Gideon Welles (1802 – 1878)

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles

Gideon Welles was born July 1, 1802 in Glastonbury, Connecticut. He was a seventh generation direct descendant of Thomas Welles. Immigrating to the United States in 1635, Thomas Welles is the only person in Connecticut’s history to hold all four top offices: governor, deputy governor, treasurer and secretary.

Gideon Welles earned his degree from Norwich University, became a lawyer by “reading the law,” and became founder and editor of the Hartford Times in 1826. Welles commenced his political career as a Democrat and served in the Connecticut State Legislature from 1827 until 1835. In 1854, Welles joined the newly-established Republican party and founded the Hartford Evening Post in 1856. Welles had strong anti-slavery views and was an avid supporter of Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln became President, he named Gideon Welles Secretary of the Navy.

Welles succeeded Isaac Toucey as Secretary of the Navy. Ironically, Toucey was Welles’ chief political rival. When Welles took over the office, the navy was in complete disarray. Welles is credited with establishing order and implementing some of the founding principals upon which the navy still functions today.

Also during his tenure, Welles and his wife, Mary, became quite close to the Lincoln family. In fact, Welles was in the room with President Lincoln as he lay dying from his gunshot wound. Of this experience, Welles wrote the following in his diary on April 15, 1865:

 “…About 6 a.m. I experienced a feeling of faintness and, for the first time after entering the room, a little past eleven, I left it and the house, and took a short walk in the open air. It was a dark and gloomy morning, and rain set in before I returned to the house, some fifteen minutes later. Large groups of people were gathered every few yards, all anxious and solicitous. Some one or more from each group stepped forward as I passed to inquire into the condition of the President and to ask if there was no hope. Intense grief was on every countenance when I replied that the President could survive but a short time. The colored people especially – and there were at this time more of them, perhaps, than of whites – were overwhelmed with grief.

A little before seven. I went into the room where the dying president was rapidly drawing near the closing moments. His wife soon after made last visit to him. The death struggle had begun. Robert, his son, stood with several others at the head of his bed. He bore himself well, but on two occasions gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, turning his head and leaning on the shoulder of Senator Sumner. The respiration of the President became suspended at intervals and at last entirely ceased at twenty-two minutes past seven.”

Welles had also been known for purchasing the freedom of slaves and employing them and others who had previously been slaves in his home. Henry Green was one such former slave to whom he offered employment. Green became very close to the Welles family. In fact, when Welles left office in 1869, he asked Green to return to Glastonbury with the family, which he did. Gideon Welles died in 1878, and Henry continued to work for the family until he died in 1911.  On June 17, 1911, the Hartford Times covered the burial of Henry Green at Hartford’s elitist Cedar Hill Cemetery on its front page. Many were upset to find that a former slave had been interred at Cedar Hill Cemetery. Henry Green is still buried at Cedar Hill today, and Cedar Hill is honored at having the task of keeping his memory alive. 

Mitchell, Edwin Valentine. The Horse & Buggy Age in New England.  First Edition. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1937.
Mr. Lincoln’s White House. Accessed at on July 26, 2010.
Navel History and Heritage Command.  Accessed at on July 26, 2010.
Welles, Gideon.  Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of The Navy under Lincoln and Johnson. 3 Volumes Complete.  New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1911.
Wikipedia. Gideon Welles.  Accessed at on February 3, 2011.

Photo credits: Gideon Welles, U. S. National Archives, #NWDNS-111-B-1189