a challenge to historical critics
A Paper Read at the William Clements Library,
University of Michigan, February 9, 1940.
Book reviewing is a perennially unsatisfying business. If a reviewer praises a book, he may do so for any one of the following reasons:
(1) because he knows and likes the author;
(2) because he wants the author to be kind to his own (the critic’s) next book;
(3) because he had just had a good dinner;
(4) because he knows nothing about the subject to which the book is devoted and plays safe by saying nothing against it;
(5) because he really thinks it is a good book.
On the other hand, a reviewer may criticize a book adversely for any one of the following reasons:
(1) because he does not like the author;
(2) because he is resentful that another has trespassed into a field which he (the critic) thought was his own private preserve;
(3) because his breakfast did not agree with him;
(4) because he has small knowledge of the subject and seeks to cover up his own deficiencies by being abusive;
(5) because he sincerely believes the book is not a good one.
Not for a moment do we expect all professional reviewers and editors to agree with the above statements. But we suspect that some will agree with most of them, and most with some of them.
When Mr. Eisenschiml’s book Why Was Lincoln Murdered ? appeared in 1937, it provoked a good deal of criticism. After reading all the reviews that were brought to his attention, Mr. Eisenschiml thought he was entitled to his day in court. For the mere sport of it, he wrote an answer to his critics, which presumably made him feel better. He let a few of his friends read his effusion and in this way it came to our attention.
The William L. Clements Library of the University of Michigan is committed to a specialty– American history. Since the subject of this paper is related to American history, we thought it might be fun to have Mr. Eisenschiml read it at the Library. We also thought that it would be most profitable to have as an audience a hand-picked group of men who really had read American history, who were accustomed to writing book reviews, and who were familiar with the book under discussion. From the University’s Department of History came Arthur E.R. Boak, Verner W. Crane, Arthur L. Cross, Dwight L. Dumond, Arthur S. Aiton, Lewis G. Vander Velde, and Arthur R. Kooker. Political Science was represented by Jesse S. Reeves, Joseph R. Hayden, Everett S. Brown, and Arthur W. Bromage. Hobart R. Coffey and W. Wirt Blume came over from the Law School. From a group of Lincoln enthusiasts in Detroit appeared Thomas I. Starr and Frank B. Howard. Dr. Raymond W. Waggoner of the University’s Institute of Neuro-psychiatry, Colonel Basil D. Edwards of the University Department of Military Science, Clarence O. Skinner of General Motors, Roscoe O. Bonisteel, an Ann Arbor lawyer, and Forest H. Sweet, a dealer in antiquarian documents, were among those present. On the evening of February 9, 1940, Mr. Eisenschiml read his paper in the Clements Library before this audience. Then began a discussion which lasted until very late. No one became abusive and no one was allowed to feel that he had the triumphant last word. That, we think, is not a bad way of reviewing a book.
Since it has become obvious that there were many others who would like to have heard what Mr. Eisenschiml had to say, we now present his paper for a wider audience. If any of Mr. Eisenschiml’s critics would like a similar day in court, we would be glad to do for them precisely what we have done for him.
Randolph G. Adams
Ann Arbor, March, 1940.
A Challenge to Historical Critics
by OTTO EISENSCHIML
About three years ago I put before the reading public some hitherto unknown facts about the assassination of President Lincoln. Neither my book nor myself is important. What is important, I believe, is the type of historical criticism such a book encounters and which seems in universal vogue at the present. To illustrate my points I shall use reviews of my own book, although another book and another author, substituted for mine, would undoubtedly answer the purpose as well.
So far as I am aware, the facts I presented in my volume have never been seriously questioned. Their accumulation was a lengthy but not a difficult task; the difficulty lay in their proper interpretation. I did not feel then, nor do I feel now, that the evidence adduced by me permits a definite conclusion; but I hoped other historians would offer scholarly contributions on the subject, both factual and interpretative. The obvious possibility that the plot against the life of President Lincoln may have been known or abetted by Northern men of influence should at least have been discussed and have incited a careful re-examination of the new material.
There has been no public discussion, I am sorry to say, and I have heard of no re-examination of facts. Although innumerable reviews have appeared, both favorable and unfavorable, no constructive suggestion has been offered, no new material published, confirmatory or otherwise. This is my first challenge to historians and historical critics.
Stepping from my environs among chemists into those of historians, I was impressed by the difference in their respective attitudes. New chemical thoughts always find a respectful and serious, if skeptical, reception. An advance into an uncharted region is proposed. The author’s thesis is checked and tested; eventually it is either accepted or discarded, as results warrant. Never is the proponent’s name unduly emphasized, nor are personal attacks made on him.
Thirty years ago I published, in collaboration with a co-worker, a new method for determining the presence of fish oils in vegetable oils.—[Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, Vol. 2, No. 2, February, 1910.] Within a few days samples were sent by government institutions to chemists all over the world to check our results. Minor errors were discovered and modifications suggested. It took fifteen years before the chemical world signified its full approval of our method; only then did the United States Department of Agriculture adopt it as official. I doubt that during this entire period our names were more than mentioned. Certain it is that we were neither praised to the skies nor dragged through the gutter. The work was considered more important than the authors, which is as it should be. No one cared whether we were university graduates or sewer-diggers. The only question was whether our discovery was a genuine advancement in science or not.
One vainly looks for such a detached attitude in most historical commentators. The tone of their reviews struck me as particularly astounding; I would not have expected to find it among people who brush their teeth. This is my second challenge to historical critics.
“This indefatigable historian,” writes Joseph Gregoire DeRoulhac Hamilton (1878-1961) uNC for instance,—[North Carolina Historical Review, October, 1937.] “to employ the highly inaccurate title used in the publishers’ blurb to describe the Viennese Chemist who is the author of this unique volume …. Between the posing of the question [Why Was Lincoln Murdered?] and this utterly inconclusive reply to it lie (no double entendre intended) four hundred and thirty-eight dreary pages of rambling and disconnected implication and innuendo …. The reader wearily puts down the volume, wondering if the author fails to grasp the fact that a considerable number of people in the country can read and that a good many do so ….”
Can anyone come closer to figurative spitting ?
If Hamilton’s tone is regrettable, his methods are more so. In the first place, he attacks the publishers’ advertisement as if it were part of the book. Authors are not responsible for book covers. I for one did not know what would be on the jacket until the book was on the market. Criticizing authors on this score is like cursing the wrong man and constitutes a sorry waste of valuable venom.
Mr. Hamilton laments the “utterly inconclusive reply” to the question which forms the title of my book. It might have occurred to him that the very title, put in the form of a question, indicated lack of sufficient data for a definite answer. Or was this too subtle a suggestion for one who pounds out his comments with a baseball bat ? Some day, Mr. Hamilton, when and if I know all the answers, I may publish a volume entitled Why Lincoln Was Murdered, and there will be a period after the last word, not a question mark. Simple entendre.
A new thought is not necessarily brought to its climax by its author. To that end, more often than not, a number of investigators have to put their shoulders to the wheel. Between Hertz, who discovered a certain ether wave, and Marconi, who finished the first radio sender, many brains co-operated. According to Hamilton’s type of historical critic, Hertz proved nothing and his experiments were “utterly inconclusive.” Right. But Hertz did start something important; and if his ideas brought results it was not due to his contemporaries calling him names. Perhaps Hertz should have withheld his discovery until the radio was perfected; perhaps automobiles should not have been put on the market until they were 1940 models. It is a debatable question; nevertheless, the idea lingers that streamlined cars may not have been developed at all, if their coughing and jerking predecessors had not broken the trail for them.
Charles R. Wilson, in the American Historical Review for January, 1938, seconds Mr. Hamilton in condemning me for using innuendoes. “The casual reader,” he writes, “is led …. to infer certain ‘appalling implications’ [again the poor back cover] which the author apparently believes but for which he prefers not to take responsibility.” Posing on his lofty pinnacle, Wilson scornfully points to the book as “written by a Chicago chemist with a flair for history.” No innuendo, Mr. Wilson ? No implication for which you prefer not to take responsibility ?
Professor Wilson, by the way, has achieved something in his review which is granted to few mortals. He has out-Don-Quixoted Don Quixote. “Parker [Lincoln’s bodyguard] could hardly have been ‘criminally negligent,’ ” he writes, “yet have intercepted both Hanscom and Booth.” Nowhere in my book did I state that Parker intercepted these two men, nor did he. Don Quixote only fought windmills; Charles R. Wilson erects them first and then heroically demolishes them.
Why, I ask, Hamilton’s and Wilson’s outbursts against chemists ? Why this sincere or assumed contempt for my profession ? The Lincoln literature counts among its recognized authors ministers primarily taught to believe, lawyers largely guided by authorities, newspapermen, librarians, poets, physicians, politicians. Chemists, who are above all trained to unearth truths, are de trop. Mr. Hamilton intimates with commendable delicacy that shoe-makers had best stick to their last. Has he applied this platitude also to authors in other professions, and if not, why not ?
Both Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Wilson evidently wish to establish the closed shop in history. No union card, no historian.
A very human hypothesis may explain this specialized professional hostility. A chemical factory I know emits curious odors at all times; nevertheless, the neighborhood does not complain. Newcomers do, but the old inhabitants laugh the smell off; in fact, they claim it is good for their colds. But woe if a new odor arises with which the population is not acquainted; no matter how inoffensive, everyone is outraged, and the health department has one of its busiest days.
One of my critics, Professor W.B. Hesseltine, apparently laid down my book with a smile of superiority.
“Ten years ago,” he quoted from the inevitable book jacket —[Madison State Journal, April 18, 1937.], “Otto Eisenschiml …. became interested in finding out why Gen. Grant hurriedly left Washington on the day of Lincoln’s assassination. The answer should have occupied five minutes in a reference room….” Come now, Mr. Hesseltine, how could you be sure after five minutes that you had the right answer ? Is this the way you gather your own historical data ? R.S.V.P. But I do not think you will.
“With no opposing attorney to object,” Hesseltine continues, “and no presiding judge to rule on the evidence, the advocate has a free hand in presenting his case to the jury.” Who, pray, opposed Mr. Hesseltine in his review and who ruled on his criticism — not to mention his bias ? If Galahads only possessed a sense of humor !
However, the distinguished professor does furnish some factual contribution to the mystery of Lincoln’s assassination. “The telegraph wires were grounded by some of the conspirators,” he declares. Whence this knowledge ? Where are your references, Mr. Hesseltine ? For years I have tried to solve the knotty problem of that interrupted telegraph service, and I am still far from satisfied; and all this time Professor Hesseltine has had the answer in his vest pocket. A medical student was once asked at an examination what cure there was for cancer. “An hour ago I knew,” he stammered, “but now it has slipped my mind.” “Great heavens,” exclaimed the professor, “there stands the only man who could cure cancer, and he has forgotten how !”
To this class of critic I venture to offer a suggestion: Try to be somewhat consistent — and please don’t leave all your parlor manners at home when you go author-hunting.
A sly method of discrediting books is the deliberate use of deprecating words. Miss Ida Tarbell, for example, tells her readers that “The author’s purpose sticks out from the start.”—[New York Herald-Tribune, March 28, 1937.] Milady uses a rather plebeian expression to announce her detection of something that was never meant to be hidden; nonetheless, I suspect her of knowing that poison darts can kill as effectively as a broad-axe.
Mr. Hamilton also is adept in toxicology. I wonder if anyone would have stumbled over his puny pun of “lie (no double entendre intended)” if he had not emphasized it; and having held it up to his readers for inspection and ridicule he drops it and disclaims any unfriendly intention. This is the same Professor Hamilton who is such an avowed crusader against the use of insinuations and innuendoes — by others.
Miss Tarbell employs other questionable tactics: She embodies in her review an entire portion of my book (the part dealing with Mrs. Lincoln’s jealousy of Mrs. Grant) as if it were the product of her own historical research, although she quotes directly from one of my chapters. The effect of this stratagem is two-fold: It makes the reviewer appear erudite and the author dull-witted, uninformed.
Allan Nevins appears to qualify for a seat on the same bench. Referring to my book (without the courtesy of naming it) as a “bizarre hypothesis”, he adds, with the dictatorial authoritativeness of the schoolmaster: “As a matter of fact, the assassins had plotted the murder of the supposedly radical Johnson as well as Lincoln.”* As a matter of fact, Professor, the assassins had done nothing of the kind; and to imply that I overlooked such a self-evident lead is unkind. I devoted a large part of a chapter (pp. 166-174) to the discussion of this fake plot. An outstanding critic ignores portions of a book because they do not fit into his argument. Yet, commentators who misquote, directly or by implication, are entirely within their rights. There is, unfortunately, no law which compels a reviewer to read a book carefully –or to read it at all, for that matter– before he criticizes it. —[Allan Nevins: The Gateway to History (D. Appleton-Century Co., N.Y., 1938) , p. 225. It is only fair to state that in a letter to the author Mr. Nevins interpreted the word bizarre as unusual and disclaimed any derogatory meaning.]
From this kind of reviewer there is only one step to the well-known species who, instead of criticizing the volume he is supposed to discuss, engages in a development of his own ideas. He struts up and down the lines of his column displaying his knowledge and his theories, forgetful of the fact that he is writing a review of someone else’s book and was not invited to write a treatise himself. Everybody feels that he will cheerfully disembowel his authors for the sake of marketing a few nitwitticisms of his own.
Critics who fail to familiarize themselves with the book on which they pass judgment or who abuse their prerogatives by talking about themselves instead of their assignment should be disqualified and excused from further service.
An odd sort of reviewer is the one who, after taking a few lusty wallops at the author, admits that he is really not capable of reviewing the book at all. Professor F.L. Herriott in the Des Moines Sunday Register[April 4, 1937.] treated me without gloves; but an editorial note at the conclusion of his tirade confides to the reader that his “studies [of Lincoln] have been made only up to Lincoln’s first administration”; which brings to mind the story of the man in the stage coach who knew all about Beethoven, Newton and Shakespeare, but had no idea who Washington was. When asked why, he said that he had read the encyclopedia only to the letter T. “We are asked to believe ….,” writes Herriott; no, no, Professor; you are not asked to believe anything; you are only asked to read beyond Lincoln’s first administration before you criticize a book dealing with subsequent events.
