Welles “Diary”

One of the difficulties of writing about Seward is that so much of the story is provided by the “diary” of his colleague Navy Secretary Gideon Welles.  Seward and Welles served for exactly the same eight-year period in the cabinet, from March 1861 through March 1869.  They never liked one another:  Welles viewed Seward as arrogant and meddlesome, and resented his close relations with Lincoln; Seward viewed Welles as bureaucratic and boring.  Welles however kept a diary and wrote a memoir, and so we often have the Welles version of events, but not the Seward version.

One of the other difficulties of writing about Seward is that historians often treat the Welles version as gospel.  Much of the diary/memoir was written months or even years after the events in question; there is no way to be sure what Welles wrote as it happened, and what he wrote years later, as he started to write articles about events during the War.

An example is provided by the diary entry for February 25, 1863.  In it, Welles writes that he “well recalls” a conversation among Lincoln, Cameron, Seward, Scott and McClellan from the fall of 1861.   According to Welles, when Lincoln asked how many federal troops were in and around Washington, and Cameron said that he did not know, Seward pulled “a small paper” from his pocket and began reading out regiment names and numbers.  McClellan confirmed that Seward’s numbers were roughly right.  Scott was enraged:  he had been “unable to get any reports, any statement of the actual forces, but here is the Secretary of State, a civilian . . . possessed of facts which are withheld from me.”  Seward claimed he simply kept track as regiments arrived.  Cameron interjected that “we all knew that Seward was meddlesome, interfering in all departments with what was none of his business.”  Welles claimed that, at this time, Seward was in daily communication with McClellan; he suspected that McClellan was providing Seward but not Scott with the troop numbers.  Welles Diary 1:241-42.

Several historians have accepted and used this conversation in their histories, including Michael Burlingame (Abraham Lincoln 2:194) and Geoffrey Perret (Lincoln’s War 77).  But let us look a little more closely.

In his letters to his wife at this time, McClellan was scathing about Seward, saying that he was the worst of the “wretched politicians” in the cabinet.  Is it really likely, as Welles believed, that McClellan was providing Seward with confidential daily reports?  No.  Moreover, Seward and Scott were friends and allies from years back; they had collaborated closely during the secession winter in efforts to press Lincoln to abandon Fort Sumter.  Is it really likely that Seward would have embarassed Scott, in front of the president, by reading out troop figures?  No.  Cameron and Seward, although not as close as Scott and Seward, were also allies; other than this Welles story, I have not found another instance of Cameron complaining about Seward being meddlesome.  That was Welles’s constant complaint; he is putting his own views in Cameron’s mouth here, not recalling what Cameron himself said at the time.

So this Welles story, on closer inspection, falls apart, at least as to Seward.  Many other Welles stories have similar problems; I will probably come back to this theme in future blog entries.