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Gideon Welles (1802–1878)

The insightful diary Gideon Wells kept during his tenure as secretary of the navy, 1861–1869 (longer than any of his predecessors), is an extraordinary record of the people and events of official Washington during the Lincoln and Johnson administrations. Welles had been a bureau chief in the Navy Department between 1846 and 1849. This brief encounter was the extent of his practical experience as he assumed his new duties as navy secretary. The job was daunting from the start because there was almost no effective navy to speak of, and what vessels were in existence were mostly old and scattered around the globe. Moreover, many senior officers resigned during the secession crisis. In spite of difficulties, Welles succeeded in building a navy that played a vital role in winning the war. The Union blockade of the Confederate coast was typical of the challenges he faced with a makeshift fleet. Yet in time, this grand strategy eventually proved effective. Welles’s endorsement of the ironclad vessels was also ambitious for its day and had many influential detractors, but it pointed in the direction of the modern navy.

This photograph of Welles by Mathew Brady’s studio was taken in 1865, probably in the spring or early summer. At the time, Brady was taking photographs of the notables who had been present at Lincoln’s bedside just before he died. Welles had been one of the many. The photographs were then used to compose a picture entitled The Last Hours of Lincoln, painted by Alonzo Chappel and published as a memorial print by John Bachelder. This head-on view, although not the one included in the composite picture, was taken at the same time and is perhaps the best view extant of Welles’s ill-fitting wig, which received ample notice in his day.

Mathew Brady Studio (active 1844–1883)
Albumen silver print, 1865
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Gift of Robert L. Drapkin


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