Parenthetically, the use of the words “we are asked to believe” is the unfailing thumbmark of the reviewer who prefers catch-phrases to arguments. Let me explain, Professor Herriott: If you are asked to believe something, the something may be true, even if you don’t think so. Galileo’s judges also probably rose in indignation when they were asked to believe that the earth revolves; but it does.
One of the fundamental principles of fair play provides that no rules of a game shall be changed while it is in progress. Professor Hamilton, quoted earlier, evidently entertains a different opinion, for he establishes a new rule in his review. In sketching Stanton’s character against the background of Lincoln’s assassination, I had to draw on well-known sources. This is not to Hamilton’s liking.
“He [the author] adds nothing,” he writes, “to the knowledge [of Stanton] already possessed by students of the Civil War ….” Here then is his startlingly new doctrine: No writer must relate a twice-told tale. Out goes almost every book on history, for not everyone can, like Hamilton, find a subject of such primeval originality as The Life of Robert E. Lee which, I am sure, contains one hundred per cent new and original data, including Lee’s birthplace and the battle of Gettysburg.
Mr. Charles Hanson Towne, who writes syndicated reviews, also hints at a new principle for historical writers. “Engrossing material here,” he comments on the book, “about people who have passed on, and therefore are unable to reply.”—[San Francisco Examiner, March 26, 1937.] From now on all criticism must stop at the grave, says Towne. No more books on Nero, Benedict Arnold or Jesse James. They are dead and cannot reply.
Some critics are obviously not satisfied to be prosecutor, judge and jury in one; they appoint themselves law-makers as well whenever it suits their purposes.
Two words much favored by my commentators are innuendo and insinuation, and much virtuous indignation have they spilled over them. May I point out to these sensitive souls that science knows no insinuations –only possibilities and probabilities worthy of further investigation ? A physician finds that a certain treatment benefits typhoid fever patients; his results cover only a limited number of cases, and he hesitates to draw definite inferences. He publishes his results so that others may take over from that point. If that be insinuation, let them make the most of it.
My fault-finding is all with methods, not with men. I suspect that our present system of reviewing is more to blame than the reviewers themselves. The reviewer is invited to sit in an armored car, as it were, and shoot with a gun at the helpless author who has no means of hiding or counter-attacking. Such power is bound to breed despotism, and manifestly it does. I am writing reviews myself, and I keenly feel the injustice of the prevailing practices.
Is there a remedy ? In historical magazines, where considerable time elapses before the review appears, an advance copy could easily be sent to the author. The ensuing correspondence should enable the editor to delete some outstanding errors, misunderstandings or acts of injustice. In daily papers, where such a procedure is less practicable, the authors should at least be given the privilege of correcting outright misstatements. This privilege, of course, must be limited in its scope. Each reviewer must retain the indisputable right to voice his opinion. When Professor Hamilton, for instance, wrote that there are so-and-so many dreary pages in my book, he was as much entitled to this statement as was Professor Schlesinger of Harvard who remarked that he did not know when he was so fascinated by a book;—[Washington Tribune, April 10, 1937.] but when critics misquote or misunderstand, the author should be allowed to protest. True, some journals do permit the author to reply to his detractor; but the latter is allowed a rebuttal and, knowing that he has the last word, usually takes this opportunity to slaughter his victim completely. The author, by keeping quiet, will generally choose the lesser evil.
I have developed a habit of sending a copy of my review to the author, particularly when I don’t agree with him. Only once have I been similarly favored, and I still recall with respect that writer in some out-of-the-way lumber journal whose editorial slashed me into pink ribbons. To present me with a copy was chivalry in reverse, so to speak, but still chivalry; it deserves imitation.
There is one more principle I should like to see established by literary editors. I think that nothing should be criticized by the reviewer but the book itself. The personality of the author, his place of birth or residence or any other of his private affairs, should not be weighed in the balance. Some reviewers even publish the author’s off-the-record communications to them or to others. I think this is downright reprehensible.
The reviewer occupies a quasi-judicial position. The evidence before him should be the book and nothing but the book. If a man is in court accused of treason, the judge will exclude all evidence proving the man guilty of speeding, pocketpicking, murder or any other crime for which he is not on trial. Among literary and historical critics flagrant violations of this ethical rule abound. Sometimes they work to the advantage of the author, sometimes they do not. Private and confidential correspondence or conversations between the author and the reviewer are often quoted; most of it makes gossipy reading, but, like most gossip, is out of place in intellectual circles.
I dislike and mistrust critics of the gushing kind who go into ecstasy instead of settling down to the job of criticizing. In many such instances author and reviewer are connected by ties of close friendship. I remember cases in which critics dwelled at length on recent visits by the authors to their editorial sancta. Should a judge undertake to preside at a trial if either the plaintiff or the defendant is a friend of the family ? Would he publicly declare that a man before his bar had only a short time ago supped at his house ? On the other hand, would any fair jurist or juror sit in judgment over an accused who is his personal enemy ?
May I add one word about the use of reviews for advertising material ? On book covers and advertising pages excerpts from reviewers’ pens serve to make the book more attractive to prospective readers; unfortunately, I have never seen any but favorable comments employed for this purpose. This is neither fair to the author nor to the reader. If truth in advertising be demanded for face creams and baking powders, why not also for books ? —[I induced the publishers of my book to add two outstandingly adverse comments to eleven favorable ones in a large advertisement in the New York Times of April 18, 1937.]
Despotism always has brought out the worst in human nature. Our reviewers today are despots, free to do as they please, without restraint, without fear of a comeback. This despotism, like all others in history, will eventually die of its own abuses. In the meantime, would it not be advisable to draw up some Marquis of Queensbury rules to give the sport of reviewing at least a semblance of fairness ?
I have suggested the rudiments of such a code in this challenge. There is no intention on my part to be personal. I harbor no ill feelings against my critics and I am not personally acquainted with any of them. If it were not necessary to quote examples I would have preferred to omit all references to individuals, including myself. There is more at stake than any one book, any one author or any one reviewer.
Professor Nevins has proposed that a magazine of history be founded as a forum for the exchange of historical thoughts. It is one of the finest suggestions brought forth in recent years. Such a forum might give authors an opportunity to fight their battles on even terms with their prosecutors. Until then, however, and perhaps even after then, a code of ethics for historical reviewers does seem desirable. —[The Saturday Review of Literature, February 4, 1939, p. 16.]
—[What heretical ideas has Mr. Eisenschiml presented which aroused the wrath of the Keepers of Mythology ?
who were these radical reconstructionists ?:
Representative George Julian
Representative Thaddeus Stevens
Senator Charles Sumner
Senator Henry Wilson
Senator Zachariah Chandler
Senator Benjamin Wade
everyone of them voted for the legal-tender clause, for the legal-tender bill, for the national currency bank bill….
unlike any of the members of future Greenback parties, and unlike any of the future advocates of greenbacks and paper money, these gentlemen had the opportunity to say nay or yea, and they said yea; the reconstructionist Senators could have defeated the legal-tender clause which passed in the Senate by five votes…. the radical reconstructionists were warm friends of legal-tender United States notes…..
Why was Lincoln Murdered ?
The Case Against the Radicals
The year 1864 arrived and with it a great change came over the administration. The time for dawdling was over; elections were approaching. Now was the moment to begin the war in earnest. First of all, Halleck had to be sidetracked. This was accomplished by appointing Grant lieutenant general, while the former chief of the armies was reduced to a mere figurehead and left to his own devices. By this time Lincoln himself admitted that, ever since Pope’s defeat two years before, Halleck had been little more than a first-rate clerk. There was no stinting of men now. Stanton’s biographers point with pride to Grant’s testimony before the committee on the conduct of the war, given in May 1865, in which he gave credit to the Secretary of War for hearty co-operation. But this was only natural. The war had to come to an end some time.
Matters in the rear were not going quite so well as the Radicals had hoped. While the prolonged conflict and the hysterical outbursts of the administration press had produced a feeling of bitter hatred against the South, they had also swelled the ranks of those who wanted peace at any price. Unless a decided victory could be won in 1864, the Democrats might win the election, and all the bloodshed would go for nothing. Lincoln saw his pet plan of an overland attack on Richmond put into operation. He saw Grant lose in six weeks more men than Lee had in his entire army. After that the lieutenant general found himself almost exactly at the same spot on the James from which McClellan had been recalled. But this time there was no recall; no Pope was entrusted with an army in front of Washington. There were no reproaches; only the lines in Lincoln’s face deepened and his eyes assumed a sadder expression.
By July, Grant had depleted all of the Union reserves. The fortifications of Washington, which then required 37,000 men to defend, were manned by only 9,000 convalescent soldiers and green recruits. In 1862, McClellan had left the Capital protected by 19,000 men, with many times that number near enough so that they could be summoned at need. Grant left Washington so bare that Jubal Early could have walked into it if he had stayed on the south shore of the Potomac, or if General Wallace had not thrown the garrison of Baltimore into his way to delay him; but Lincoln did not say a word. If he thought of McClellan at all, he was not magnanimous enough to offer his former general in chief an apology.
Then came new hope. General Johnston, perhaps the cleverest of all the generals then in the field, who had opposed Sherman in the west, was suddenly relieved of his command. It was the worst blunder of which Jefferson Davis was guilty –a godsend Sherman called it– and ushered in the dusk of the Confederacy. Atlanta fell on September 2; a few weeks later Sheridan was victorious over Early and drove him from the Shenandoah valley. The danger was over. Lincoln was re-elected.
Now that Lincoln’s incumbency seemed assured for another four years, grave misgivings must have arisen in the minds of the Radicals as to whether he was really the man they wanted in the White House. It would have been much safer for them to have had Chase or Chandler or Wade there; but all political manoeuvering to replace Lincoln on the Republican ticket had come to naught, because it was recognized that without Lincoln at the head of it, the party would fail at the polls. While the President had, somewhat doubtfully, signed the Proclamation of Emancipation, he still did not seem over-enthusiastic in backing the abolition of slavery. In 1862 he had written to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune:
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.
To the Radicals, these sentiments were far from satisfactory, contrary though they were to the Chicago platform and the congressional resolutions of 1861, according to which slavery was not a war issue but was to be left for state regulation. In the summer of 1864, when Greeley had proposed peace negotiations, Lincoln had insisted that the abandonment of slavery was a sine qua non for a termination of hostilities. Later, at the time of the Hampton Roads conference in January 1865, Lincoln was to submit again a memorandum of instructions in which he would insist that there be no receding on the slavery question. But now rumors were rife that the President was weakening, and was so desirous of peace that he was willing to make the re-establishment of the Union the only real condition of a settlement.
“I said [to General Singleton],” wrote Orville Browning in his diary on November 24, 1864, “I thought the President would make the abolition of slavery a condition precedent to any settlement. He replied that he knew he would not — that he had a long interview with him before the election — that the President showed him all the correspondence between himself and Greeley …. and said …. [it] put him in a false position — that he did not mean to make the abolition of slavery a condition, and that after the election he would be willing to grant peace with an amnesty, and restoration of the union, leaving slavery to abide the decisions of judicial tribunals ….”
On November 26, Browning recorded that Singleton had again received word from the President that the slavery issue should not stand in the way of adjustment and that he intended to say so in his message. Singleton, by the way, was to be one of the peace commissioners if negotiations with the South were decided upon.
Browning naturally was incredulous of Lincoln’s reported attitude and on December 24 went to the White House himself to get authoritative and firsthand information on this point. The entry in his diary for that day leaves no doubt of what was in Lincoln’s mind:
In the evening went to the Presidents and had an interview …. During the evening the President showed me all the correspondence between him & Greely in regard to the negotiations at Niagara in July last with Clay and Tucker, and assured me that he had been misrepresented, and misunderstood and that he had never entertained the purpose of making the abolition of slavery a condition precedent to the termination of the war ….
The Radicals could not regard these sentiments of the Chief Executive as anything but treason to his party. They believed that Lincoln was transcending his delegated powers. In July 1864, he had killed, through a pocket veto, the congressional plans for the restoration of the Union, and his opponents had attacked him fiercely in the Wade-Davis manifesto for trying to usurp the rights of the legislative arm of the government. Now that Lincoln had been re-elected with the understanding that slavery would be destroyed, they could not concede to him the right to change the policies of his party. But Lincoln soon put a new fear into the hearts of the Radicals, and one that made them almost forget the problem of slavery.
The Wade-Davis manifesto had made it clear that Congress meant to deal with the problem of Reconstruction without interference from the White House. The President, on the other hand, still anxious to abide by the half-forgotten resolution of 1861, was determined to restore all civil and political rights to the Confederate States immediately upon their return into the Union. He therefore decided on a shrewd move. He arranged matters so that the generals in the field should conclude an armistice that practically amounted to a peace without penalties, the nation would then be confronted with a fait accompli against which the rage of the politicians would beat in vain. The people were with Lincoln –the elections of 1864 had demonstrated that– and in the general ecstasy of joy accompanying the end of hostilities, all opposition would be drowned out. Congress was not to meet until December, and by then it would be too late to undo what had been accomplished.
And so, on March 27, 1865, Lincoln went to meet Grant, Sherman and Admiral Porter in the cabin of the River Queen. There he gave secret orders to his military leaders for what Lloyd Lewis called “one of the most cunning examples of the ‘double-cross’ that the whole range of American politics, before or after him, could show.” These orders were, in short, to grant to the opponents at the proper time a truce that embraced a formula for peace on the basis of the situation as it had existed before the outbreak of the war.
“It was not to help Grant that Lincoln went down to the battle-front. It was to help Lee. The question in his mind was not who would win, but what the winner would do with the vanquished.”
When Sherman signed the truce with Johnston, on April 17, he only followed the rules laid down by Lincoln. The agreement entered into stated that the President of the United States was to recognize the state governments on the condition that the officers and legislators would take the oath prescribed by the Constitution. The Federal courts were to be re-established, and the people of the late Confederacy guaranteed their political rights, as well as their rights of person and of property. A general amnesty was to be announced and the war declared over.
