Diary of Gideon Welles.


August 12, Tuesday. I called early this morning on the Secretary of State touching a communication of his of the 8th inst. which I received yesterday, in which I am directed in the name of the President to give instructions of an extraordinary character to our naval officers, instructions which I do not approve, and which in one or two points conflict with law and usage. Though the direction was in the President’s name, I learned he knew nothing of the proceeding.

Mr. Seward has a passion to be thought a master spirit in the Administration, and to parade before others an exhibition of authority which if permitted is not always exercised wisely or intelligently. Englishmen have complained that their vessels were detained and searched, and that they have experienced great inconvenience by the delay in the transmission of letters by blockade-runners. These matters having been brought before the Secretary of State, he on the instant, without consultation with any one, without investigation, without being aware he was disregarding law and long-settled principles, volunteered to say he would mitigate or remedy the grievance, would put the matter right; and, under the impulse of the moment and with an ostentatious show of authority which he did not possess, yielded all that was asked and more than the Englishmen had anticipated or than the Secretary was authorized to give. I saw that he had acted precipitately and inconsiderately, and was soon aware that the President, in whose name he assumed to act, was uninformed on the subject. But Seward is committed and cannot humiliate himself to retrace his steps. I gave him to understand, however, I would send out no such instructions as he had sent me in the President’s name; that we had, under the belligerent right of search, authority to stop any suspected vessel, and if she had contraband on board to capture her; that no blockade-runner ever cleared for a Rebel port, like Charleston, though that might be its actual destination, but for Halifax, Nassau, or some neutral port; that the idea of surrendering mails and letters captured on blockade-runners to foreign consuls, officers, and legations, instead of delivering them, as the law explicitly directs, to the courts, could not be entertained for a moment. Seward suggested that I could so modify the proposed instructions as to make them conform to the law, which he admitted he had not examined. Said it would relieve him and do much to conciliate the Englishmen, who were troublesome, and willing to get into difficulty with us. It will be useless to see the President, who will be alarmed with the bugaboo of a foreign war, a bugbear which Seward well knows how to use. These absurd instructions do not originate with the President, yet, relating to foreign matters, he will endorse them, I have no doubt, under the appeals which Seward will make.

Nothing of special interest to-day in the Cabinet. Some gentlemen — Roseleas, Coltman, and Bullitt of Louisiana — were with the President when I called. He was reading some printed letters as to the policy which the Union men of Louisiana, for whom they appeared, should pursue. He did not think it wise or expedient for them to shrink from an honest and open avowal of their principles and purpose, assured them that rallying earnestly for the Government and the service would be the surest way to restore tranquillity.

Had a long private letter from Commodore Wilkes, who deplores recent orders in regard to the army under McClellan; thinks it suicidal. I fear there is truth in his apprehensions.

Diary of Gideon Welles

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