Six Characters in Search of a Blogger


11.3 Dig that Hair: Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles

 

Gideon Welles, hair icon

Gideon Welles, hair icon

Facial hair was evidently the thing in Civil War America.  Part of Abraham Lincoln’s iconic image was the close-cropped beard that framed his face.  Robert E. Lee sported a full beard and mustache.  Generals Ulysses S. Grant and George McClellan had beards.  And who could forget General Ambrose Burnside’s imposing sideburns?  The were enough to scare the Confederacy into submission.  (They were so fierce, in fact, that the term “sideburns” actually derives from Burnside’s name.)

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles’ locks were no exception.  A big, bushy white beard with a curly, girly mop: he certainly set a standard for interesting hair trends in the 19th Century.

It’s not exactly the coif you would conjure for a Secretary of the Navy, is it?  It’s a bit extreme, even for the 1800s.  Given this, it’s not surprising that Welles came to this military jurisdiction largely via a career in law, journalism and politics in Connecticut.  After founding the Hartford Times in 1826, he served in the Connecticut state legislature from 1827-1835.  A Jacksonian Democrat for most of his life, Welles shifted to the Republican party as a means of protest because of his anti-slavery views.  When he was picked by Lincoln for the Cabinet post in 1861, he had just started another newspaper in Connecticut, the Republican-leaning Hartford Evening Press, and had served as a staunch political supporter of Lincoln’s.

However misguided his hair choices may have been, the misguidedness did not spill over into his role as head of the Navy.  He found the state of the Navy department in shambles when he first assumed office, especially after the departure of Southern naval leaders to join the Confederate cause.  In 1861, the Navy had 76 ships and 7600 sailors.  By 1865, it had nearly ten times that number.  Grudgingly (because he disagreed with the decision) he used this manpower to blockade Southern ports as part of the Anaconda Plan, which ultimately helped win the war–the South was financially strangled by their inability to sell cotton or to import goods and weapons.  For this success, Lincoln dubbed Welles his “Neptune.”

Despite quite vocal disagreements with other members of the Cabinet during throughout his tenure there, Welles remained in the Naval Secretary position through Andrew Johnson’s administration, and left office in 1869.  Largely due to his disagreement with Johnson about Reconstruction policies, he reverted to his membership in the Democratic Party.  Upon leaving Washington, he returned home to Connecticut to edit his newspapers and write.  His biography, Lincoln and Seward, was published in 1877.  He died of strep throat a year later.

But however changeable his life may have been, one thing in Gideon Welles’ life remained constant: his hair.  No doubt he would have won any hair-related throwdowns among the Team of Rivals (although he did have some competition in Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, as we will see tomorrow.)  Lincoln wouldn’t have a chance.

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2 Comments so far
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This is a lot of focus on hair, but what about a focus on lack of hair. General Ambrose Burnside was also bald.

Comment by ryannickum

I’m told Gideon Welles wore a wig

Comment by Welles fan




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