ONE day in the year 1896, a French chemist named Becquerel
took a photographic plate, which had been wrapped in light-
proof paper, from one of the drawers of his laboratory. When
it was developed, it showed dark smudges for which he could find
no immediate explanation. His curiosity was aroused, and he did
not rest until it was satisfied. The result of his inquisitiveness was
the discovery of radium.
Historians, in developing the story of Lincoln's assassination,
have encountered smudges equally baffling. Why did General
Grant suddenly alter his plans and decide not to go to Ford's
Theater on the evening of Lincoln's assassination? Who, during
that same night, tampered with the telegraph wires leading out
of Washington? Why was the President's bodyguard at the play
house, guilty of the grossest negligence, not punished nor even
Perhaps the most serious reproach against historical writers
is not that they have left such questions unanswered, but that
they have failed to ask the questions.
THE fourteenth of April 1865, dawning on the city of Washing
ton, found the Capital gaudily bedecked with flags; for on the
preceding night, Lee's surrender had been celebrated by a grand
illumination. The end of the long war was at last in sight.
In the forenoon a regular meeting of the Cabinet was held,
at which General Grant was present as a distinguished guest.
The victor of Appomattox Court House was a medium-sized,
stoop-shouldered, taciturn man, then at the zenith of his military
glory. At the White House he met all the members of Lincoln's
official family, except Secretary of State Seward, who had been
the President's closest rival at the Chicago Republican convention
of 1860. Seward had been thrown from his carriage a few days
before and was lying at home under the care of physicians. The
framework of steel which encased his face and neck, agonizing
though it must have been, was destined that night to save his life.
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was there; a kindly-
looking man with a long white beard, who was gifted with a
shrewd insight into the character of men. Thoroughly loyal to
his Chief, and with a finely balanced judgment, he kept close
watch on the events of his era and faithfully recorded them in his
The President himself seemed in unusually good spirits. Be
fore the opening of the formal meeting he spoke freely of his
plans for reconciling the conquered South. So far as he was con
cerned, he promised, there would be no persecution; he even
hoped that the fallen leaders of the Confederacy would leave the
country and thereby make it unnecessary for him to take direct
action against them. He then told of a dream that had come to
him during the night, the same that had so often in the past
presaged a portentous happening. This time he hoped that it
foretold the surrender to General Sherman of the last Confeder
ate army. As Lincoln was describing his dream, Stanton entered.
The President stopped abruptly. "Gentlemen," he said, "let us
proceed to business."
Stanton did not often attend Cabinet meetings and, when he
came, he usually came late. It was his way of indicating the
superiority he felt over his colleagues, if not over Lincoln himself. Gideon Welles distrusted him intensely, considering him
an unscrupulous intriguer. "He has cunning and skill," the head
of the Navy Department once wrote in his diary, "dissembles his
feelings . . . is a hypocrite. . . ." Small of stature, with a long
beard which he kept perfumed, the Secretary of War had an air
of sternness; but Welles always believed that this outward sem
blance concealed the heart of a coward. The two Secretaries had
crossed swords only once. On that occasion Welles had shown
plainly that he would brook no interference in his department,
and Stanton had since treated him with an obsequiousness in
sharp contrast to his imperious manner toward the other Cabinet
With Stanton's entrance the pleasant flow of informal conversation ceased. The Secretary of War had brought with him
an outline of the first step that he thought should be taken along
the road to reconstruction. He contemplated the creation of a
military territory combining Virginia and North Carolina, and the
placing of this district under the supervision of his own depart
ment. Welles immediately offered objections. He declared that
state lines should be inviolate and that the plan submitted would
aggravate, rather than harmonize, the feelings of the two hostile
sections. Lincoln sided with Welles, but tactfully suggested that
Stanton should furnish a copy of his scheme, for study and future
discussion, to all the Cabinet officials. Soon afterward the meeting
On the same day, early in the morning, a shambling little
man, whose head seemed wedged between his shoulders, rented
a room at the Kirkwood House on the corner of Pennsylvania
Avenue and Twelfth Street. With an unpracticed hand he wrote
his name on the register: G. A. Atzerodt.
