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BOOK REVIEWS Gideon Welles: Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy. By John Niven. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Pp. 676. $17.50.) Gideon Welles served as Navy Secretary during a momentous period in American history. Appointed to office on the eve of a bloody civil war, he performed his duties efficiently and effectively during the holocaust that followed, and earned the enduring gratitude of historians by keeping a detailed diary of those eventful times. The value of Welles' diary prompted its publication in several editions over the years, but no adequate biography of his life appeared. To satisfy that need, John Niven of Claremont Graduate School has drawn heavily on Welles' diaries, correspondence and writings, and on the collections of his contemporaries , to produce a well written, insightful study that not only casts Welles in a more realistic role as a wartime decision-maker but also carefully delineates his extended career in state and national politics . The result is a major contribution to the political history of the mid-nineteenth century. Despite its title, Niven's book does not focus exclusively on Welles' Civil War years—nor is it a full-scale biography. The first half of the volume presents Welles' pre-1860 career as a newspaper editor and politician in Connecticut. The son of a wealthy Glastonbury businessman, Gideon grew up shy, conscious of a nervous stammer, but ambitious. He became interested in writing, drifted into journalism, and found his first success in writing biting editorials for the Hartford Times, edited by John M. Miles, "a slovenly little man with flaming red hair," who became Gideon's mentor. Niven skillfully charts Welles' leadership in the state Jacksonian, Loco Foco, Free Soiler, Anti-Nebraska Democrat and Republican parties, and describes how he and the "Hartford Regency" sought to profit from national issues to gain victories at the polls and a share of the spoils. Although Welles' influence seems overdrawn in some places, the author reveals a great deal about Connecticut politics—and the relative role that state played in New England and on the national scene. The remaining chapters deal mainly with Welles' eight years (186169 ) as head of the Navy Department. Under Lincoln, the bewhiskered, stern-visaged secretary supervised the naval blockade of the Southern coast, cooperated in launching expeditions to open enemy ports, and promoted naval construction. In discussing Welles' administration, Niven focuses primarily on cabinet politics, rather than on departmen261 262civil war history tal operations and inter-departmental rivalries. Welles' delegation of authority regarding personnel matters, naval operations, and purchasing brought criticism from cabinet members, congressmen, and naval officers. Some questioned his capacity to handle his responsibilities (in an appendix Niven argues that Welles was indeed the senior decisionmaker in his department), while others pointed to the civilians (especially Welles' brother-in-law) who were prospering from naval contracts . Never a member of Lincoln's inner circle, Welles stands out as a hardnosed, suspicious administrator constantly on the defensive— and who in a tiny, cramped hand recorded in his diary a measure of praise for himself, and at the same time depreciated the merits and actions of others. After Lincoln's assassination, Welles remained in the cabinet, offering advice and encouragement to Andrew Johnson; he clashed repeatedly with Stanton and developed a deep-seated contempt for Grant. Upon retirement, he settled in Hartford, wrote about his wartime experiences, and published a book entitled Lincoln and Seward (1874), which was the first major promotion of the Lincoln legend. Niven's focus on Welles' political career presents problems. In the first place, this emphasis makes the reader feel that the volume is more of a "life and times" study than a biography. In a sense, Welles seems to live and move behind plate glass, his personality not being fully felt. More use of quoted matter from his diaries and letters would have remedied this. Also, the discussion occasionally becomes greatly detailed and the subject seems submerged—or Welles shares the stage with other figures (e.g. John Miles) for extended periods. One wonders, too, what Miles, Lincoln, Stanton, Seward and other said about him. In addition, the book has certain mechanical weaknesses. The text should have had a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 261-262
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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