Gideon Welles and the Naval Battle

Gideon Welles was Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War.

March 9, 1862

It was a Sunday. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles rushed over to Lincoln’s office, where he found the President and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in a frenzy over the terrible news of the previous day.

The USS frigate Merrimack was a beautiful ship.

The old US wooden frigate Merrimack (with a “k” then) had been sunk in Portsmouth, VA months earlier to prevent it from falling into Southern hands. The minuscule Confederate navy needed ships, believed the Merrimack’s hull to be worthy, raised it and refitted it with iron plate and 14 guns, and renamed it the Virginia. It was peculiar-looking, but deemed mighty. On March 8, it steamed into Hampton Roads (a vital Union-held naval area in the Chesapeake), and within hours rammed, sunk and burned the Congress, had driven the Cumberland aground, and was poised to destroy the Minnesota. By then it was dusk, and the Virginia withdrew to finish off the Minnesota the following day.

The CSS Virginia was not as good looking.

What was to prevent it from steaming up the Potomac and shelling Washington?


The Hon. Mr. Stanton

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (1814-1869) joined Lincoln’s cabinet on January 20, 1862, amidst a growing dissatisfaction with the “McClellan Slows,” and a plethora of media ranting “on to Richmond.”

Secretary of war Edwin M. Stanton

He was an irascible fellow with no experience in the military. Nevertheless he had served in a similar capacity for the last few months of President Buchanan’s cabinet, and was recruited by Lincoln to assume responsibilities when Secretary of War Simon Cameron proved inadequate. Stanton was a fine lawyer of unflinching integrity, which included a virtual crusade against treason and corruption. But he was given to panic, testy nervousness and pessimism. He was also a lifelong Democrat with little regard for Abraham Lincoln.

While the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy were co-equals in the cabinet, the two branches of the service seldom worked together in a unified structure. That would change during the Civil War. But not in the early months of 1862. The Hon. Mr. Stanton had little regard for the Hon. Mr. Welles. And it was no secret.

In time, he would change him mind about Republicans, Lincoln, and Mr. Welles.

The Hon. Mr. Welles

Gideon Welles (1802-1878) was never a naval or military man. He had read law early on, but was primarily a journalist in Connecticut, and held some middling state offices. He was recruited for Lincoln’s cabinet because a) New England had to be represented, and b) Welles, a strong abolitionist, had done fine service for the Republicans in the months preceding the election/inauguration.

Gideon Welles also performed vital service to historians by taking the measure of the men of consequence, and reporting it in an insightful and chatty diary of the Lincoln Administration. Lincoln, and indeed the other members of the president’s oft-rancorous cabinet, grew to respect and like him.

Mr. Welles: Keeping the Faith

President Lincoln

The news was indeed horrible in Mr. Lincoln’s office that Sunday, where Welles and Stanton were quickly joined by Secretaries Seward and Chase, General McClellan, and various other officers.

Stanton was near hysterics, pacing back and forth, predicting doom, and visualizing the Virginia sailing up the Potomac to assault Washington. In Stanton’s eyes, everything was a complete fiasco, including McClellan’s nascent plans for his Peninsula Campaign. There would be no ships available, and all would be lost. Mr. Lincoln was none too happy, either, looking out the window periodically expecting to sight the Virginia taking aim at the White House.

It was a miserable day for Secretary Welles, who nevertheless remained calm, even though he took the brunt of all the mishaps and confusion. He continually advised his companions of a ray of hope. The previous day, a strange-looking vessel, which some

The Monitor, as odd-looking as the Virginia.

said looked like a cheesebox on a raft, had steamed out of New York harbor and arrived in Hampton Roads in the wee hours. It was the Monitor, come to save the day.

The vessel was a collaborative effort, but it was mostly eccentric Swedish inventor John Ericsson’s design: smaller, much lighter, faster, more maneuverable – and, very importantly, drawing a much shallower draft than the Virginia. Stanton, as usual, was frantic and pessimistic. It was untried. Untested. Barely finished. Meanwhile the Virginia had 14 guns, and the Monitor – what??? only 2???

Secretary Welles dryly countered that those two guns rotated on a revolving turret, making them very difficult to hit. He also insisted that the Virginia, with its deep draft, was slow, clumsy and could never navigate the Potomac.

He was alone in his opinions. Practically everyone in Lincoln’s office disregarded him. He had no backers. Gideon Welles had indeed taken a huge risk giving the eccentric Ericsson the commission, and he knew it.

Meanwhile Stanton frenetically “…ran from room to room, sat down and jumped up after writing a few words, swung his arms, scolded and raved.”

One of many images of the famous naval battle.

But by evening that Sunday, the telegraph clicked a message. The two funny-looking vessels spent hours assaulting each other, but neither did severe damage. It was basically a draw, and they both withdrew. But by the end of the day, every Navy in the world had become obsolete.

Shortly afterwards, the Confederate Navy deliberately destroyed the Virginia, lest it fall into Union hands. The Monitor went on to do service for a few more months before it was lost in a gale off Cape Hatteras.

The Monitor is lovingly being cared for.

Secretary Welles was practically handing out cigars. He had kept the faith. He believed in the ornery Mr. Ericsson. Even the short-tempered Secretary Stanton looked at Mr. Welles with new respect, and it wasn’t grudging, either.

PS – The Monitor was raised in 2002,  and now lives happily ever after in a desalinization tank at the Mariners Museum in Newport News. There is a marvelous exhibit about it. Go.


Catton, Bruce – The Civil War – The Fairfax Press, 1971

Leech, Margaret – Reveille in Washington: 1860-65 – Harper and Brothers, 1941



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