Gideon Welles was a native of Glastonbury, Conn., a descendent of 17th century colonists who settled in the state. He attended the Episcopal Academy of Connecticut (now known as Cheshire Academy) before enrolling in Alden Partridge’s American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy in 1823. The academy was only in its fourth year of operation in Norwich, Vt. The academy moved to Middletown, Conn., near Welles’ ancestral home, after his first two years, and he continued studying for another year at the newly reopened school.
Welles attended Partridge’s academy at a time when the school was not yet a chartered, degree-granting institution. After Partridge moved back to Norwich and received a charter from the State of Vermont, Welles was among the first former students to receive honorary degrees. He was granted an honorary A.M. (a Master of Arts) in 1836, the same year that Alonzo Jackman became our first full-fledged graduate.
Following his time at Partridge’s academy, Welles remained in Connecticut and became active in state politics, serving at various times as a state legislator, comptroller, postmaster of Hartford (then a coveted political appointment), and chief of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing in the Navy. He was also a newspaperman, serving as an editor and part owner of the Hartford Times for many years, and would later go on to establish the anti-slavery Hartford Evening Times.
Originally a Democrat, Welles joined the anti-slavery Republican Party when it was organized by fellow Norwich alumnus Alvan Bovay in 1855. He ran unsuccessfully for governor of Connecticut as a member of the new party in 1856. In 1860, he chaired the Connecticut delegation to the convention that selected Abraham Lincoln as its presidential nominee. When Lincoln was elected, he appointed Welles as his Secretary of the Navy. Welles held that post for nearly a decade, serving throughout Lincoln’s term and that of his successor, Andrew Johnson.
During the Civil War, Welles dramatically expanded the Union Navy and played a pivotal role in Lincoln’s cabinet. Lincoln supposedly referred to him as his “Neptune” after the Roman god of the sea. Welles helped create the nation’s first and most distinguished military decoration, the Medal of Honor, which originated in the Navy in 1861. It has since been awarded to eight Norwich alumni, five of whom served in the Civil War.
The Welles and Lincoln families also became close during this time. Gideon Welles’ wife Mary Jane was a dear friend of Mary Todd Lincoln’s, and Gideon Welles was present when President Lincoln died at the hands of assassin John Wilkes Booth in 1865.
After his retirement from politics, Welles resided in Connecticut and wrote several books before dying of a streptococcal infection (strep throat) in 1878.