When this tentative agreement reached Washington, on April 21, Stanton prevailed upon President Johnson to call a Cabinet meeting without delay. At first Stanton raved alone in his denunciation of Sherman, but he finally carried the Cabinet with him to the extent of having the armistice disapproved. The Secretary went even beyond this. Without the knowledge of the President, he released to the Associated Press a diatribe that practically stamped Sherman as a traitor. The armistice, Stanton stormed, … “gave terms that had been deliberately, repeatedly, and solemnly rejected by President Lincoln, and better terms than the rebels had ever asked in their most prosperous condition.”
But Admiral Porter, who had taken notes during that historic conference on the James river, felt that the terms of the truce
…. were exactly in accordance with Mr. Lincoln’s wishes. He [Sherman] could not have done anything which would have pleased the President better. Mr. Lincoln did in fact arrange the (so considered) liberal terms offered General Joseph Johnston, and whatever may have been General Sherman’s private views, I feel sure that he yielded to the wishes of the President in every respect. It was Mr. Lincoln’s policy that was carried out …. I was with Mr. Lincoln all the time he was at City Point, and until he left for Washington. He was more than delighted with the surrender of Lee, and with the terms Grant gave the Rebel general, and would have given Joseph Johnston twice as much had the latter asked for it ….
Although Sherman could never be induced to speak of the conference on the River Queen, he made some significant remarks in a letter written October 19, 1868, addressed to Admiral Porter:
You will remember that last spring when I wrote you about …. the interview of Mr. Lincoln, yourself Grant and me, at City Point, you wrote me a letter very full and descriptive …. [and] gave me at length the subjects therein discussed, principally that Mr. Lincoln plainly foreshadowed the course to be pursued when the Rebel Armies were defeated. … tell me the substance of your memory of what Mr. Lincoln did say, likely to influence me in offering to Jos Johnston the favorable terms I did. … Being an interested party, I would prefer the testimony to come from you ….
Sherman’s peace negotiations took place, of course, after Lincoln’s death. But the late President had given enough evidence in the weeks just before his assassination to allow his Radical opponents –and advisers– a clear insight into the workings of his mind. “Give Lee anything he wants if he will only stop fighting,” he had told Grant.
On the day before Richmond fell, Lincoln had a conference with Judge Campbell of Virginia, during which it was arranged that “the gentlemen who have acted as the legislature in support of the Rebellion” should be permitted to meet in the Confederate Capital for the purpose of withdrawing the Virginia troops. General Weitzel was instructed to give the legislators the necessary protection.
When Stanton learned of this decision of the President, he became panicky. On his own responsibility and plainly insubordinate to his Chief, he gave orders to disobey Lincoln’s instructions and, when Lincoln returned to Washington, managed to obtain his consent to withdraw the permit. Lincoln had made his arrangements in private and had hoped to have the legislature in session before the Radicals could be advised of the event but treachery on the part of a subaltern officer gave the scheme away and thereby prevented its execution.
By this time the Radicals must have been fully aware that Lincoln was determined to thwart their desires and to restore to the South its former rights, even if it meant the eclipse of his own party.
Senator Yates of Illinois, in a debate during the spring of 1867, delivered a speech on the floor of the Senate, in which he remarked that:
Whoever that man may be, whether President of the United States or any other person, who stands in the path of this country for union, to honor and to glory, should be taken out of the way. I am not saying how.
Had Lincoln stood, according to Radical principles, “in the path …. to honor and to glory”, whatever that may mean ? And had he to “be taken out of the way ?”
How many desperate meetings took place to devise means of overcoming what, to the Radicals, was outright treachery ? There was no use arguing with Lincoln, who could be as stubborn as a mule. There was no beating him in the game of politics or at the polls. Many a Radical may have hoped that Lincoln might die so that his own political and financial existence could endure; for short of killing the President there did not seem to be any chance of stopping him. As Stanton’s biographer put it:
Lincoln and Sherman labored under the same disability …. The latter has suffered severely in history on account of his attempt to fix the political status of the rebellious sections …. yet Sherman was only a soldier, whose terms could be …. reversed and annulled, while Lincoln was president of the United States …. with supreme discretion in military affairs. Therefore, when, by the secret letter to General Weitzel, he undertook to hand over to the Virginia legislature that which the Confederate armies had been unable to secure …. he entered the vortex leading to destruction ….
Lincoln did indeed enter the vortex leading to destruction by making his gesture of peace; for the day after he had done so, death eliminated him forever from the political arena.
What we do know is this. On Sunday evening, April 16, before two full days had elapsed since Lincoln’s assassination, a meeting of Radical leaders took place in Stanton’s office, at which time the Secretary of War read a program he had developed for the “reconstruction” of Virginia and North Carolina. This program Stanton had submitted to the last Cabinet meeting at which Lincoln had presided, there it had met with opposition, as it contemplated the elimination of existing state lines.
Although the matter was still pending in the Cabinet, the Secretary of War did not hesitate to submit it for general discussion to his Radical friends. This shows that he considered himself a sentinel for the left wing of the Republican party and ready to do its bidding. That he undertook to oppose the President without the promptings of the Leftists is quite unthinkable. During Johnson’s administration the Secretary made little effort to disguise his position as a Cabinet spy for the Radical leaders.
Stanton’s proposal would have placed Virginia and North Carolina in a single military department under supervision of the War Department, and it seemed to Welles “a plan of subjugation, tending and I think designed to increase alienation and hatred between the different sections of the Union.” Lincoln had asked Stanton to change his plan so as to preserve state individuality. It was further proof, if such proof was needed, that the President was incorrigible. Living, he would forever present an almost insurmountable obstacle to Radical plans.
But Fortune smiled on the Radical party. Lincoln was murdered.
It is usual today to depict the death of Lincoln as having occasioned an universal outburst of grief throughout the North and particularly among the leaders of the Republican party, by whom “the Great Emancipator” has since been made a party god. When a searcher for the truth examines the private records of the time, he can scarce repress a feeling of surprise, for the fact is that the Radical leadership of the Republican party, while not pleased with the sacrifice of Lincoln, the individual, almost rejoiced that Lincoln, the merciful executive, had been removed from the helm of state.
Julian, one of these Radical leaders, boldly stated that the accession of Andrew Johnson to the presidency would prove a blessing to the country. In this sentiment he was not alone. On April 15, only a few hours after Lincoln’s death, a caucus of Republican leaders was held, at which the tragedy was described as a gift from Heaven, and it was decided to get rid of Lincolnism. Ben Butler was chosen to be Secretary of State. Unfortunately for that plan, Seward’s injuries were not fatal, and his position did not become vacant. Blunt Senator Wade told the new President: “Johnson, we have faith in you. By the gods, there will be no trouble now in running the government !” Johnson had been ranting for weeks past that secession was treason, that treason must be made odious, and that all Confederates should be hanged.
From the pulpit, the Radical sentiments poured forth with astounding frankness. “I accept God’s action as an indication that Lincoln’s work as an instrument of Providence ended here,” said the Reverend Martin R. Vincent, in the First Presbyterian Church of Troy, New York, “and that the work of retribution belonged to other and doubtless fitter instruments. I will not positively assert that his policy toward traitors was so much too lenient that God replaced him by a man, who, we have good reasons to think, will not err in this direction. Yet I say this may be and it looks like it.”
The Reverend Warren E. Cudworth, in Boston, also expressed his satisfaction: “His [Lincoln’s] death under God will do as much for the cause he had at heart as did his life. We know that already several of the leading supporters of his administration had taken issue with him on Reconstruction in the rebel states.”
The Reverend Mr. Crane was convinced that the assassination was the work of Providence. “Abraham Lincoln’s work is done,” he stated solemnly. “From the fourteenth of this April his work was done. From that time God had no further use for him ….”
In the West, too, there arose strange ministerial sentiments. “Most of the prayers, and speeches were impressive and in good taste,” wrote Bates; “but I could not help feeling [regretful] at the tone and manner of Dr. Post — Harsh, vindictive and out of keeping with his usually bland and amiable character. …. I cannot help fearing that his ardent temperament has been worked upon by crafty partizans …. For I know that it is the present scheme of the extreme radicals (who never were Lincoln’s friends) to make party capital out of his flagitious murder.”
It is remarkable how closely the wishes of the Radicals and the ways of Providence chanced to meet on “the fourteenth of this April.” If the Radical preachers had wished to stress the point they could have easily shown that the mysterious workings of Providence had accomplished more than the removal of the President. An attempt had also been made on the life of Seward, the only other prominent Republican who was lenient and conciliatory. While some steel bandages made Providence fail in this instance, it worked perfectly again in the case of Andrew Johnson, in so miraculously sparing him from the knife of an assassin, just as Grant and Stanton had been preserved for the Cause. It is true that such puzzles as the stage-setting in Atzerodt’s room, the unrepaired doorbell in Stanton’s house, and the successful flight of the assassin across the Anacostia bridge still remained unsolved. But the ways of Providence are proverbially hard to fathom, and the ministers of the Gospel probably felt they had gone as far as they could to explain them.
The Reverend S.D. Brown of Troy, without intending to do so, came perhaps closer than anyone to summing up the case against the Radicals. “God has a purpose in permitting this great evil ….” he declared. “It is a singular fact that the two most favorable to leniency to the rebels, Lincoln and Seward, have been stricken. Other members of the Cabinet were embraced in the fiendish plan, but as to them, it failed.” Singular indeed.
Only one man ventured to utter publicly the suspicion that the Radicals had been instrumental in causing Lincoln’s death. That man was Andrew Johnson. In a speech from the steps of the White House, on February 22, 1866, he announced that there had been
innuendos in high places …. that the “presidential obstacle” must be got out of the way, when possibly the intention was to institute assassination. Are those who want to destroy our institutions and change the character of the Government not satisfied with the blood that has been shed ? Are they not satisfied with one martyr ? Does not the blood of Lincoln appease the vengeance and wrath of the opponents of this Government ? …. Have they not honor and courage enough to effect the removal of the presidential obstacle otherwise than through the hands of the assassin ?
So far as motives go, the Radicals had a greater stake in Lincoln’s death, and expected more benefit from it, than all the Southern leaders could have hoped for by any stretch of the imagination
Why was Lincoln Murdered ?
The Case Against Stanton
There was one man who profited greatly by Lincoln’s death; this man was his Secretary of War, Edwin McMasters Stanton.
Brusque, insolent, cruel, Stanton was without doubt the most unpopular member of Lincoln’s administration; but the President, in spite of strong pressure, had been loath to let him go while the conflict was raging; he seemed to think that no one else could do the work as well.
“Find the man,” he had said. “Show me that he can do it. He shall.”
After the war was over, however, it seemed only a question of time when Lincoln would divest himself of a Secretary who was fast becoming both a personal and political liability to him.
No author has ever painted a picture of Stanton that was acceptable to all. “The character and career of Edwin Stanton,” wrote DeWitt, “are so enveloped in enigma that we are compelled to pause …. to gain, if possible, some adequate conception of the man.” But difficulties presented themselves even to this careful investigator.
… alternately appearing and disappearing before the eye of the inquirer … there are two Stantons — one the direct contradictory of the other. Listening to the chorus of panegyrists, we see a war-minister greater than the elder Pitt; an organizer of victory more skilful than Carnot … Listening to the voice of his detractors, we see … a life-long dissembler … a Cabinet officer obsequious to his superiors or his equals … to the point of servility, and insolent … to his inferiors to the point of outrage; governed by no loftier motive than the lust for office and the power that office gives; an official parasite battening upon the life-blood of his chief ….
One of his colleagues, Attorney General Bates, expressed this opinion after the Secretary of the Treasury had resigned in 1864: “I should not be a bit surprised,” his diary recorded, “if Stanton soon followed Chase. In that I see no public misfortune, for I think it hardly possible that the War Office could be worse administered.”
Stanton first became a figure in national life when, on December 20, 1860, Buchanan appointed him attorney general, apparently not without misgivings. In doing so he respected the wishes of Jeremiah S. Black, his new Secretary of State, a former law partner of Stanton.
“He was always on my side,” Buchanan wrote his niece in 1862, “and flattered me ad nauseam.” Black also was sometimes overwhelmed with excessive demonstrations of thankfulness and friendship. All of which did not hinder Stanton, immediately after joining the President’s inner council, from starting an intrigue with Buchanan’s political enemies in Congress; for, knowing that a Republican administration was to come into power within a few weeks, he deemed it wise to secure a foothold among its friends, while at the same time pretending limitless fidelity to his Democratic chief and colleagues. Verification of Stanton’s duplicity comes to us from firsthand sources.
Senator Sumner, representing the Radical Abolitionists whom Stanton professed to abhor, wrote that in January 1861, he called on the new Secretary at the latter’s office. “…. he [Stanton] received me kindly, seeming glad to see me. … he whispered that we must be alone …” Passing from room to room without finding the desired privacy, they finally reached the corridor, and there Stanton proposed to call on Sumner at his residence at one o’clock that night to tell him of the “fearful condition of affairs.” The clandestine meeting took place, and soon Stanton was in daily communication with the Republicans in Congress and, according to one of them, Henry Wilson —[voted for the legal-tender clause], he kept them well informed of what was going on in the Cabinet.
While Stanton was flattering Buchanan to his face, he did something behind his back that one reads about with bated breath. He outlined for the Republicans in Congress “a basis for articles of impeachment of President Buchanan if such a course should become necessary.” With his associate Watson he spent hours in consultation about laws covering such a procedure. Flower cited some of Stanton’s friends as witnesses for this and related the story with apparent pride.
This peculiar sort of apparent double-dealing has never been denied. Stanton’s apologists have pronounced it a deed of super-patriotism. In fact, it was nothing but a bold attempt to curry favor with both of the contending factions.
In his avidity for immediate recognition by the incoming party, Stanton was doomed to disappointment. His name was not included among the War Democrats Lincoln selected for his Cabinet. Stanton’s feeling of wrath was intense; the man who could flatter ad nauseam showed that he could be venomous as well. He designated the party that had snubbed him as Black Republicans; he blamed the “imbecility of this Administration” for the disaster at Bull Run. He referred to Lincoln as “the original gorilla”, and he told McClellan that, with Lincoln in the White House, Paul du Chaillu had made a mistake in going all the way to Africa to look for an ape. Stanton’s ire appeared to have overcome even his renowned patriotism, for he expressed the ill-concealed hope that Jeff Davis might “turn out the whole concern.