In the afternoon, a handsome young actor walked into the
lobby of the same hotel and asked for Vice President Andrew
Johnson. When informed that he was not in his apartment, the
visitor left with the clerk a card on which he had scribbled these
Dont wish to disturb you Are you at home?
J Wilkes Booth
The young man then left and mingled with the crowds on the
Had anyone been able at that time to read the significance of
these two incidents, he would have recognized in them the
shadow which all great events are said to cast before them; for
they were the only outward evidence of a conspiracy that was then
afoot against the life of the President.
That evening John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln dur
ing a performance at Ford's Theater.
WHEN William G. Shepherd, in 1924, investigated for Harper's
Magazine the story of John Wilkes Booth's alleged escape, he
stated that he was not going to name a very high official who, it
was whispered to him, appeared implicated in this mystery.
"It is part of the . . . legend," he protested, "that a certain gov
ernment official of great power and position planned the killing
of Lincoln and helped Booth to escape. Let his name be Blank."
There was really no necessity for Shepherd to be so secretive.
Had he read nothing more sensational than the Congressional
Globe for the year 1867, he would have known that Mr. Blank's
name was then on many lips and that he was being publicly de
nounced as Lincoln's murderer. Mr. Blank was none other than
Andrew Johnson, seventeenth President of the United States.
When Johnson became the Chief Executive of the nation, the
Radicals began to have pleasurable visions of wholesale massacres
and executions that would depopulate the South; for the new
President had expressed his hatred of traitors in terms that were
immoderate and unmistakable. Yet, week after week passed and,
except for the hanging of the so-called conspirators and of Captain
Wirz, the former commandant at Andersonville, no deed of
violence took place. On the contrary, pardon followed pardon;
and worse than that, the President undertook to re-establish state
governments along the lines Lincoln had advocated. At first the
Radicals were bewildered; then astonishment gave way to unbridled fury. When it was discovered that John Surratt had
been found in Europe and that the government had made only languid efforts to have him returned for trial, Johnson's enemies
seized the opportunity to vent their wrath against him. They insinuated that the President did not dare have the fugitive return
to justice because he dreaded a confession.
On January 24, 1867, Benjamin Loan, a representative of Missouri, declared in the House:
In the beginning . . . the assassination [of Lincoln] had been
the deed "of a reckless young man . . . But subsequent development have
shown it to have been the result of deliberate plans adopted in the interest of the Rebellion. . . ." An assassin's bullet wielded and directed by
hands and paid for by Rebel gold made Andrew Johnson President.
The -price that he was to -pay for his -promotion was treachery . . .
Congressman Ashley of Ohio — who, it will be noted witll
surprise, was one of Stanton's intimates — spoke of "the man '
came into the Presidency through the door of assassination",
of "the dark suspicion that crept over the minds of men N
his complicity in the assassination plot." But, as usual, it was
General Butler who came out most brazenly in his accusation. He was interested in discovering, he said, "who it was that could profit by assassination who could not profit by capture and abduction [of the President]; who it was expected [by the conspirators] would succeed to Lincoln, if the knife made a vacancy."
An unheard-of thing had come to pass; a President of the United States had been accused on the floor of Congress of having
instigated the assassination of his predecessor.
It now rested with the accusers to prove their case. On Butler's motion, the House authorized a special committee to investigate "all the facts and circumstances connected with the assasination tending to show who were the persons engaged in the conspiracy. . . ." That there should be no doubt against whom this was aimed, the resolution stated gratuitously that many of those suspected
were holding high positions of power and authority, but
had probably acted through inferiors who were their tools. This
seemed like prejudging the case, but the committee was not in a
mood to shy at trifles. Offers of amnesty were made to everyone
contributing evidence which would bring the true facts to light;
but the only visible result was the reappearance of the convicted
perjurer Conover. He could prove, he stated, that Booth and
Johnson had corresponded with each other, that originally
the assassination of Lincoln had been planned for the day of
the second inauguration, and that Johnson had become intoxicated on that occasion in an endeavor to steel himself against
the announcement of the murder he momentarily expected.
But all this backstairs tittle-tattle did not get the committee
anywhere. It therefore decided to send an agent to Fort Jefferson
to obtain statements from the three surviving prisoners, Dr.
