Gideon Welles to Abraham Lincoln, August 5, 1861

    Source citation
    Gideon Welles to Abraham Lincoln, August 5, 1861, Washington, DC, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress,
    Date Certainty
    Transcribed by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College, Galesburg, IL
    Adapted by Don Sailer, Dickinson College
    Transcription date
    The following transcript has been adapted from the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

    Navy Department
    August 5 1861

    I am embarrassed as to the instructions I am to give our naval officers in relation to the interdiction of Commerce with the ports in the insurgent states. If the interdiction is to be by Blockade, then the rules and principles of inter-national law must govern -- the Confederate States must be considered and treated as a distinct nationality -- their collectors, revenue officers, clearance, registers &c are to be recognized as legitimate. But, if the interdiction is to be by the closing of the ports, which is a legal, municipal enactment of our own government, asserting, and carrying into effect its own authority within our own jurisdiction, then the collectors of the Confederate States, are to be regarded as nullitys, their registries and clearances of no account, and those who disregard our authority and laws, do so at their peril.

    In either case, whether by Blockade, or by closing the ports, an armed force must be maintained along our whole coast, and before the principal ports; but, the instructions to our Naval officers must be made to conform to our position, and the facts -- our opponents are to be recognized and treated in the one case, as a distinct community, having distinct rights, authority, and officers as an independent nation, or they are to be considered as a part of our own country and countrymen, who are usurping authority, and violating the laws and constitution. It is obvious that we take this view of the insurgents in the whole character of our policy, both legislative and executive in regard to them, Why then should we make an exception in the matter of blockade? If the insurgents have a right to demand that we shall close the ports only by blockade, which must of necessity be in pursuance of inter-national law, then undoubtedly they, as against us, have the rights of a belligerent government.

    If neutral powers have a right to demand that we close the ports south of the Chesapeake, only by such a blockade, then manifestly they have an equal right to claim entrance into those ports under the authority of the Confederate States. To admit this, is to admit disunion, and revoke our whole policy.

    There is difference among legal gentlemen, as to the validity of a Blockade of our own ports, which if ultimately decided against the United States, will involve the government in immense amounts for the seizure and detention of vessels, breaking up voyages &c; whereas under the law closing the ports, this whole difficulty is avoided.

    Every capture that is made under Blockade will be resisted in the courts, and made a claim on the government -- it will constitute an additional bond of sympathy, between the Insurgents, and other nations, creating a common union between them, and common enmity towards us; for the very principles of Blockade, are war against against the commerce of the world which attempts to traffic with the region blockaded. But if the Ports are closed by a local municipal act, those who violate it, know and submit to the penalty, like any class of smugglers.

    Should we close our ports as the law anticipates, the Navy which we have, and for which we are providing will be sufficient to guard our coast, and enforce the laws, but should we omit to close our ports and attempt to interdict commerce by Blockade, I apprehend our entire force is insufficient for the purpose.

    Our right as a nation to close our own ports will not, I take it for granted, be questioned, or be permitted to be questioned. They are within our own jurisdiction and control, and the right cannot be surrendered to foreign dictation without a surrender of our Nationality. I am aware that Lord John Russell has recently asserted a contrary opinion, evidently intended as an admonition to us, in which he undertakes to maintain that the power and authority of a government over its own ports, is less in a period of insurrection, or civil commotion, than in peaceful times -- in other words, Great Britain declares that when a country needs to exercise its authority most, it shall be dispossessed of that authority by foreign interference -- that when the integrity of a country is threatened by Insurgents, foreign governments will interpose and assert dismemberment to be a foregone conclusion -- that national law is inoperative when its enforcement is essential to National existence -- that we must rely on the law of nations, as expounded by British Admirals, instead of our own laws, and our own officers, for governing our own country, and regulating it's domestic affairs. I do not admit the morality nor the legality of the theory of the British Minister, nor do I believe the British government would tolerate such dictation or interference with her domestic affairs by others. Were there no fear of Great Britain, no threat or apprehension from foreign powers shoud we hesitate for one moment on this question of closing our own ports? If not, shall we, in our misfortune submit to the arrogance and dictation of foreign governments in relation to our domestic affairs?