It was well for Stanton that his contempt and hatred did not become known until many years later; for gratitude on the part of the Black Republicans was not altogether wanting. Seward, Sumner and Chase had not forgotten the helpful espionage of President Buchanan’s attorney general, and when Cameron’s management of the War Department began to arouse antagonism, Stanton was remembered. It first was necessary to be rid of Cameron, however, and it was well known how reluctant Lincoln was to change his Cabinet officers. Finally, the appointment of Stanton came about through one of the neatest moves in the annals of Washington politics.
Secretary Cameron, in his annual report, had chosen to insert an explicit recommendation in favor of arming negroes, although this sentiment was then distasteful to Lincoln. Before transmitting the document to the President, Cameron asked the advice of Stanton, who was acting as his attorney. The latter wrote an additional paragraph which was adopted and printed in the final report. It read in part as follows:
Those who make war against the Government justly forfeit all rights of property …. and, as the labor and service of their slaves constitute the chief property of the rebels, such property should share the common fate of war …. It is as clearly the right of this Government to arm slaves when it may become necessary as it is to use gunpowder or guns taken from the enemy.
By writing this paragraph, Stanton succeeded in killing two birds with one stone. He widened the breach between Lincoln and his Secretary of War, and he showed to the Radical Republicans of Sumner’s type that he was willing to be their representative in the Cabinet. To increase Lincoln’s embarrassment, Cameron –possibly on Stanton’s advice– sent advance copies of this report to the leading newspapers. When Lincoln discovered the paragraph about the freeing and arming of slaves, he objected and demanded its excision; but Cameron did not yield, and although Lincoln himself eliminated this part of the report before sending it to Congress, the papers published the unexpurgated document, thereby humiliating the President and making a reconciliation with Cameron impossible.
“There was reluctance on the part of the President to remove Mr. Cameron,” wrote Welles, “and only a conviction of its absolute necessity and the unauthorized assumption of executive power in his Annual Report would have led the President to take the step.”
Stanton had done his work well and soon had his reward. His selection as Cameron’s successor was immediately proposed by Seward, and Lincoln sent his name to the Senate on January 13, 1862. It was then that Sumner moved its acceptance with the memorable words, “He is one of us.”
Interesting, indeed [proudly wrote Stanton’s biographer, Flower] is the fact that Lincoln was unaware that the iron-willed giant he was putting in was more stubbornly in favor of … arming the slaves … than the man he was putting out. Lincoln was also unaware that the recommendation which, with his own hand, he had expunged from Cameron’s report and which was the means of forcing its supposed author out, was conceived and written by the very man now going in … and so it may be said that Stanton wrote his own appointment !
Yes, Mr. Flower, this is interesting.
But should not Stanton, in all fairness to his new Chief, have made him acquainted with his views ? And what would Lincoln have done had he known them ?
With due disapproval of Stanton’s tactics, one feels like doffing one’s hat before such simple efficiency in the art of deceit.
The only man to object to Stanton’s appointment was Post-master General Montgomery Blair. Secretary of the Navy Welles merely recorded in his diary that he had reason to know that Stanton was engaged with discontented and mischievous persons in petty intrigues to impair confidence in the administration; but he said nothing. Blair, on the other hand, when Stanton had previously been considered for district-attorney at Washington, had stated reluctantly that he doubted his integrity, relating at the same time “an instance which had come to his knowledge and where he has proof of a bribe having been received ….” There could be no mistake, he averred. The details of this alleged case have never been divulged, but Blair and Welles remained aloof from their colleague in the War Department ever after.
“I am going to be Secretary of War to Old Abe,” confided Stanton to his friend Judge Piatt a few days before he entered upon his new duties.
“What will you do?” Piatt asked, curious about Stanton’s plans to reconcile his own and Lincoln’s widely separate points of view.
“Do?” was Stanton’s reply; “I intend to …. make Abe Lincoln President of the United States.”
Just what Stanton meant by these words is something of a riddle; for he was certainly professing no love for the President at that time. —[He was going to make Lincoln the President of a re-constructed, United under a central government States.]
Piatt was not the only one to doubt the compatability of Lincoln and Stanton, for Chittenden also thought that men of Mr. Stanton’s temperament could not be the favorites of President Lincoln. Nor was it merely divergence of temperament which erected a barrier between them, for, to quote Chittenden
There were also reasons of a personal character which would have barred his entrance into the Cabinet, if Mr. Lincoln had been an ordinary man. …. Both had been counsel for the same party in an action in which …. Mr. Lincoln was entitled to make the argument …. It was an action in which he took a deep interest professionally …. But Mr. Stanton … in a domineering manner not uncommon with him …. coolly assumed control and crowded Mr. Lincoln out of his own case.
Lincoln was deeply hurt in this instance and for the first time seemed “to have claimed in his own favor any question of precedence.”
Stanton undoubtedly remembered the success of his presumption in the above mentioned trial. Could it have been the ease with which he had dominated Lincoln in that case, which made him assert so confidently to Piatt that he was going to “make Abe Lincoln President of the United States” ?
The new Cabinet officer had hardly started his duties before he manifested his genius for disseminating views that were favorable to himself. On February 9, 1862, Seward’s friend, Thurlow Weed, published a story in the London Observer which quickly made its rounds through American newspapers. On December 27, 1860, according to this account, when President Buchanan appeared to be yielding to the demand of South Carolina that Major Anderson and his garrison be removed from Fort Sumter, Stanton stepped forward in a Cabinet meeting, denounced two of his colleagues as financially dishonest, and delivered an ultimatum to the Chief of the nation either to stand firm or to accept Stanton’s resignation. When Black, Holt and Dix seconded the motion, it “opened the bleary eyes of the President” and forced him to decide on the patriotic course so sternly demanded.
It is characteristic of Stanton’s ability as a propagandist that this tale, although lacking any foundation, has persisted to this day and is given universal credence.
Morgan Dix, writing the biography of his father, stated that “this highly colored narrative was not only untrue, but may be taken as a specimen of the numerous inventions of a time of excitement.” He had the written testimony of two of the men who were supposed to have taken part in this discussion that no such thing had occurred at any time while they were in the Cabinet. Even the date assigned to it by the inventors of this canard was wrong, as Dix at that time had not yet been appointed. Judge Black also denounced the account as false; and Stanton himself, when appealed to for verification, explained “how and by whom it had been fabricated, but said it was not worth a contradiction; for every man of common intelligence would know it to be a mere tissue of lies.”
When Henry Wilson repeated the story in eulogies of Stanton after his death, Judge Black fiercely demanded proof. Wilson turned to Holt, who was supposed to have been present, but Failed to enlist his support. Finally, the evidence simmered down to the testimony of the wife of Congressman Dawes, who “distinctly remembered hearing Stanton tell at her house the story of that terrible conflict in the Cabinet.”
There can be no doubt, then, as to who invented this tale, or as to what methods were used to circulate it.
Jeremiah Sullivan Black, who had warmly recommended Stanton to President Buchanan, said of him at the time: “His condemnation of the abolitionists was unsparing for their hypocrisy, their corruption, their enmity to the Constitution, and their lawless disregard for the rights of States and individuals. Thus he won the confidence of the Democrats.” But while, as Black guilelessly imagined, Stanton’s political principles were thought to be as well known as his name and occupation, the wily attorney general of Buchanan’s official family was holding nocturnal meetings with the most avowed Abolitionists in the country; he even advised them to kidnap one of his colleagues as soon as it was deemed expedient to do so.
Welles’ diary has an interesting comment in this connection:
Mr. Black says that Stanton went into Buchanan’s Cabinet under his auspices, and no one has ever questioned it. He further asserts that Mr. Stanton “said, many times, that he was there only that I [Black] might have two voices instead of one ….” The same professions and the same expressions were made by the same individual to Mr. Seward when he entered the Lincoln Cabinet, and subsequently, as I heard Mr. Seward say; and I doubt not with equal sincerity to each, though Black and Seward were entirely antagonistic in their political views and principles.
It is also noteworthy that this indomitable foe of all Secessionists, who “never spoke or wrote of those at war against the government, but as rebels and traitors”, was, while a member of Buchanan’s Cabinet, distinctly of the opinion that the government had no right to make war on a state for the purpose of coercing it to remain in the Union. Black stated that Stanton endorsed this point of view “with extravagant and undeserved laudation …. and the special message of the eighth of January, 1861, which expressed the same principles with added emphasis, was carefully read over to him before it was sent to Congress, and it received his unqualified assent. …. The evidence,” so Judge Black contended, “is direct as well as circumstantial, oral as well as documentary, and some of it is in the handwriting of Mr. Stanton himself.”
Francis Blair‘s imputations surpassed even those made by Black; according to Welles, Blair professed to have positive and unequivocal testimony that Stanton had acted with the Secessionists early in the war and had favored a division of the Union.
But after Stanton had joined hands with the Radicals and been assigned a seat in Lincoln’s Cabinet, his memory suffered a strange lapse; for he once told Congressmen Dawes and Washburne that Buchanan, before writing his annual message, had sent for him to answer the question of whether a state could be coerced. For two hours, so Stanton claimed, he had battled against the President, and had finally conquered temporarily the heresies in the head of the “old broken-down man.” Yet, it was with this ruin of a man that Stanton kept up a lively correspondence during 1861, praising his administration and jeering at Lincoln because he could do no better than follow the course of his predecessor. “So far …. as your administration is concerned,” Stanton wrote to Buchanan on July 16, “its policy in reference to both Sumter and Pickens is fully vindicated by the course of the present administration.” A policy (so Stanton’s greatest apologist, Flower, admits in parenthesis) which was strenuously opposed by Stanton while in Buchanan’s Cabinet.
In the same letter Stanton added: “I think that the public will be disposed to do full justice to your efforts to avert the calamity of civil war ….”
No sooner was Stanton firmly established as Secretary of War, than his elaborate plans to further his personal ambitions assumed definite shape. The first part of his program was to prolong the conflict, thereby aiding the Abolitionists in their scheme for final disfranchisement of the South and, incidentally, helping to create an army that would be a power for a long time to come and a formidable weapon in the hands of a military idol. That he would be the one to emerge in the end as the popular leader was undoubtedly his cherished dream. He could see no serious competition in the Cabinet. Lincoln he looked upon with more or less open contempt. He anticipated no trouble in dominating this uncouth country lawyer, as he had done once before; what he dreaded was the rise of a successful and popular general who might catch the public fancy and capture the prize he coveted for himself. That problem would not have to be dealt with till later, however. Of the ultimate end of the war there could be no doubt. Barring a miracle, the enormous preponderance of the North’s numbers, its unlimited resources and the ever tightening blockade must eventually bring the Confederacy to its knees, no matter how badly the Union generals handled the campaigns.
In the meantime, several manoeuvers had to be executed. One of the first was to secure control of all intercourse with the press.
“From January, 1862, when Stanton entered the cabinet, until the war ended,” said David Homer Bates, “the telegraphic reins of the Government were held by a firm and skilful hand. …. Stanton ‘centered the telegraph in the War Department, where the publication of military news …. could be supervised, and, if necessary, delayed ….'” On February 25, 1862, Stanton appointed a military supervisor of telegrams. “What his blue pencil erased ….” proclaimed Bates haughtily, “had to be left out, and reporters frequently spent hours in procuring some choice bit of news which was never transmitted over the wires.”
Before long Stanton swept the management of all the telegraph lines in the United States into the War Department and, on March 2, he concentrated the telegraph machinery in a room next to his own. Even Lincoln was not allowed a special code and had to send and receive messages through the common channel. This arrangement, together with his censorship over the press, gave the War Minister a power never before dreamed of, and one which he was not loath to use to his own advantage.
“The telegraph office is in the War Department Building,” recorded Welles, “which has a censorship over all that passes or is received.”
Stanton could be a man of Machiavellian finesse whenever it suited his purpose. While all his efforts were being directed to destroy McClellan, for example, he informed the press that the fall of Richmond could be expected momentarily. Naturally, these joyous tidings were immediately flashed all over the Northern states. There was nothing in the situation at that time which warranted such optimism, and McClellan certainly had not authorized any such statement. But when Richmond was not taken, and the normal reaction set in, it was not Stanton’s reputation which suffered, but McClellan’s.
The war went on. McClellan, a most dangerous opponent for future honors, was disposed of; for the moment there was nothing to fear from the other army leaders who followed in rapid succession. But within the Cabinet a new figure arose to challenge Stanton’s superiority. This was Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, who was showing an ambition to run for the presidency in 1864. The relations between Chase and Stanton were neither cordial nor contrariwise; but the Secretary of War had to meet this new situation. He did so in his own inimitable way.
On October 11, 1862, Chase had asked General Hunter, “What of Stanton?” To which he had received the reply: “Know little of him. …. Think, from facts that have come to my knowledge, that he is not sincere. He wears two faces ….”
It was not long before Chase had an opportunity to form his own opinion on this subject.
A man named Hurtt had been commissioned on October 13, 1861, as assistant quartermaster of volunteers. He had hardly reached his post in Cincinnati when he began to speculate in forage and supplies. According to revelations which appeared in the Cincinnati Gazette after the war (1874), he entered into correspondence with some of Chase’s confidential financial agents, and soon the frauds for which he was responsible assumed gigantic proportions. In the midst of these doings General Burnside took command of the Department of the Ohio, and on July 28, 1863, directed one Major N.H. McLean to investigate some of Hurtt’s transactions. McLean made his report in September 1863, and on November 23, Hurtt was put on trial before a court-martial. Then something unexpected happened. A telegram was received from the War Department; the court was declared dissolved, and all papers were ordered to be sealed and sent to Washington. Scarcely enough time had elapsed for an examination of these documents at the War Department when Major McLean was peremptorily removed from his post at Cincinnati and instructed to report for duty at Vancouver, in Washington territory.
