Book Review: The Civil War Diary of Gideon Welles, Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy: The Original Manuscript Edition

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by Gideon Welles, edited by William E. Gienapp & Erica L. Gienapp

Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014. Pp. xlvi, 783. Appends., notes, biblio., index. $55.00. ISBN: 0252038525

An Intimate Look at the Civil War from Inside Lincoln's Cabinet

Gideon Welles served as Secretary of the Navy for the entire Civil War, and was a witness to many of the most notable events of the day. His diary is full of unique anecdotes, incidents, and analysis which throw a great deal of light on the reasoning behind many of the decisions at the highest levels, and a gritty “see it now” look at many of the events.

This is not the first time the diary has been published, as an edition came out in 1911. This edition was begun by the late Prof. Gienapp, a very distinguished scholar of the Civil War era, and completed by his daughter, also an historian of note. The editors have restored the text as written at the time, rather than as revised, corrected, and edited by Welles himself postwar. As they revised the text, the editors added own annotations and commentary, which include the later revisions made by Welles and “corrections” or “explanations” added by earlier editors. As a result, this edition of the diary gives us a much clearer and more immediate picture of what Welles thought about events at the moment he was writing, and also his later reflections on his thoughts.

The diary gives the reader a vivid look at how confusing and frightening the opening weeks of the Lincoln administration seemed to those experiencing them. We also often get very critical assessments of particular politicians, officers, and others, and see how Welles’s opinions about some people evolved over the years. In this diary Welles gives us an insider’s perspective on discussions of political, strategic, and technical questions, operational planning, and much more.

Although probably not something one would read for enjoyment, as a reference this diary is certainly a work of immense value to anyone writing on the Civil War.

Note: The Civil War Diary of Gideon Welles, a volume in the Knox College Lincoln Studies Center Series, is also available as an e-book, ISBN 978-0-252-09643-3

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   


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