April 2, 1863

President Lincoln goes to the house of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles “to read letter prepared by Welles concerning privateers.”   Welles writes in his diary: “The President called at my house this evening, chiefly to see the letter which I had prepared concerning letters of marque.  Senator Sumner had gone directly from the Navy Department him, and so made known his gratification at my views and the manner in which I had stated them that the curiosity of the President was excited and he desired to read the letter.  I informed him that the last thing I did before leaving the Department was to sign and send it to the Secretary of State; that I perhaps should not have done it, though, as he (the President) was aware, I had differed with him and others on this subject and looked upon it as a dangerous step, but since reading the last English dispatches, I was less opposed to the measure than I had been.

The opportunity being favorable and he disposed to converse and apparently interested in my remarks, I took occasion to enlarge upon the topic more fully than I had in our Cabinet discussions.  I started out with the proposition that to issue letters of marque would in all probability involve us in a war with England.  [I said] that I had viewed this question from the beginning, though he and Mr. had not; that I was not prepared to deny that it might not be best for us to move promptly with that object in view, though it had not yet been urged or stated; but that if we were to resort to letters of marque we should do it understandingly and with all the consequences before us.  The idea that private parties would send out armed ships to capture the Alabama and one, possibly two, other rovers of the Rebel was too absurd to be thought of for a moment.  If privateers were fitted out for any purpose it would be to capture neutral vessels intended to run the blockade or supposed to be in that service.  It was not difficult for us to foresee that such a power in private hands would degenerate into an abuse for which this Government would be held responsible.  The Rebels have no commerce to invite private enterprise.  So far as the Rebels were concerned, therefore, I had been opposed to committing the Government to the measure.  But the disclosures recently made had given a different aspect to the question.  There was little doubt the British Government and British capital were encouraging the rebellion; that Government intended to interpose no obstacle to prevent the sending out of privateers from British ports to depredate upon our commerce; that these privateers, though sailing under the Confederate flag, would be the property of British merchants; that the rich plunder would repay the lawless English adventurer, knowing he had the sanction of his Government; that this combination of British capital with Rebel malignity and desperation would despoil our commerce and drive it from the seas.  Our countrymen would not quietly submit to these wrongs and outrages, and allow Englishmen to make war upon us in disguise under the Rebel flag.  We ought, therefore, to have an immediate and distinct understanding with the English Government.  I should be informed in terms that could not be mistaken or misunderstood that if this policy was persisted in we should in self-defense be under the necessity of resorting to reprisals. In this view the law which authorized letters of marque had appeared to me proper, and might be made useful as a menace and admonition to England; and I repeated what I had said to the Secretary of State in reply to a remark of his that letters of marque, instead of annoying them, destitute as they were of commerce, would aid them, for that step would involve war with England.  If the Secretary of State would be less yielding and more decisive in asserting our rights with that power, it would, I thought, be better for the country.

I then opened on the subject generally.  England is taking advantage of our misfortunes and would press upon us just as far as we would bear to be pressed.  She rejoiced in our dissensions and desired the dismemberment of the Union.  With this rebellion on our hands we were in no condition for a war with her, and it was because we were in this condition that he was arrogant and presuming.  A higher and more decisive tone towards her will secure a different policy on her part.  A war with England would be a serious calamity to us, but scarcely less serious to her.  She cannot afford a maritime conflict with us, even in our troubles, nor will she.  We can live within ourselves if worse comes to worse.  Our territory is compact, facing both oceans, and in latitudes which furnish us in abundance without foreign aid all the necessaries and most of the luxuries of life; but England has a colonial system which was once her strength, but is her weakness in these days and with such a people as our countrymen to contend with.  Her colonies are scattered over the globe.  We could, with our public and private armed ships, interrupt and destroy her communication with her dependencies, her colonies, on which she is as dependent for prosperity as they on her.  I was therefore in favor of meeting her fact to face, asking only what is right but submitting to nothing that is wrong.

If the late dispatches are to be taken as the policy she intends to pursue, it means war, and if war is to come it looks to me as of a magnitude greater than the world has ever experienced,–as if it would eventuate in the upheaval of nations, the overthrow of governments and dynasties.  The sympathies of the mass of mankind would be with us rather than with the decaying dynasties and the old effete governments.  Not unlikely the conflict thus commenced would kindle the torch of civil war throughout Christendom, and even nations beyond.  I desired no such conflict in my day, and therefore hoped and believed the policy and tone of England might be modified, but it would require energy, resolution, and a firm determination on our part to effect it.