A second court was convened in the following year; Hurtt was convicted and dismissed from service. Just before the proceedings of the case were ready for publication, the general distribution of court-martial orders was stopped by direction of the War Department.
“Many readers will ask,” wrote the Cincinnati Gazette, “why did a man of Mr. Stanton’s iron nerve hesitate to put all these offenders, high and low, on trial at once ? …. men so high in the nation’s counsels, and in the confidence of the people, were compromised, that to uncover their iniquity …. would result, as he feared, in destroying the confidence of the people.”
Stanton had reasoned, according to this paper, that it was unwise to let the nation know about a league organized for plunder only, which counted among its members
…. the financial agents of the government and some of its most prominent political supporters …. And so the court was dissolved, and the officer who knew all the facts, and who had the full confidence of his commanding general, was obliged to leave with his family, in the dead of winter, for the most distant point on American soil, lest the facts in regard to a band of robbers, holding high position, should by any possibility come to light.
Probably it was only a coincidence that General Burnside himself was sent to Knoxville in August 1863, before Major McLean had made his report on the swindling operations.
It may have been some such incident that Judge Piatt had in mind when, in writing a chapter on Stanton in his Memories he said: “The true story of the late war has not been told. It probably never will be told. It is not flattering to our people, and …. unpalatable truths seldom find their way into history.”
The article in the Cincinnati Gazette was written by General Boynton, and he named the Cookes as the financial agents of the government. To what extent others were involved in this scandal is not relevant. The important thing is that the righteous Stanton had compromised with his conscience, and had done so to save Secretary Chase from serious embarrassment; for Chase’s misplaced confidence in these rogues would have given him painful prominence had Stanton chosen not to intervene.
—[or; Stanton and Chase were on the same team, and Stanton did what he had to…]
After this Stanton had no reason to fear Chase.
Mere love of subterfuge seems at times to have governed Stanton’s actions, even when nothing could be gained by an evasion of the truth. In September 1862, General Butler, desiring reinforcements, addressed a letter to Senator Wilson, asking him to use his influence with the Secretary of War to have them sent to him promptly. Wilson did so and wrote that “he [Stanton] agreed with me and …. expressed his confidence in you, and his approval of your vigor and ability.”
But twenty-one days previous to this, by a secret order, Stanton had appointed General Banks to succeed the unsuspecting Butler, and while he was handing those bland assurances to his caller, he knew all the time that Butler was no longer the commander. Is it any wonder the latter wrote: “Can lying, injustice, deceit, and tergiversation farther go ?”
During the early months of his incumbency, Stanton tried hard to bend the President to his wishes. In the beginning he succeeded with surprising ease. Lincoln issued his rash war orders under Stanton’s tutelage and followed the War Minister in his persecution and final dismissal of McClellan. Stanton found, however, that he could not influence his Chief beyond a certain point. Lincoln did not mind his Secretary’s brutal manners, nor his almost open contempt, or if he did, he hid it well behind a mask of tolerant amusement. But behind that mask there lurked resentment.
Encouraged by Lincoln’s apparent docility, Stanton crept forward craftily. By the summer of 1863, he had succeeded to such an extent that he occasionally ordered Lincoln around like a clerk. When the news of Hooker’s resignation reached him, Stanton, according to his own account, “sent for the President to come to the War Office at once. It was in the evening, but the President soon appeared.”
Who else in Washington, not excepting Seward, would have had the audacity to request the Chief Executive to come to his department to read a telegram, rather than take the message to the White House ?
In 1864, the inevitable clash came. “I cannot do it,” exclaimed Stanton on one occasion. “Mr. Secretary, it will have to be done” replied Lincoln. Stanton surrendered. He had challenged the President and had lost. It is possible that from then on Stanton’s contempt was blended with hatred.
There are other incidents on record showing how quickly the imperious War Lord, when confronted with someone who was not awed by his blustering, could be cowed, in spite of his outward show of combativeness. Once an officer called on him to get a pass for an old man who desired to visit his dying son. Stanton refused the request, whereupon the officer, drawing himself up to his full height, said: “My name is … Walton Dwight, lieutenant-colonel of the One Hundred and Forty-ninth Regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers. You can dismiss me from the service as soon as you like, but I am going to tell you what I think of you.” He did — and got his pass.
A similar case is reported by Maunsell B. Field, assistant secretary of the treasury under Chase. It appears that Secretary Chase had just heard some disagreeable news and was in an ugly mood. “Mr. Stanton,” related the narrator, “unfortunately for himself, happened to come into the Secretary’s room shortly after … when he received such a verbal castigation at the hands of Mr. Chase as few men would have ventured to inflict upon the great War Secretary. What was more remarkable, however, he bore it with great meekness.”
A third instance is reported by Colonel Burnett who in the conspiracy trial acted as assistant judge advocate.
Wiechmann and Holahan were wanted by Stanton; Burnett was instructed by the Secretary to take their statements and then let them go. He performed this task, but Stanton in the meantime had discovered his mistake in losing contact with the two men and upbraided Burnett in a most insulting manner. The next day the assistant prosecutor produced his witnesses again, and then said: “And now, Mr. Stanton, I am through with the service under you … You would have condemned and disgraced me … for obeying your own order, and I am damned if I will serve further under any such man. … I am through with you. …” Thereupon the Secretary got up from his desk and humbly begged Colonel Burnett’s pardon.
“He [Stanton] believes in mere force, so long as he wields it,” wrote Edward Bates, “but cowers before it, when wielded by any other hand.” Bates was Stanton’s colleague in Lincoln’s Cabinet and should have known.
For three years Stanton had held his portfolio and things were working out well for his plan. The war had been prolonged; the slaves had been freed. A new Union would have to be built on the ruins of the old, and the party to which he had given his latest allegiance would be firmly in the saddle.
McClellan was out of public favor, and there was no one in the offing to take his place. If no new general who was widely popular arose to mar his designs, Stanton was likely to become the hero of the nation; for history showed convincingly that after every great victory the people elevated the man they considered responsible for it to the most exalted position within their power.
Of course, there was Grant. But to most observers in Washington at that time, the modest little man appeared dull. Richard Dana of Boston, who happened on the general in the Willard Hotel lobby, wrote of him in this manner: “A short, round-shouldered man, in a very tarnished … uniform … He had no gait, no station, no manner … and rather a scrubby look …” Grant might win battles –no one knew how he did it– but as a politician he would be like clay in the hands of the War Minister.
In 1864, Stanton had insisted on controlling the cipher operator at Grant’s headquarters and later on had given instructions to have all of the general’s wires copied for inspection. He left Grant’s orders unapproved for days until it was “entirely convenient for him” to sanction them.
Stanton probably did this mainly to test the temper of his subordinate; the latter, while slightly irritated, bore no grudge. At any rate, in November, Grant told Lincoln that no one was better fitted for the office than Stanton and that he desired no other superior. At that time strong pressure was being exerted on Lincoln to change his Secretary of War. The commendation from the head of the Western armies undoubtedly strengthened Stanton’s hold on his position. Stanton now saw how far he could go without arousing Grant and did everything within his means to belittle the deeds of the victorious commander. In his report on the final operations of the war there is not one word in praise of the general in chief. He roughly asserted his superiority over Grant, and sent for him as he would for a lieutenant. Apparently Grant could be bullied; there was nothing to fear from him.
Of the prominent military leaders only Sherman remained. Highly educated, grim-visaged and suspicious of all politicians, the leader of the march to the sea could not be easily pushed aside. But Stanton soon had an opportunity to sink his stiletto into him to the hilt. After this popular officer had proposed Lincoln’s own peace terms to Johnston, Stanton, without the President’s knowledge or consent, sent to the press such an account of the general’s course of action –including nine reasons why the agreement had been disapproved– that in many an editorial column Sherman was openly accused of treason. By ordering other generals to proceed against the Confederate army at once, Stanton practically made sure of such an interpretation.
Stanton even dared to suggest to the papers that Sherman had been bribed to make his peace terms and to let Jefferson Davis escape to Mexico or Europe.
“The orders of General Sherman to General Stoneman,” his message read, “to withdraw from Salisbury and join him will probably open the way for Davis to escape to Mexico or Europe with his plunder, which is reported to be very large, including not only the plunder of Richmond banks, but previous accumulations.”
Lest this insinuation should be overlooked, the Secretary of War quoted a telegram from Richmond which was still more offensive. Referring to Davis and his partisans, it intimated that, “they hope, it is said, to make terms with General Sherman or some other Southern Union commander, by which they will be permitted with their effects, including this gold plunder, to go to Mexico or Europe.”
Sherman saw through these machinations, but was powerless. He charged Stanton with “deadly malignity” and expressed the wish to “see deeper into the diabolical plot ….” “When you advised me of the assassin Clark being on my track,” he wrote, “I little dreamed he would turn up in the direction and guise he did ….” The distinguished general evidently recognized that in a political sense he had been thoroughly assassinated and disposed of.
Thus, with one blow, the idol of the western armies was vanquished by Stanton’s artifices and was prevented from becoming a dangerous rival.
—[or, he was prevented from becoming a dangerous opponent of the radical reconstructionists….]
Meanwhile, four years of war had not only achieved the result for which Stanton had striven –the preparation of the North for a peace conforming to his own ideas– but it had dulled the nation’s sense of right and wrong.
“Men who had lived so long under the nervous strain of killing other men while trying to be gentle and chivalrous at the same time finally gave it up as a bad job,” writes Woodward in his book Meet General Grant, “Hard, animal-like streaks are beginning to appear in his [Grant’s] nature,” he continued. “He has visibly coarsened in fiber.”
So had everyone else. Human lives had ceased to mean what they had meant in times of peace. Grant left thirty thousand Northern prisoners to die in the camp of Andersonville, although the Confederates were willing to release them unconditionally if steamers would be sent to Southern ports to remove them. Stanton did not disapprove of Grant’s pitiless attitude. He and Seward had thrown thousands of prisoners of their own into cells, and it did not seem to hurt their consciences. The principle of malice toward none, charity for all afforded small consolation to the unfortunates, estimated at thirty-eight thousand, who languished in cells for political reasons only, and were kept there without charges and without recourse to court, habeas corpus having been suspended by executive proclamation. Stanton’s biographer even boasts that “the number of arrests made under his [Stanton’s] so-called ‘arbitrary’ authority during the war, including deserters and bounty-jumpers, reached nearly two hundred and sixty thousand.”
As the war drew to a close, Stanton seemed about to reach the zenith of his career; with Chase safely seated on the bench of the Supreme Court and with Grant cowed, the War Minister was second only to Lincoln in public acclaim. Aside from the Chief Executive, he recognized no authority higher than his own. According to a lifelong friend, he was “drunk with the lust of power” and “fairly rioted in its enjoyment.”
The attorney general, aroused to impotent indignation by the War Lord’s constant encroachments on his own field, expressed the opinion that Lincoln himself was being awed into passive submission. “I have never interfered,” he declared, “with military seisures for mere military purposes; but I feel it to be my duty to denounce, if I cannot prevent, the frequent instances of needless, groundless and wanton interference of the military, in matters which, in no wise concern them, as if the object were to contemn and degrade the civil power. …. The President’s opinions (known and published) are against these arbitrary proceedings, and yet they are boldly practiced. … I fear he has to say, in his heart, like King David — ‘These sons [of] Zeruiah be too hard for me!'”
Was Lincoln afraid of Stanton ?
At least one man thought so — John A. Kasson, an Iowa congressman, who later became Minister to Austria. In a chapter contributed to Allen T. Rice’s Reminiscenses of Abraham Lincoln, he used the subtitle, Lincoln Afraid of Stanton and justified it by narrating a singular experience.
Kasson had obtained from the President an order for the promotion of an officer; when he took it to Stanton, he was brutally insulted, and the execution of the order was refused.
“A few days later …” Kasson wrote, “I reported the affair to the President. A look of vexation came over his face, and he seemed unwilling then to talk of it …”
Shortly after this Lincoln gave Kasson another order and requested him to take it to the War Department. This the Iowan declined to do. “‘Oh,’ said the President, ‘Stanton has gone to Fortress Monroe and Dana is acting. …’ This he said with a manner of relief …”
Kasson soon found an opportunity for revenge. Walking into the House one day [Wednesday, January 18, 1865.], he heard Thaddeus Stevens on the floor defending the Secretary of War, who was charged with having confined innocent men in the Old Capitol Prison.
“As soon as Mr. Stevens had finished,” Kasson wrote, “… I let loose my denunciations of his [Stanton’s] willful and arbitrary action … In three minutes every newspaper and every pen … was laid aside … The vote was soon taken, and … only five votes were given on the Secretary’s side [Cobb, Eckley, McBride, Spalding, Stevens], to one hundred and twenty-five for the resolution. …
“The next time I saw Mr. Lincoln, I remember well his change of manner to me. He showed his gratification in his peculiar and familiar manner, by his twinkling eyes, and by his slapping me on the thigh, as I thought quite unnecessarily.”
There was one fly in the ointment, however, from Stanton’s point of view. He was not sure that Lincoln would keep him in the Cabinet when the combat was ended. The War Minister therefore decided on an adroit move to force the issue. As soon as the President returned from Richmond, Stanton offered his resignation. There was not the slightest chance that Lincoln would accept it at this moment of triumph, and Stanton knew it. But he put the President into a position where, in order to be consistent, he would have to put up with his Secretary of War for a while longer, even after sober thoughts had replaced his first overwhelming joy.
During August of the preceding year it had been rumored that Stanton was going to relinquish his position. These reports were contemptuously dismissed by the Secretary of the Navy. “If Stanton ever, at any time or under any circumstances, has spoken in whisper to the President of resigning, he did not mean it,” he commented, “for he would be, I think, one of the very last to quit, and never except on compulsion.” Later events were to prove how right Welles was and how much compulsion it took to make the War Minister vacate his place.
Temporarily, Stanton was safe; under his clever management the future could be trusted to take care of itself. The elections of 1868 were still far off — but who would then be more available than the outstanding chieftain of the war ?
