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Gideon Welles (1865–1869) - Secretary of the Navy

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Gideon Welles was born in 1802 in Glastonbury, Connecticut. He attended the American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy in Norwich, Vermont (now Norwich University), studied law, and became a journalist. He ultimately became part-owner and editor of a Hartford newspaper that supported Democratic politics.

Welles served in the Connecticut state legislature (1827-1835) prior to becoming postmaster for Hartford in 1836. He remained in that position for five years before being tapped by President James K. Polk to head the Navy’s Bureau of Provisions and Clothing; Wells would hold that position throughout the Mexican-American War.

By the 1850s, Welles had come to oppose slavery, the Fugitive Slave Law, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Thus, in 1856, he switched allegiances and became a founder and member of the new Republican Party, the same year he launched an unsuccessful bid to become governor of Connecticut.

Welles supported the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and was soon tapped by the new President to become secretary of the Navy. During the Civil War, Welles took immediate action to make the Navy a viable fighting force; he commissioned every naval vessel, secured and armed every possible vessel from the merchant service, ordered the blockade of the southern coast, allowed blacks to be enlisted as sailors, and called for the construction of the first ironclad ship, the Monitor.

Following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Welles continued in his role as secretary of the Navy under President Andrew Johnson. During that time, he supervised the postwar downsizing of the Navy. Gideon Welles left the cabinet in 1869, retired to Connecticut, and died in 1878.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Elizabeth R. Varon

Professor Varon is the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia. Her writings include:

Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (University of North Carolina Press, 2008)

Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy (Oxford University Press, 2003)

We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 1998)