Mud, Arnold and Spangler. To each of them it was intimated
that a successful implication of the proper persons would be rewarded by immediate release. The result of these interviews was
disappointing. The condemned men did not wish to say anything
at all and even appealed to the governor of the island for protection. In desperation, the committee finally summoned Congressman Ashley to force from him a complete disclosure of all he knew. His testimony, however, was vague, even though his belief appeared unshaken.
Q. You are the member of Congress who preferred the charges in the House of Representatives against the President for impeachment?
A. I am.
Q. Have you produced to this committee all the testimony of which you have any knowledge to sustain these charges?
A. All that I can present to the committee at this time.
After references to Conover and some irrelevant matters, the questioning continued:
Q. Have you not stated to members of the House of Representatives that
you had evidence in your possession which would implicate Mr. Johnson
in the assassination of Mr. Lincoln?
A. No; not evidence in my possession. I may have said that F had S|JI|P«
ments made, in writing and otherwise, by this man and thai, which
induced me to believe it. I may have said that.
Q. Have you ever brought that evidence on which you believe it before
A. No, sir.
Q. Why did you not?
A. I have spoken to members of this committee about it. I have had no
evidence which I regarded as valid; it was only an isolated statement of
parties here and there, and not sufficiently strong to warrant me
Q. Then do you say before this committee that you had no evidence against
Mr. Johnson which you considered as valid?
A. Yes. I had no evidence which I regarded as sufficient for the conviction
of a criminal before a jury . . .
Q. Then you state now, as you did before, that you know of no other
evidence . . .
A. I know of none at present . . . or I should bring it. I have given
General Butler all the matters that I regarded as of sufficient importance
. . .
Ashley's testimony was the last the committee took. As soon
as he had left the stand, it adjourned, never to meet again.
Butler evidently made herculean efforts to unearth damaging
material against the President, but finally had to confess failure.
"Johnson had been suspected by many people of being concerned
in the plans of Booth against the life of Lincoln or at least
cognizant of them," he wrote many years later. "A committee
. . . of which I was the head, felt it their duty to make a secret
investigation of that matter, and we did our duty in that regard
most thoroughly. Speaking for myself I think I ought to say thai
there was no reliable evidence at all to convince a prudent and
responsible man that there was any ground for the suspicions
entertained against Johnson."
Failing in their endeavors to bring forth tangible evidence of
Johnson's complicity in Lincoln's death, the foes of the President concentrated their efforts on pointing to some peculiar circumstances that seemed to throw his behavior into an unfavorable light. For one thing, Johnson had not stayed long at Lincoln's
bedside; in fact, it was questioned whether he had been there at
all at any time during the night. This controversy has long continued
among writers, but it appears from papers found recently
that Johnson did go to the Petersen house when he heard of the
tragedy, even if he did not go there of his own accord.
The Vice President, contrary to his usual custom, apparently
went to bed very early that night. Former Governor Farwell of
Wisconsin, who witnessed the assassination at Ford's Theater,
bethought himself of the danger Lincoln's successor might be in
and rushed to the Kirkwood House to advise Johnson of what
had happened. It was not easy to arouse the sleeping man. According
to Farwell's statement, Johnson was deeply shocked at
the news and wept on his visitor's shoulder. Still, his sympathy
with the dying President did not prove strong enough to make
him take the obvious course of going to the Petersen house, where
all the Cabinet members, and many other men of lesser station,
were assembled. It was only when Stanton sent Major O'Beirne
for Johnson that the latter accepted the summons; even so, he
stayed only a short time, and was then escorted back to his hotel.
Half an hour later, about two o'clock, Johnson had a long
and serious talk with his private secretary, Mussey, on the duties
devolving upon the new Chief Executive. According to some reports
the Vice President spent the next few hours indulging in
heavy drinking; he kept walking up and down in his room, roaring
blasphemous threats at the assassins and at Southerners in general.
Just what happened after that no one seems to know with
Senator Stewart of Nevada claimed to have found Lincoln's
successor in a drunken stupor at eight o'clock in the morning. According to this informant, Johnson's hair was matted with mud,
and he was in such a disgraceful condition that a doctor and a
barber were rushed to the Kirkwood House to make him presentable
for the ceremony that was to install him as President a
few hours later. Stanton was the only other person alleged to
have known of this disgraceful episode. But when Salmon P.