There is little doubt that Stanton would have brushed Lincoln aside if he had thought it possible to do so. He once told Welles that he was under no particular obligation to the President, who had called him to a difficult position and had imposed labors and responsibilities on him such as no man could carry. The obligation, he said, was the other way. It was not gratitude which kept Stanton the faithful servant of the President, but prudence. Chase, popular with many politicians, had tried to replace Lincoln; McClellan had done the same; both had failed. Lincoln evidently had the voters on his side. It was still safer to work with him than against him.
When Chase began to aspire to the presidency, Attorney General Bates thought that Stanton was preparing for the eventuality of Chase’s election; for he saw fit to make a pungent entry in his diary on March 9, 1864.
“If the President had a little more vim, he would either control or discharge Mr. Stanton. If I were in his place, I would never submit to have the whole influence of the two most powerful Departments, Treasury and War, brought to bear upon the election — against the President and for the aspiring Secretary.”
Later on in the summer, when the outlook for the Northern cause was more dismal than ever, the opposition press did not hesitate to put into plain words that it suspected more than mere incompetence in high places.
“The people are demanding of the administration to recall McClellan,” wrote the New York Herald on August 5, 1864, “that the country in its trying hour may have the benefit of his superior skill and genius. This demand is so strong that even the radical journals like the Post and the Commercial join in the cry. Mr. Lincoln must not think from this that the public will be satisfied in placing him in command while he retains Stanton in the War Department to interfere and upset all his plans and defeat his efforts to crush out the rebellion. The only hope for Old Abe is in the immediate removal of all such Marplots as Stanton and Halleck, and in giving McClellan a command commensurate with his ability and skill. Has Mr. Lincoln patriotism enough left to do this ?”
It was then that Stanton did something that gave some observers the impression that he was beginning personal negotiations with the Southern leaders, somewhat along the lines he had followed when he had established contact with prominent Republicans while still a member of Buchanan’s Cabinet. The New York Herald of August 19, 1864, reported sneeringly that Judge Black (Stanton’s sponsor and former law partner), Jake Thompson (Jefferson Davis’ chief agent in Canada) and General Hooker were all stopping at hotels in Niagara Falls and wondered whether Stanton had upset the peace negotiations of Horace Greeley with the Southern commissioners in order to initiate his own. “The alarm and fear that have taken possession of Old Abe have given rise to the rumor that Judge Black came with the permission of Secretary Stanton,” wrote a Niagara Falls correspondent.
Stanton, in the opinion of some contemporary critics, would not have hesitated to go to considerable lengths in his secret parleys with the enemy. “The Blairs charge Stanton with infidelity to party and to country,” wrote Welles in July 1863, “from mere selfish considerations, and with being by nature treacherous ….. Were any overwhelming adversity to befall the country, they look upon him as ready to betray it.”
Unquestionably Judge Black did make the journey to Canada with Stanton’s consent. The former had mentioned accidentally that he was going; whereupon the War Minister “instantly and very unequivocably” expressed his wish that the visit should be consummated. “You repeated it not less than three times,” wrote Black.
Black’s trip across the Canadian border did not remain unnoticed. It seemed to be the understanding among the exiled Confederates that Stanton was bargaining for his personal safety in case of defeat; the Reverend Robinson wrote as follows:
“Why what will you think … when I tell you that I saw, myself, in intimate association, here [in Toronto], with Messrs. Thompson and Cleary, and elsewhere with Messrs. Clay and others, a distinguished jurist whom I understood to have come directly from Secretary Stanton himself, to consult, during the alarm about the prospective breakdown of the Republican party in August last, and his reported fears of personal violence to the Cabinet from the excited populace of the North ?”
There is no definite proof of treachery on Stanton’s part in this episode. Black and Thompson were discussing an armistice, but just what the scheming Secretary of War had in mind, there is no way of knowing. Lincoln’s ticket was not given an even chance of winning at that time, and if the Peace party had come into power in the November elections, Stanton’s downfall was inevitable. The bellicose little War Minister was reputed by Welles, and by others who knew him well, to be a physical coward, and it was rumored in Washington that he always carried a stiletto in his shirt bosom. The Reverend Robinson’s fear of violence on the part of an outraged people was probably shared by Stanton.
The battle of Mobile and the fall of Atlanta changed the whole picture abruptly. The peace negotiations came to a sudden end, and Stanton felt insolently serene again.
Unexpectedly the blow fell. Lincoln was deserting his own party by taking steps to restore the Union on its old foundations. The South was to come in again and would vote the Republican party out of office — Lincoln, Stanton, Sumner and all. If Stanton were to survive politically, he would have to turn Democrat once more; but this was probably too big a task even for this skillful dissembler. The future which had looked so bright was suddenly shrouded with gloom.
It was then that Lincoln was shot.
Curious thoughts must have coursed through Stanton’s mind as he watched the prostrate figure of his dying Chief stretched diagonally across a boardinghouse bed. This backwoods lawyer with the enormous muscular development that now was plainly visible on the naked body, had not proved so pliable after all. Without a college education, without natural refinement, he had undertaken to establish his authority over every one of his Cabinet members.
Mrs. Lincoln, frightened and distracted, had fallen to the floor in a faint. A sudden rage possessed Stanton. Brutally, he gave orders to take “that woman” out of the room and not to let her come back. The President was sinking; there was no purpose in still acting like a gentleman to his wife.
But there were other things to be done. Stanton summoned Vice President Johnson, and sent him home again after a few moments because, as he claimed, his presence annoyed Mrs. Lincoln. If Johnson were imprudent enough to leave, so much the worse for him. How pleasing it must have been to the War Minister to see everyone taking orders from him. Even the Vice President, on the verge of becoming Chief Executive, was acknowledging Stanton’s superiority. Of course, Johnson, as war governor of Tennessee, had once been under the authority of the War Department. Perhaps Stanton’s autocracy could be made to outlast this night, and, if properly nursed, to perpetuate itself. It was a dream worth dreaming.
“In the back bedroom of Peterson’s lodging-house,” writes Lloyd Lewis, “he [Stanton] took charge of the Republic. Through the war this ‘mad incorruptible’ had believed himself to be the real ruler of the nation, guiding with his superior brain the weaker, softer will of Lincoln, and now his hour had come. He was dictator.”
When Lincoln’s death was announced, Stanton did a queer thing; he slowly, and with apparent deliberation, straightened out his right arm, placed his hat for an instant on his head, and then as deliberately returned it to its original position. To some of those present it must have appeared as if Stanton were crowning himself King of America.
As Stanton surveyed the situation on the morning of Lincoln’s death, his triumph seemed complete. The South was conquered and completely at the mercy of the President, as Congress was not in session. Seward was confined to his bed in what was thought to be a critical condition. Grant was under the thumb of the War Department. The President could be depended upon to be stern and uncompromising — and to take orders from his Secretary of War. Besides, as long as Johnson lived, he would walk under the shadow of his great blunder on the day of his inauguration. There was no apparent reason why Stanton could not remain what he had been during the night of April 14 — de facto President of the United States.
To demonstrate his affection for the dead President and incidentally his power, the War Minister ordered the closing of the playhouse in which the assassination had taken place. There was no legal justification whatsoever for this act. “Nothing could be more despotic,” opined Browning, “and yet in this free Country Mr Ford is utterly helpless, and without the means of redress.”
“I see by the papers,” one reads in the diary of the former attorney general, “that the Sec of War has, by his simple fiat, prevented the opening of Ford’s Theatre … After that, what may he not do ? What is to hinder him from transferring estates from one man to another, annulling land titles and dissolving the tie of marriage?”
There is no denying that Lincoln’s death held out a great promise for Stanton.
At the same time it must have occurred to the War Minister that here was an opportunity to link himself dramatically to the unforgettable moment of Lincoln’s death. From out of nowhere emerged the pathetic words which the austere Secretary was reported to have uttered when it was announced that the end had come:
Now he belongs to the Ages.
A beautiful epilogue. What a pity that it probably never was spoken.
As time passed, and the supposedly pliant Johnson followed more and more in Lincoln’s footsteps, Stanton’s hopes for a continued dictatorship slowly dwindled. Johnson actually grew more self-willed than Lincoln had ever been. He made every effort to restore the South to its place in the Union and, since Congress was adjourned, was making rapid headway toward peace and harmony.
The Radicals were furious, but impotent. Until the legislative bodies of Washington would convene, nothing could be done to stop the President. When at last the thirty-ninth session opened in December 1865, Thaddeus Stevens of the House, the bitterest of them all, organized a steering committee of fifteen which was created for only one purpose — to prevent representatives from the South from occupying their seats in the congressional halls. It was a revolutionary measure, desperate, unprecedented, but effective. Against the solid wall of iniquity presented by the Radicals in both Houses, all of Johnson’s appeals and arguments were shattered into fragments. To the victors belonged the spoils, and the Radicals would not yield one jot or one tittle, the Constitution of the United States notwithstanding.
In the Shadow of Lincoln’s Death
Stanton’s Reign of Terror
In the background of the mysteries which veil Lincoln’s assassination, of the iniquities of the conspiracy trial and the horrors of torturing the prisoners, hovered the same sinister figure –that of War Minister Stanton. After Lincoln’s death, Stanton became the most powerful man in the country. For more than three years he had built up a machine against which resistance was hopeless. An army of secret service men and provost marshals was at his beck and call. He had installed a censorship over the press which was not less menacing because it was not clearly defined. He controlled the telegraph wires and could order the courtmartialing of anyone who dared oppose him. For a time following Lincoln’s death he was for all practical purposes dictator of the United States; but even long before then he had installed a veritable reign of terror throughout the Northern states.
In his vast arsenal of power Stanton had one weapon which was formidable beyond any other: the military prisons. Within their silent walls he could bury his enemies with no fear of consequences. After Lincoln had suspended the habeas corpus act –a writ guaranteeing a judicial hearing to anyone detained against his will– those whom the military chose to arrest could be held without recourse to the courts and even without charges being preferred against them. Compared with such absolutism, even Stanton’s control of the telegraph and his influence over the press dwindled into insignificance.
Stanton did not originate the idea of the arbitrary arrests –a designation used eventually by advocates and opponents alike. These seizures were already in vogue when he entered upon his duties in Lincoln’s Cabinet. On April 27, 1861, prior to the assembling of Congress in July, the President had authorized General Scott to suspend the privilege of habeas corpus at any point on the line of troop movements between Philadelphia and Washington. By July 2, the line was extended to New York, and on October 11 to Bangor, Maine. Without other authority, Secretary of State Seward, who had somehow attached this prerogative to his department, began to issue orders for the arrest and imprisonment of persons suspected of disloyal acts or designs in all parts of the country. Seward was quoted as having once boasted to Lord Lyon, the British ambassador: “My Lord, I can touch a bell on my right hand, and order the arrest of a citizen of Ohio; I can touch a bell again, and order the imprisonment of a citizen of New York; and no power on earth, except that of the President, can release them. Can the Queen of England do so much ?”
On October 28, 1861, Secretary of State Seward authorized General McClellan to suspend the habeas corpus act in Maryland “and make arrests of traitors and their confederates in his discretion.” McClellan in turn delegated the power to suspend the constitutional guarantees of American citizens to other subordinate officers. Thus the seeds for a reign of terror were carelessly sown. They were soon to bear fruit of a most unwholesome nature.
The military departments welcomed this addition to their power, and even Generals McClellan and Dix, politically opposed to the administration, lent their willing support. Chief Justice Taney of the United States Supreme Court filed an opinion, however, to be laid before Lincoln, in which he denied the right of the President to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, affirming that such power was vested in Congress alone. But Taney was suspected of Southern sympathies, and therefore his judicial pronouncement was disregarded. On July 12, 1861, the House of Representatives asked for a copy of Taney’s opinion, but took no further action.
Lincoln had suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus on advice of his Attorney General, Edward Bates. On October 26, 1865, after the mischief caused by the suspension had become history, Bates discussed this matter in his diary, making an ingenious effort at defense.
“Some men,” he wrote, “apparently, very sensible men too, have, as it seems to me, very strange ideas about the Hab: Corp:– They seem to think that the suspension of the privilege of the writ, confers upon the Government, (or the officers of the Government) the lawful power to arrest and imprison whomsoever it will, and for whatever length of time it pleases. This is a great error. … The most that can be accomplished by the writ of Hab: Corp: is the discharge of the prisoner from illegal restrai[n]t. It affords him no redress for the personal wrong done to him ….
“The suspension of the privilege of the writ …. does not suspend the privilege of the writ of trespass. And hence, a man illegally imprisoned and without the right to issue a writ of habeas corpus, may, nevertheless issue his writ of trespass, and recover damages against his unlawful jailer, while he is still in prison. ….”
If Bates had possessed a sense of humor, which he did not, one might be tempted to consider this dissertation an ill-timed joke. The military prisoners were hardly ever permitted to see a lawyer, unless a trial was intended, which was infrequent; their whereabouts were generally unknown to their families and friends. The chief complaint of these victims of military law was not the question of possible damages, but their incarceration. Furthermore, any action against the “unlawful jailer” would have resulted in quick reprisals.
When Stanton became Secretary of War on January 20, 1862, he immediately recognized the tremendous potentialities of these arbitrary arrests. He had been in office only three weeks when he had Lincoln transfer this power over the liberty of citizens exclusively to the War Department. On February 14, 1862, the President issued Executive Order No. 1, signed by the Secretary of War. In this lengthy document, evidently composed by Stanton, many claims were set forth, a number of them typically exaggerated: “The capital was besieged and its connection with all the States cut off. … Armies, ships, … were betrayed or abandoned to the insurgents. … The insurrection is believed to have culminated and to be declining. …”
Of course, Washington had not been besieged, no armies or ships had been betrayed and the fortunes of war were then still with the Confederates; but all that was really beside the point. The meat of the kernel was well hidden in this cloud of verbosity. It consisted of very few words.
… Extraordinary arrests will hereafter be made under the direction of the military authorities alone.
It was Stanton’s first great triumph.
“… Lincoln had seen fit to transfer the license of making arbitrary arrests from the Secretary of State to the Secretary of War,” commented Senator Trumbull in later years. Then he added thoughtfully: “The change was no betterment, however, for, where Seward had previously chastised the suspected ones with whips, Stanton now chastised them with scorpions. Arbitrary arrests became more numerous and arbitrary than before.”