    To effectually blockade our extensive coast so that there shall be no ingress or egress by the insurgents or by foreigners, is next to an impossibility. We may, after proclaiming our ports closed, so guard them as to cut off pretty effectually their commerce, and foreign nations, notwithstanding the assumptions of Lord John Russell will be indisposed to transgress our domestic, municipal law, made in vindication of our nationality. Should they violate that law, it will be at their peril -- they will be the transgressors, and that, under circumstances they cannot justify, and on them will be the responsibility. In closing the ports, our line of policy is clear, distinct, honorable, and legally and morally impregnable. If British subjects disregard our laws, they must abide the consequences -- if the British government attempts to uphold the transgressors, and make their cause her own, she will stand before the world in an attitude she cannot defend. Will not the attempt to Blockade our own ports by our own government, and the application of inter-national law to a local, municipal question, prove a weak, and an untenable position before the judicial tribunals? Should our courts ultimately decide, and I fear they will, that prizes under blockade are not legal, the Treasury will be exhausted under the demand that will be made upon it. This will be but one of the evils. We shall by Blockade invite a common union on the part of the whole world, certainly the whole commercial world, with the insurgents; and of common enmity towards ourselves. Irritating disputes and controversies will follow every capture -- effectiveness of Blockade will be disputed by foreign officers when they find it convenient or necessary -- it's violations and restrictions will be prolific of diplomatic conflicts, ending finally in war. Great Britain wants our cotton, and under a blockade can concentrate her Navy at a given point on the coast, or in the gulf to obtain it. Our Navy must be extended along our whole coast of nearly three thousand miles, with necessarily but few ships at any given point. She will by her Admirals declare the Blockade broken, or ineffective whenever it is the pleasure of these commanders to say so, or in plain words, whenever cotton is wanted, and there is a port where it is accumulated. She will have a force sufficient, and the aid of the insurgents, to enforce the edicts of her Admirals in their expositions of the effectiveness of the Blockade, when it is for her interest. But, if ports are closed these disputes and strifes will be closed with them. Great Britain may make war to get cotton -- may deny our nationality or our right to make uniform and necessary laws, and enforce them in our own territory, but she will hesitate long before she makes this aggression, provided we respect ourselves and maintain our own rights. I hope we shall not by a spirit of compromise & evasion such as has brought the present disasters upon the country, yield up national honor, national integrity and national independence under foreign dictation, but close our ports pursuant to the act of Congress.

    The recent enactment was prompted I have no doubt, by the considerations here presented, and makes clear our pathway. At the commencement of our difficulties there were embarrassments as to our proceedure from the absence of statutory regulations as to the course which should be pursued to meet and quell the great conspiracy that has been matured against the government. On the impulse of the occasion, proceedings in the nature of a blockade were instituted. But the obscurity and doubt which then existed, no longer remains. Congress as soon as convened furnished a remedy in the law authorizing the President to close the ports where duties cannot be collected, nor the revenue officers sustained. The representatives of the people promptly met the exigency, and by legal enactment have clearly, distinctly and emphatically marked out a plain and direct course of proceedure. It is one strictly national and rightful, attended with no doubts or difficulties except from foreign interference, which should not be permitted to control our internal domestic affairs for a moment. Until the assembling of Congress we did the best that circumstances, and the then existing laws would allow -- and in interdicting commerce with the Insurgents, we, as a matter of comity, but not of right, gave foreigners fifteen days to leave the ports, and warned off such as approached the harbors in revolt, by armed sentinals, performing coast guard, or as we have unfortunately termed it, blockade duty. We have no revenue officers at the insurgent ports, but there is a class of persons there acting under the pretended authority of what they call the Confederate States, who assume to perform revenue functions. Shall we recognize them, or shall we not? Are their acts legal, or are they destitute of all legality? The doctrine of blockade pre-supposes, and admits a distinct nationality to the party blockaded, and if so the officers and their acts are legal. Whenever a vessel runs a blockade, her clearance from the authorities blockaded is legal, for the reason that they are a different nationality, or they could not be blockaded, but a vessel with clearance from Usurpers, in a port closed by National authority, is to be seized any where for violating revenue laws, and is subject to fine or confiscation.

    Am I to instruct our naval commanders to seize vessels having what is called Confederate clearances when they meet them, or am I to tell them not to molest such vessels with such clearances, if there is not an effective blockade? Are they to understand that the Confederate States are a distinct community whom we are blockading, and that consequently they are to be treated as a belligerent, having distinct belligerent rights, whose clearances are to be respected? If we blockade those ports, do we not, by that act, admit the nationality of the Confederate States, and a division of the Union? But if we close the ports and guard them, do we not by those acts assert our own nationality and maintain the integrity of the country? It appears to me the distinction is broad and marked, and Congress by the laws recently passed, has indicated the only course we can pursue. The subject is divested of all the embarrassments which attended it in our early proceedings and before Congress convened. We had not then the authority conferred by the late enactment.

    When you invited me on Saturday to place my views more fully on paper, I did not intend to have extended my remarks to this length, but the question is one of great magnitude, and fraught as I verily beleive with important consequences to our country now, and in the future. Perhaps I attach too much importance to it from the fact that it has occupied much of my time and attention; to me it appears that the course pursued on this subject will have an overwhelming influence in the disposal of the controversy that now convulses the country. On the policy which the Administration shall adopt, this Department must be governed, if it is directed the policy shall be by Blockade, the instructions to our commanders must be very different, than if the policy is to be by closing the ports. The former is inter-national, the latter municipal. In closing the ports our national integrity and independence are asserted and maintained, and foreign interference and dictation rejected, while by blockade our position is, to say the least very materially and very differently affected, and the insurgents will be thereby elevated to the dignity of nationality.

    I have the honor to be, Sir
    Very Respectfully
    Your Obedt Servt
    Gideon Welles

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