The President listened, for I did most of talking, as he evidently wished, and showed much interest and accord in what I said.  He assented consequently to most that I uttered and controverted nothing.  It was evident I suggested some ideas that had not before occurred to him, and I am not without hope that the tone of our foreign affairs, particularly with England, may be different.

The President spoke, as he always has done with me, doubtingly of Porter’s schemes on the Mississippi, or rather the side movements to the Yazoo on the east and Red River on the west.  Said the long delay of Du Pont, his constant call for more ships, more ironclads, was like McClellan calling for more regiments.  Thought the two men were alike, and said he was prepared for a repulse at Charleston.

Welles biographer John Niven wrote: ““To satisfy the President yet still make the attempt at Charleston, Welles had written out another set of orders to Du Pont on April 2.  After the attack, Du Pont was to keep only two ironclads and send all those fit for sea to New Orleans.  John Hay, the President’s sprightly junior secretary, acted as the courier.  His appearance at Port Royal would lend presidential weight to the orders he carried.  Hay arrived on Thursday, April 9, two days after the defeat.  While Du Pont was reading the dispatches, Hay chatted with C.R. P. Rodgers, Fleet Captain of the squadron.  Rodgers said that if the monitors had spent another twenty minutes under the fire of the Charleston forts all of them would have been sunk. What was only a failure would then have been a disaster.  Du Pont interjected: ‘After a fight of forty minutes we had lost the use of seven guns.  I might have pushed some of the vessels past Fort Sumter, but in that case we ran the enormous risk of giving them to the enemy and thus losing control of the coast.  I could not answer for that to my conscience.’”

President and Mrs. Lincoln receive at public White House reception. Jane Grey Swisshelm, abolitionist journalist, meets Lincoln for first time.  She recalls: “My friends wished me to attend a Presidential reception; but it was useless to see Mr. Lincoln on the business which brought me to Washington and I did not care to see him on any other. He had proved an obstructionist instead of an abolitionist, and I felt no respect for him; while his wife was every where spoken of as a Southern woman with Southern sympathies – a conspirator against the Union.”  She wrote:  “I wanted nothing to do with the occupants of the White House, but was told I could go and see the spectacle without being presented. So I went in my broadcloth traveling dress, and lest there should be trouble about my early leave-taking, would not trust my cloak to the servants, but walked through the hall with it over my arm. I watched President and Mrs. Lincoln receive. His sad, earnest, honest face was irresistible in its pleas for confidence, and Mrs. Lincoln’s manner was so simple and motherly, so unlike that of all Southern women I had seen, that I doubted the tales I had heard. Her head was not that of a conspirator. She would be incapable of a successful deceit, and whatever her purposes were, they must be known to all who knew her.”

She added: “Mr. Lincoln stood going through one of those, dreadful ordeals of hand-shaking, working like a man pumping for life on a sinking vessel, and I was filled with indignation for the selfish people who made this useless drain on his nervous force. I wanted to stand between him and them, and say, ‘stand back, and let him live and do his work.’ But I could not resist going to him with the rest of the crowd, and when he took my hand, I said:

“May the Lord have mercy on you, poor man, for the people have none.

He laughed heartily, and the men around him, joined in his merriment. When I came to Mrs. Lincoln, she did not catch the name at first, and asked to hear it again, then repeated it, and a sudden glow of pleasure lit her face, as she held out her hand and said how very glad she was to see me. I objected to giving her my hand because my black glove would soil her white one; but she said:

“Then I shall preserve the glove to remember a great pleasure, for I have long wished to see you.’”

My escort was more surprised than I by her unusual cordiality, and said afterwards:

“It was no polite affectation. I cannot understand it from her.”5

Swisshelm later recalled: “I understood at once that I had met one with whom I was in sympathy. No politeness could have summoned that sudden flash of pleasure. Her manner was too simple and natural to have any art in it; and why should she have pretended a friendship she did not feel?” According to abolitionist Swisshelm: “I recognized Mrs. Lincoln as a loyal, liberty-loving woman, more staunch even than her husband in opposition to the Rebellion and its cause, and as my very dear friend for life.”

Published in: on April 2, 2013 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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