A commission of two members was created to examine the cases of the “State prisoners”, men who had been arbitrarily deprived of their liberty under Secretary Seward’s regime. General John A. Dix, who was appointed to the commission on February 27, 1862, was amazed at what he found in these military prisons even that early in the war.
“I was yesterday at Fort Wool,” he wrote to General Mansfield, on August 12, “and discharged a large number of prisoners … I examined several of them, and am satisfied that they have committed no act of hostility against the United States. That they sympathize with the insurgents there is no doubt … So long as they continue quietly about their business they should not be molested.
“The exercise of this power of arrest is at the same time the most arbitrary and the most delicate … and it is one which should not be delegated to a subordinate. I find that many … were arrested … on suspicion. This must not be repeated. …”
A few days later, having received a reply to his letter, he sent further instruction to General Mansfield.
In regard to arrests … there was at least one, and I think more, for which there was not, in my judgment, the slightest cause. … The arrests were made without your order…. When Judge Pierrepont [the other member of the commission] and I examined the cases of political prisoners … from Washington to Fort Warren [Boston], we found persons arrested … who had been lying in prison for months without any just cause. For this reason, as well as on general principles of justice and humanity, I must insist that every person arrested shall have a prompt examination….
Three months after General Dix had been appointed a member of the investigating committee, he was suddenly transferred from Baltimore to Fortress Monroe. General Dix was a highly efficient officer and his transfer gave rise to much inquiry and comment. Dix’s son opined that the order amounted to removal from the command of a Department and assignment to a mere army post. No official explanation for this demotion was ever given. Could it be that Stanton had weighed General Dix’s humaneness and found it excessive ? “The secret history of the war,” wrote Dix’s son in 1883, “would give the explanation, but this is as yet unwritten.” So far as this incident goes, it is still unwritten now, two generations later.
On September 24, 1862, Lincoln issued a proclamation giving Stanton’s promiscuous incarcerations his full backing. A storm of protest followed. Former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin R. Curtis, a native of Massachusetts and a strong Republican partisan, asserted publicly that Lincoln had made himself a legislator, had superadded to his rights as commander the powers of a usurper, “and that is military despotism.” Judge Curtis had filed a minority opinion against Taney’s Dred Scott decision in 1857 and was a man of undoubted loyalty and fine legal acumen. His judgment foreshadowed what the United States Supreme Court would later announce by unanimous decision: that these arbitrary arrests were illegal. At the time Curtis’ pamphlet appeared, however, it exerted no lasting influence.
The day following Lincoln’s decree, far-seeing Gideon Welles remarked in his diary:
The President has issued a proclamation on martial law,– suspension of habeas corpus he terms it … Of this proclamation, I knew nothing until I saw it in the papers, and am not sorry that I did not. I question the wisdom or utility of a multiplicity of proclamations striking deep on great questions.
In the fall of 1862 Congress passed an act (which became a law on March 3, 1863), directing the Secretary of State and the Secretary of War “to furnish to the judges of the United States circuit and district courts lists of political prisoners now or hereafter confined within their jurisdiction, and made it the duty of the judge to discharge … those prisoners against whom the grand jury … found no indictment. If the lists were not furnished within twenty days, … relief was provided for any citizen who suffered from the arbitrary action of the authorities.”
No such lists were ever furnished to any court, so far as is known. The law remained a dead letter throughout the war. The relish for autocratic government had developed to such an extent that, according to the diary of Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, in September of 1863 the provisions of this act were unfamiliar to all his colleagues in the Cabinet and even to Lincoln himself.
In order to keep full control over his principal punitive weapon, the Old Capitol prison, Stanton created a secret service of his own, under the guidance of his devoted assistant, Peter H. Watson. This Assistant Secretary of War had been a patent attorney in Washington and had been associated with his chief in the unsavory McCormick reaper case. He was described as a short, stout man, with red hair and beard. Under his direction a system of secret police was organized, consisting of only one man at first, but developing gradually into a regular force called “National Detectives”, commanded by Colonel Lafayette C. Baker. This army of about two thousand, of which Watson remained the general commander, was a law unto itself.
Eventually, Baker was appointed special provost marshal of the War Department, which gave him practically uncontrolled power. The Pinkerton detectives, who up to that time had played a part in the secret service of the War Department, were discharged, and Baker became the czar of his own realm, subject only to Stanton’s orders.
“…. this creation of a regiment of detectives could be explained by nothing except a growing spirit of absolutism in the War Office,” commented Provost Marshal William E. Doster, whose own business at that time also was the arrest of the government’s enemies, but to whom “the establishment of a special prison …. and the subjection of people to mental torture by a thousand lawless characters, appeared entirely inexcusable.
“The great fault of this prison (and one for which the Secretary is and ought to be blamed),” Doster continued, “was that it operated like a rat-trap — there was only a hole in but no hole out; in other words, plenty of provision for arresting people, but none for trying them or disposing of their cases.
“Baker could arrest, the detectives could arrest, the military governor could arrest, the provost marshal could arrest, the Secretary and each of his two assistants could arrest, but none of them could discharge without running great risk of getting into trouble with some or all of the others. ….
“General Wadsworth [Washington’s military governor in 1862] felt this matter very keenly, and could never allude to it without expressing his indignation at the Secretary’s policy. …. The charges against the people incarcerated by order of the Secretary were on file in the War Office, but neither I nor the Governor were allowed, as a rule, either to see the prisoners or to hear what was alleged against them.”
This minor provost marshal often wondered why Stanton and Watson took a personal interest in such local matters as the secret police, even going so far as to ignore the military governor and department commander; “there was no honor or glory to be gathered in such things by a Minister of War; on the other hand, a great deal of odium,” this officer mused. It probably did not occur to him that the secret service was a source from which boundless power could be made to flow.
Some arbitrary arrests on the part of the military put Lincoln into an embarrassing position. In 1863, Congressman Vallandigham, legally elected, even though he was considered “the incarnation of Copperheadism”, was taken into custody by General Burnside for alleged treasonable utterances, tried by a military commission in Cincinnati, found guilty, and sentenced to close confinement in Fort Warren. Lincoln cleverly commuted the sentence to banishment across the army lines and handed Vallandigham over to his supposed friends, who were not overly happy to receive him. The humor of this situation appealed to the general public, friend and foe alike, but the President did not escape violent criticism. Under the act passed March 3, 1863, it would have been the duty of the Secretary of War to report Vallandigham’s arrest within twenty days to the United States District Judge for Southern Ohio, with a full statement of the charges, so that a jury might pass on them. According to the law, any officer violating this act made himself liable to fine and imprisonment. But no such report had been issued.
“The arrest of Vallandigham … by General Burnside have [has] created much feeling,” Welles told his diary. “It should not be otherwise. The proceedings were arbitrary and injudicious. …. Good men, who wish to support the Administration, find it difficult to defend these acts. … I lament that our military officers should, without absolute necessity, disregard those great principles on which our government and institutions rest.”
The intrepid Seymour, governor of New York, used still stronger words of criticism. He denounced Vallandigham’s arrest as “an act which … is full of danger to our persons and our homes. If this proceeding is approved … it is not merely a step toward revolution, it is revolution. ….”
When vehement protests from Northern Democrats were submitted to Lincoln, he defended Stanton‘s dictatorial actions with great skill; but when a committee of the Ohio Democratic State Convention held that “…. the charge and the specifications on which Mr. Vallandigham was tried entitled him to a trial before the civil tribunals according to the express provisions of the late acts of Congress approved by yourself….” Lincoln was unable to refute this indictment. His opponents retorted that his answer was “a mere evasion of the grave questions involved,” and Senator Trumbull of Illinois, a Republican who supported the Administration, held that it was the only instance in Lincoln’s controversial writings, so far as he knew, where such a criticism seemed justified.
The Supreme Court, when confronted with the necessity of a decision in the Vallandigham case, adroitly sidestepped the real issue. It stated that even if his arrest had been illegal, there was no law by which it could entertain any appeal from a military commission. Eventually, the highest tribunal ended these illegal practices of the War Department through its verdict in the famous Milligan case. By that time, however, the war was over, and the decision offered small consolation to those who had lost their fortunes, their health, and often their lives during Stanton’s reign of terror.
Carl Schurz, who had left Germany in 1848 to seek freedom instead of tyranny, many years later devoted a few lines of his autobiography to these arbitrary arrests. A champion of liberty and a staunch admirer of Lincoln, he looked back on them in doleful perplexity.
“The government was,” he wrote apologetically, “under the stress of circumstances, doing things highly obnoxious to the fundamental principles of constitutional liberty. It incarcerated, without warrant or due process of law, men suspected of aiding the rebellion. …. On the plea of urgent necessity … it adopted methods …. familiar to despotic rule, and having a strange sound in a democracy. ….”
Of all the military strongholds under Stanton’s domination, the Old Capitol prison became the best known and the most feared. It stood only a block away from the nation’s capitol, yet it became in the course of time the symbol of unlimited tyranny.
The prison derived its name from its use as a meeting place for Congress, after the British had burned part of Washington in 1814. When hostilities began in 1861, the government took it over for use as a political prison. Soon it was crowded beyond its capacity with political suspects, Confederate sympathizers, spies and prisoners of war.
The day before Stanton proclaimed that he had taken over the power of arbitrary arrests, he installed as superintendent of the Old Capitol prison one of his most trusted lieutenants, Colonel William P. Wood, with the result that when the decree was issued the institution was ready to function under its new management.
Congressman Albert G. Riddle of Ohio remembered Colonel Wood as a “rough, uncultured man, despotic, but kindly natured, and not intentionally harsh; yet how could he be otherwise to men imprisoned for no defined offence, … who, when discharged, were dismissed without explanation or compensation.”
“…. he had a good heart,” it was said of him by an otherwise unfriendly critic, “when his better feelings were not thwarted by his prejudices, and especially by his partisan failings. When the dictates of humanity, and the interests of party conflicted with each other, the struggle for mastery was often strong and violent. The partisan generally had the best of it in the outset, but in due time passion became gratified, reason asserted its influence, and the finer feelings of the heart took possession of the man, and directed his actions.”
One of his former prisoners even looked upon the superintendent of the Old Capitol prison with apparent admiration.
There are few men such as Col. Wm. P. Wood. He is a unique figure …. Whilst an avowed infidel, he practised the virtues of the Christian religion; while he had no respect for man as man, … he adored nature and worshiped at her shrine. As a friend he never wavered … As an enemy he never sheathed his sword ….
Nor was he without a sense of humor. On one occasion he entered a room in search of a preacher. When an old parson arose, Wood exclaimed,
“My God, who would ever take you for a preacher ?”
To which the parson quickly replied,
“Well, … I came very near taking you for a gentleman.” Everyone laughed, and none more heartily than the warden himself.
As head of his bastille, Wood did his best to have the letters of the inmates pass speedily through the censorship of the provost marshal, and he exerted all his influence to furnish them with suitable food. At one time General Mansfield, when military governor of Washington, gave orders that the prisoners should be fed on side pork and hard biscuit, the worst that could be procured. Mr. Wood remonstrated, saying that his charges were not convicts, that they were under no sentence of any tribunal, but were merely held to await a trial, and that most of them were gentlemen.
The general thereupon exploded, and with an oath ordered that his instructions be followed, for “they are all traitors, or they would not be there.” But Wood angrily stood his ground.
“The prisoners are just as good men as you are,” he thundered in the face of his superior, “and I’ll be damned if they are not going to have good bread while I am Superintendent of the Old Capitol.” He then made good his word by engaging bakers near the prison to furnish the supplies that were needed.
The most astounding fact about Wood was that he alone, of all Stanton’s underlings, never bent his knee to the grim-looking War Minister. On the contrary, Stanton seemed to stand in unholy terror of this subordinate. The story went the rounds that Wood “was deeper in the War Office than any man at Washington, and …. that Stanton was at the head of the War Office and Wood was at the head of Stanton.”
Together with this story, as told by Major Doster, went a convincing sample of proof.
I remember once that rinding occasion to make some rule sanctioned by the Secretary, and demanding obedience to it, Wood refused contemptuously to carry it out, and on my applying to Assistant Secretary Watson for a special order to enforce it, Watson told me that when the order giving Wood unlimited power in the Old Capitol was issued, Provost Marshal Porter [in whose regiment Wood had once served] came to the War Department one day furious with rage, saying his own orders had been contemptuously rescinded by “that dog of a citizen Wood,” whom he used to tie up by the thumbs in New Mexico, and on the ground that he was amenable to no one but the Secretary himself, Porter demanded Wood’s instant dismissal from the post. Stanton heard him out and then gave him the alternative either of being insulted by Wood or resigning his commission.
According to Wood’s own story, he was the only man whose commission Stanton had ever written out in his own hand — “Wm. P. Wood, Colonel of Cavalry.”
It is not known why the austere, well-bred Secretary of War let himself be led by this rough and ready soldier of fortune whom he had appointed to an important position. Stanton used to say, “I do not always give a reason, but I always have a reason for what I do.” In this instance he did not see fit to reveal his reason.
In 1865, Wood showed his independence of Stanton’s wishes by appearing as a defense witness at the conspiracy trial. What he said there was of no great importance. The significant fact is that he had the courage to appear for the defense at all, knowing as he did that his action would be frowned on by the War Department. There were major generals in Washington who would not have dared to do this.
Wood had very little regard for the proprieties of the service. He did pretty nearly as he pleased, knowing that the Secretary of War would protect him. General Hitchcock, when acting as commissioner for exchange of prisoners, once strongly objected to Wood’s independent ways. On his return from a semi-espionage venture behind the enemy’s lines, Wood was upbraided for lack of discipline.
“… you appear to have exercised functions not committed to you,” Hitchcock wrote him on February 7, 1863. “… you were directed ‘to proceed to Richmond … for the purpose of delivering exchanged … prisoners …’ This paragraph covers your authority and it does not empower you to enter into general negotiations with Confederate authorities, yet the copy you furnish shows that you assumed that power …”
The probabilities are that when Wood received this castigation he snapped his fingers and continued to follow his own whims and wishes.
