March 9, 2008

The Diary of Gideon Welles

“The insightful diary Gideon Welles 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,” writes CivilWar@Smithsonian. More than just extraordinary, it is a necessary source for any study of the era. Continuing, this online bio of Welles notes that he “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.”

Welles passed away in 1878 at the age of seventy-five. Thirty-three years later in 1911, his Diary of Gideon Welles was published as a three-volume set by Houghton Mifflin to critical acclaim. According to Eicher’s The Civil War in Books, Welles’ diary “offers a cornerstone source of many famous scenes and evaluations, including the failures of McClellan, the caustic nature of Stanton, the first tidings of emancipation, and the assassination of Lincoln.” Soon after its publication however, scholars noted that it was not an exact replica of his wartime diary. Historians quickly came to realize that certain passages were most likely written by Welles after the dates they were assigned to in the diary. With few exceptions, most changes were deemed minor though it did come to light that both Welles’ son and the editors at Houghton Mifflin had altered material that resulted in a historical record that may have wandered from Welles’ original meaning. Because of this, historian Howard Beale painstakingly went through all eighteen of Welles’ original journals now kept at the Library of Congress in order to determine the extent of the changes. He discovered that literally thousands of changes had been made by Welles, presumably between 1869 and 1878. His research was published in 1925 in the American Historical Review within the article “Is the Printed Diary of Gideon Welles Reliable?” Beale then set out to “restore” the diaries to their original state. The three-volume “corrected edition” (pictured bottom right and for sale here) was ultimately published in 1960 by W. W. Norton and Co. Such corrections prompted Allan Nevins to write in Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography that the modern Beale-corrected set was the best version and that the earlier first edition “should be used with caution.” Thus, a quandary for the book collector-historian. Purist book collectors will want the first edition while scholars will gravitate toward the 1960 Beale-edited editions. That later edition seems to be less common than the original first edition though both versions sell for around $300 for the set.


Harry said...


IIRC, William Gienapp was working on a new edition of the diaries when he passed away in 2003. I have heard his "successors" took over the task. Do you know if work is progressing on this?

Paul Taylor said...


This is news to me. I was not aware that a new edition was in the works, but thanks for letting me know! I'll see what I can find.

aspergerspoet said...

Is there any Website which displays pictures of the original manuscript? I have been curious re the physical composition of the diaries, and have been curious to see pictures of the handwritten pages.