss as to his successor. Farragut, if not employed elsewhere, would be the man, and the country would accept the change with favor. The age and standing of D. D. Porter would be deemed objectionable by many, yet he has some good points for that duty. Foote would be a good man for the place in many respects, but is somewhat overshadowed by Dupont, with whom he has been associated and to whom he greatly defers. Dahlgren earnestly wants the position, and is the choice of the President, but there would be general discontent were he selected. Older officers who have had vastly greater sea-service would feel aggrieved at the selection of Dahlgren, and find ready sympathizers among the juniors. I have thought of Admiral Gregory, whom I was originally inclined to designate as Commander of the Gulf Blockading Squadron at the beginning of the War, but was over persuaded by Paulding to take Mervine. A mistake, but a lesson. Tt taught me not to yield my deliberate convictions in appointments and matters of this kind to the mere advice and opinion of another without a reason. Both Fox and Foote indorse Gregory. His age is against him for such active service, and would give the partisans of Dupont opportunity to cavil.
Tuesday. Nay 26, 1863.
Much of the time at the Cabinet meeting was consumed in endeavoring to make it appear that one Cuniston, tried and condemned as a spy, was not exactly a spy, and that he might be let off. T did not participate in the discussion. It appeared to me from the statement on all hands, and from the finding of the court, that he was clearly and beyond a question a spy, and I should have said so, had my opinion been asked, but I did not care to volunteer, unsolicited and without a thorough knowedge of all the facts, to argue away the life of a fellowbeing.
There was a sharp controversy between Chase and Blair on the subject of the fugitive slave law, as attempted to be executed on one Hal! here in the District. Both were earnest; Blair for executing the law, Chase for permitting the man to enter the service of the United States instead of lining remanded into slavery. The President said that this was one of the questions that always embarrassed him. It reminded him of a man in Illinois who was in debt and terribly annoyed by a pressing creditor, until finally the debtor assumed to be crazy whenever the creditor broached the subject.
“ I,” said the President, “ have on more than one occasion in this room -when beset by extremists on this question, been compelled to appear to be very mad. I think,” he continued, “ none of you will ever dispose of this subject without getting mad.”
[The capture of Charleston — the Mother of Rebellion — was an undertaking desired in the North with an eagerness out of all proportion to the strategic importance of occupying a port already shut tight by the blocade. A fleet of ironclads fitted out with great energy and expense was unable to reduce the city or do serious damage to Fort Sumter. It was now six weeks since the unsuccessful attack.]
I am by no means certain that it is wise or best to commence immediate operations upon Charleston. It is a much more difficult task now than it was before the late undertaking. Our own men have less confidence, while our opponents have much more. The place has no strategic importance, yet there is not another place our anxious countrymen would so rejoice to see taken as this original seat of the great wickedness that has befallen our country. The moral effect of its capture would be great.
Wednesday, May 27, 1863.
No decisive news from Vicksburg. The public mind is uneasy at the delay, yet I am glad to see blame attaches to no one because the place was not taken at once. There have been strange evidences of an unreasonable people on many occasions during the war. Had Halleck shown half the earnestness and ability of Farragut, we should have had Vicksburg in our possession a year ago.
HARCOURT ON SEWARD’S POLICY
Thursday, May 2S, 1863.
I this morning got hold of the pamphlet of Sir [William] Vernon Harcourt, “Historicus,” and am delighted to find a coincidence of views between him and myself on the subject of mails captured on vessels running the blockade, or carrying contraband. He warns his countrymen that “ THE DANGER IS NOT THAT AMERICANS WILL CONCEDE TOO LITTLE, BUT THAT GREAT BRITAIN MAY ACCEPT TOO MUCH.” This is a mortifying, humiliating fact, the more so from its truth. Mr. Seward is not aware of what he is doing, and the injustice and dishonor he is inflicting on his country by his concession. It is lamentable that the President is misled in these matters, for Mr. Seward is tampering and trifling with National rights. I have no doubt he acted inconsiderately and ignorantly of any wrong in the first instance, when he took upon himself to make these extraordinary and disgraceful concessions; but having become involved in error, he has studied, not to enlighten himself and serve the country, but to impose upon and mislead the President in order to extricate himself.
Dablgren to-day broached the subject of operations against Charleston. He speaks of it earnestly and energetically. Were it not so that his assignment to that command would cause dissatisfaction, I would, as the President strongly favors him, let him show his ability as an officer in his legitimate professional duty.
Brown of the wrecked Indianola and Fontaine of the burnt Mississippi, each called on me to-day. They were both captured last February, have been exchanged, and arrived to-day from Richmond. Their accounts correspond with each other and with what we have previously heard in regard to the deplorable state of things in the rebel region. Poor beef three times a week and corn bread daily, were dealt to them. The white male population was all away. The railroads are in a wretched condition; the running stock, worse than the roads.
Friday, May 29, 1863.
I this morning sent for Admiral Foote and had a free and full talk with him in regard to the command of the South Atlantic Squadron. I am satisfied he would be pleased with the position — and really desired it when he knew Dupont was to be relieved. I then introduced him to Gen. G ilmore, and, with the charts and maps before us, took a rapid survey of the harbor and plan of operations. Before doing this, I said to Foote that I thought it would be well for the country, the service, and himself, were Admiral Dahlgren associated with him. He expressed the pleasure it would give him, but doubted if Dfahlgren] would consent to serve as second.
I requested Mr. Fox to call on D[ahlgren] and inform him that I had given Foote the squadron, — that I should be glad to have him embark with Foote, and take an active part against Charleston. If he responded favorably, I wished him to come with Fox to the conference. Fox returned with an answer that not only was D[ahlgren] unwilling to go as second, but that he wished to decline entirely, unless he could have command of both naval and land forces. This precludes farther thought of him. I regret it for his own sake. It is one of the errors of a lifetime.
Foote says he will himself see D[ahlgren], and has a conviction that he can induce him to go with him. I doubt it. Dahlgren is very proud and aspiring, and will injure himself and his professional standing in consequence.
(To be continued.)
- Copyright, 1909, by EDGAR T. WELLES.↩
- General George Stoneman was conducting an extensive cavalry operation intended to cut of! Lee’s army after its expected defeat. Tlie unlooked-for discomfiture of the Federal forces placed Stoneman in considerable danger, hut he succeeded in rejoining Hooker’s main army on May 7.↩
- Gustavus V, Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy.↩