General Hitchcock was not the only high officer to complain about Wood’s insubordination. During one of the superintendent’s visits to Richmond for the exchange of prisoners, General John A. Dix was prompted to send this furious telegram to Stanton:
Fort Monroe, October 31, 1862.
Hon. E.M. Stanton:
Mr. Wood is here and refuses to report to me though ordered to do so. If he were a military officer I would put him in the guard-house. As it is I send him on by the Baltimore steamer and with him a man by the name of Woodall, formerly a detective in the service of the rebels and probably so yet, as he is with Mr. Wood by their permission. … Mr. Wood has also brought with him a clergyman by the name of Conrad — a case which I think should be looked into at Washington where he has been confined.
John A. Dix,
Conrad was a well-known Confederate scout, and his association with Wood certainly should have been “looked into.” With a hundred miles separating Stanton from his overbearing prison superintendent, the War Minister gathered enough courage to reply in words which may well have reflected his innermost desire.
War Department, October 31, 1862.
You should have sent Wood to the guard-house. When you think any man deserves it “shoot him on the spot.”
Edwin M. Stanton,
Secretary of War.
In less than a year the Old Capitol prison had become a dungeon that was a nightmare to loyal and disloyal subjects alike. People of all sorts suddenly disappeared and after a long interval of fruitless search were found to have last been seen entering Wood’s stronghold. There no one could visit them, not even the Provost Marshal General or the Military Commander of the District of Columbia, nor could anyone discover why they were there. Even feeble remonstrance against the incarceration of these unfortunates was dangerous.
Wood often boasted of his skill as an inquisitor. His way was, he said, never to approach his prisoners until solitary and prolonged confinement had made them anxious to talk. Then he would pose as a personal friend who could arrange a speedy release, provided the suspect confessed. “In time,” wrote an officer, “the most innocent would acknowledge himself guilty …”
Private conversations with friends were arranged and taken down, and if no such friends were available, detectives who feigned guilt were put into the same room with the prisoner. In obstinate cases Wood did not hesitate to counterfeit testimony. Horrors of the Old Capitol prison had only to be mentioned, and recalcitrant spirits were quickly subdued. The War Minister showed his whip hand on many occasions, particularly where gossip was bound to carry the threat into wide channels. He was in the habit of doing his own marketing three times a week, and could not forego such an opportunity to brag about his power.
“Politics among the stallholders,” wrote a contemporary observer, “was of a divided kind, and the Secretary, who knew how each of his purveyors stood, fashioned his gossip with them accordingly. With the Confederate sympathizers he usually assumed a bantering tone, wherein, however, he found opportunity now and then of enjoining a strict neutrality upon all but their tongues. His playful threats of incarceration in the Old Capitol the garrulous ones were fond of repeating ….”
One wonders if the humor of these playful references to the dreaded cells was greatly enjoyed by Stanton’s audience. The War Minister’s colored servant, “Old Madison,” was less facetious in his implied threats to possible victims. If a visitor was dissatisfied with the treatment he had received at the hands of the Secretary, the servant took the stranger into the hallway, gave him “a real good talking to,” and if he still remained sullen or combative, Madison made some mysterious allusions to the Old Capitol prison. There was no further resistance.
At one time a provost marshal asked Stanton for an audience. “I want a half-hour of your time to state my case,” he said. Stanton rose from his chair, and looking sternly at the unhappy man before him, replied: “Do you know that I have put a man in the Old Capitol Prison for demanding half an hour of my time?”
This almost unbelievable state of affairs endured until Stanton, in a spirit of unrestrained despotism, arrested an entire New York State commission, charging the members with fraud (of election rights of soldiers) and with conduct prejudicial to the military service of the United States. The arrest took place in the fall of 1864, but the roots of this strange story reached back into the spring of that year.
In May, 1864, the entire staffs of the New York World and of the Journal of Commerce had been thrown into Fort LaFayette for falling victims to a hoax. It had been a debatable case which Lincoln had directed in person. After the release of the prisoners, Governor Seymour of New York, aroused at the high-handed methods of the Washington authorities, instructed the district attorney of New York to start criminal proceedings against the local commander of the United States troops. In his request for an indictment, Seymour stated the case succinctly:
If the owners of the above-named journals have violated State or national laws, they must be proceeded against and punished by those laws. Any action against them outside of legal procedures is criminal.
But the grand jurors, with the threat of Stanton’s prisons hovering over them, reported that it was “inexpedient to examine into the subject.” Thereupon the governor sent a scathing letter to his district attorney.
…. the Grand Jury, in disregard of their oaths … have refused to make … inquiries … As it is a matter of public interest that violations of the laws … be punished, … it becomes my duty … to take care that the laws of the State are faithfully executed.
On June 28 Judge Russell of the City and County Court issued a warrant for the arrest of General John A. Dix and some of his aides. Counsel for the defense at once announced that Lincoln had ordered General Dix to disregard the process of the court and not to allow himself to be arrested or deprived of his liberty.
Secretary Welles, referring to a meeting of the Cabinet, made a pointed entry in his diary.
The subject of the arrest and trial of General Dix in New York …. was brought forward. There was a little squeamishness with some on the subject. The President very frankly avowed the act to be his, and he thought the government should protect Dix. …
I expressed no opinion, nor did Blair or Bates. … I regret that the papers should have been suppressed or meddled with …
In the end, Welles arrived at the “hasty conclusion” that now that things had come to this sorry pass, the trial of an officer by a State judge for obeying an order of the President should not be permitted. “If there is a disposition to try the question before the United States tribunals,” he added, “it would be well to permit it.” But no such disposition existed on either side.
When Seymour heard of General Dix’s defiance, he ordered the district attorney to enforce the laws of the State regardless of the President’s order. In this head-on collision between State and Federal authorities there could be, of course, only one outcome. Judge Russell admitted his helplessness in the face of superior force.
It is unnecessary for me … to rehearse the facts of the case. The defendants … place themselves under the protection of … the Act of Congress of March 3, 1863 … If that provision is constitutional, it assimilates the President of the United States … to an absolute monarch ….
This closed the incident. Underneath the surface, however, the mutual antagonism between the Washington administration and the Democratic governor of New York kept burning furiously. As the November elections approached, Lincoln and Stanton showed that they had not forgotten Seymour’s display of independence.
“The chief interest of the whole country [in the November 1864 elections],” reported Blaine, “centered in New York. As nearly as Mr. Lincoln was willing to regard a political contest as personal to himself, he … so regarded the contest between Mr. Seymour and Mr. Fenton [the Republican candidate].”
In the meantime, Governor Seymour had appointed Colonel Samuel North, a distinguished citizen and former magistrate of Otsego County, head of a commission which was to aid soldiers of his state who were in Washington. His assistants were Major Levi Cohn of Albany, an employee in the office of the Paymaster General of New York, and Lieutenant M.M. Jones of Utica, who had helped raise a company of volunteers and had fought in the second battle of Bull Run. The appointment of this commission, one of whose duties it was to facilitate the collection of the Democratic soldiers’ votes, was in conformity with a recently passed New York State law. The Republicans made similar arrangements for the benefit of their party. A Washington office was opened for the State of New York, and Colonel North with his men entered upon their duties.
On October 27, 1864, a few days before the Presidential election, the War Department suddenly issued an order for the arrest of the three New York State commissioners and the seizure of all papers at the agency and at their homes, including their private correspondence. They were thrown into prison, without being informed of the charges against them, as was the custom in all such cases. When Governor Seymour heard of this outrage, he appointed three prominent citizens of New York to investigate. They found the commissioners in Carroll prison, where they had been “confined together in one room, and had not been permitted to leave it for a moment during the four days they had been prisoners, even for the purpose of answering the calls of nature. … They had no vessel out of which to drink water, except the one furnished them for … urination. They had but one chair, … had not been permitted to see a newspaper, and were ignorant of the cause of their arrest. All communications between them and the outer world had been denied them ….”
When the accused were arraigned, the course of events foreshadowed the proceedings that were to disgrace the annals of American jurisprudence at the conspiracy trial a few months later. The plea that the military court had no jurisdiction was denied and so was the request for separate trials. Perjured evidence was introduced, and witnesses for the defense were excluded on the flimsiest excuses.
Colonel John A. Foster, who was to act as a special investigator for the War Department after Lincoln’s assassination, took a leading part in this case, and if the historian of the Association of State Prisoners is to be relied upon, Foster was highly efficient in his ruthlessness. Accompanied by a stenographer, he visited Jones, one of the three defendants, in his cell and then had his supposedly sworn confession read in court. But the defense forced the stenographer to produce his original notes and, when they were translated, it was discovered that they had been altered. Letters and papers found in the office of the agency were admitted as evidence, although they were not in the handwriting of the accused, nor proven to have been in their possession. In spite of all these underhanded tactics on the part of the government, the defendants were found not guilty, after a trial lasting two months. But they were not discharged from prison. North was retained for nineteen and Cohn for thirty-two days after they had been acquitted.
It was then that the long-delayed storm broke.
“In this condition of affairs,” related ex-Congressman Riddle, “a statement concerning the prisons, with many details, was sent to the Military Committee, which so startled the generals at its head, that they went to the prisons and made a personal inquiry. They saw several of the prisoners and heard their stories, which excited their surprise and indignation.”
“The Military Committee of the House,” wrote the New York Times on January 19, 1865, “made, this morning, a personal inspection of the Old Capitol Prison”, and found that officers, even of high rank and having honorable scars, were and had been confined for months, without charges preferred against them. In some instances they were totally ignorant of the causes for their incarceration. It appeared that the commitments were generally signed by Lafayette Curry Baker.
The New York Times
Thursday, January 19, 1865.
The Military Committee of the House made, this morning [January 18], a personal inspection of the Old Capitol Prison, for the purpose of carrying into effect the House resolution calling for information whether officers and others were confined there without charges being preferred, and for other purposes.
The committee found that officers, even of high rank, and “having honorable scars,” are now, and have been constantly confined there for months without any official notification, as required by law, of charges preferred against them, and sometimes put into close confinement. In some instances, those incarcerated are totally ignorant of the causes which led to their apprehension. In many cases the commitments are signed by L.C. BAKER, purporting to act as agent of the War Department, and his oral directions are sufficient to make the terms of imprisonment more or less rigid according to his ideas in the premises.
In other respects the testimony of the prisoners was unanimous as to kind treatment, plenty of food, warm clothing, and a due regard to comfort and cleanliness. The committee intend investigating these matters further, and to report the results at an early day to Congress.
General Garfield offered a resolution in the House demanding an inquiry. It was adopted and the Military Committee directed to make the investigation. At last the lid was about to be lifted. But Stanton’s friends were wide awake. On the day following the introduction of his resolution, Garfield was detained from the House at its opening, and Thaddeus Stevens used this opportunity to denounce the “young man” from Ohio for needless and mischievous meddling with the management of the War Office.
something to ponder:
this fine upstanding Grand Old Commoner, this hero of greenbacker mythology makers, is friend, proponent and defender of arbitrary arrests and maltreatment of opponents; while James Garfield, the hard-money man, advocate of bond and gold interests, speaks and acts on behalf of the mistreated ones ……
James Garfield did not offer a resolution, John Ganson did; the Military Committee were acting on some resolution which no body knew existed (as the record reveals some confusion)]
Unexpectedly, Garfield arrived at this moment. He immediately rose to reply and stated to the House the results of his personal inquiry. He related in indignant terms the outrages that had been perpetrated upon Union men, and finally denounced the “great Secretary of War” as worthy of impeachment. The effect was electrical. Stanton quickly directed that in the future no one in the military service of the United States should be committed to the Old Capitol prison except upon his personal order. Other reforms in the administration of the establishment were promised. Riddle adds that “there was an immediate emptying of the prisons, which rendered the inquiry useless. The daring of the young tribune in thus bearding the terrible Secretary won the admiration of all men, and especially of Mr. Stanton himself …”
Stanton’s admiration, it is safe to say, was nothing but his customary cowing before an antagonist who could not be bullied.
Congressman John N. Kasson, who also took credit for striking this blow for the inmates of the military prisons, reported the effect of this unwelcome publicity in a similar manner.
“I think it was on the following night,” he wrote, “that a numerous and, it was said, a general gaol delivery was made; and rumor had it that the men were carried away in carriages, under promise to make no further complaint. At all events, it was the end of the system of arbitrary and causeless arrests. Messages and letters from far and near came to me, with thanks for my arraignment of the Secretary’s action, and giving instances which showed that there was, in Washington especially, a reign of moral terror ….”
Shortly after the war the Old Capitol Prison ceased to exist. A Washington resident wrote in 1869:
Opposite the northeast angle of the Capitol Park, you will see a row of handsome dwelling-houses ornamented with Mansard roofs. They … until a short time ago, constituted a single building, known as the Old Capitol. … a gloomier, more terrible-looking prison did not exist in the land.
…. there can be no doubt that the old prison held many an innocent victim of political hostility and official malice. Many a good man, whose most earnest prayers were for the success of the Union arms, was immured within these walls in consequence of having offended some high official. We all know that there were many grave faults committed by the Administration during the Rebellion, not the least of which was its readiness to disregard the liberty and personal rights of the citizens of the Union. Stanton was an able and true man, and a good Secretary, but he was a despot also, and too hasty to arrest men upon very slight proof; and Mr. Seward was too fond of tinkling his “little bell.” Ex-Chief Detective Baker sent, perhaps, the majority of prisoners to this institution. He had reduced blackmailing and intimidation to a science, and those who would not comply with his unlawful demands were moderately sure of a residence in this place. These arbitrary acts are a blot upon the country, which ought never to have been cast upon it.
Now … the old building has disappeared …. and been changed so that its longest inmate would not know it….
The building had disappeared, but the memory of the outrages it had witnessed lived on. “How much misery and injustice had been crowded within its walls will probably never be known,” said a well-posted observer. “The secret history of the Provost Marshal General’s office at Washington, and its connection with the War Office …. never can be written, perhaps never should be.”
Leaving one to speculate why not.