The insightful diary Gideon Wells kept during his
tenure as secretary of the navy, 18611869
(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. Welless
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 Bradys
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 Lincolns 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 Welless
ill-fitting wig, which received ample notice in