Chase, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, swore Johnson
in as the new incumbent at the White House, not one of those
present discerned anything unusual in his appearance, and all
praised his solemn and dignified manner.
Out of this welter of conflicting testimony only two facts
emerge that are uncontradicted; one, that Johnson did not go to
Lincoln's bedside without solicitation, and the second, that he did
not linger there for more than a few minutes, or at the most half
an hour. Neither one of these actions is creditable. The first shows
a lamentable lack of good breeding; the second is more serious.
Lincoln could have recovered consciousness at any time before he
expiredj some physicians were of the opinion that the dying
President was partially aware of what was going on around him
and they half expected that a flickering of the flame, before it wait
out, would enable Lincoln to confer with his entourage for a few
moments. Johnson must have known that he, especially, shouU
have remained with his Chief until the end. He saw that no one
else was leaving and, Stanton's orders to the contrary notwithstanding, he should have stayed on, if for no other reason than to
avoid giving cause for the undesirable comments that were certain
Johnson's supporters must have appreciated the importance of
this matter, for one of them tried afterwards to correct the bad
impression that had been created. Farwell, who had spent some
time with Johnson that night, presented him with an engrossed
account of the events as he recalled them. Unfortunately, Furwell's memory was faulty. According to his story, it was Johnson who had ordered Major O'Beirne to take him to the Peterson house; this statement is erroneous. It was Stanton who had sent O'Beirne on his mission to act as escort for the Vice President,
Another assertion made by Farwell, that Johnson stayed at
Lincoln's bedside until the end, is equally at variance with the
facts as otherwise reported.
There is some question why the former governor of Wisconsin
should have found it necessary to write any account at all in defense
of the new President's action. That it was within Johnson's
power to remove him from the Federal payroll clouds the issue
still more. No other writer on this subject except DeWitt has
accepted Farwell's statements as credible.
Senator Foote, in some Reminiscences published in 1873,
wrote, "That late on the morning after the act of killing, when
almost all Washington was astir, Mr. Johnson was keeping himself
closely immured, as if fearing injury from some sudden ebullition
of popular rage against those suspected to be concerned in
the deed of blood . . ." As an astute politician, Johnson should
have known that such criticism was to be expected.
Foote, in building up a case against Johnson, cited the following
First, Mr. Johnson's well-known and anxious desire for the highest
official honors which the country could bestow upon him, for the space of at
least twenty years before the "deep damnation" of Mr. Lincoln's "taking
off" had blurred so unfortunately the historic record of our country.
Second, The utter extinction of his hopes of Presidential advancement
along the accustomed pathway to promotion, by his shameless drunkenness
on the day of his being sworn into office as Vice President.
Third, His falling out with Mr. Lincoln soon after, and delivering
a speech on Pennsylvania avenue . . . in bitter denunciation of ... humanity
and moderation . . .
Fourth, That Booth . . . called at Mr. Johnson's private room, only
a few hours before the murder occurred, and on finding him absent wrote
upon a card the deep disappointment which he felt at not having met with
the only human being on earth who could possibly profit by Mr. Lincoln's
death , and who was at the same time the only individual in the world who could give assurance to his murderer of his own pardon . . .
Foote also took this occasion to refer to Johnson's behavior
after the adjournment of the military commission which condemned
the conspirators; his suspected suppression of the petition
for mercy relating to Mrs. Surratt; his refusal to admit to the
White House all who wished to intercede in her behalf; and
his suspension of the habeas corpus in regard to this unfortunate
Shortly after the execution of the four conspirators, a curious
incident took place. Had Johnson's enemies been aware of it, they
would have taken advantage of it with relish.
The President had been reported ill ever since the end of
June and, on July 9, two days after the hanging of Mrs. Surratt,
Welles recorded in his diary that Johnson still looked pale and
listless. The faithful Secretary urged an excursion down the
Potomac. During the conversation, Attorney General Speed came
in and not only joined Welles most earnestly in his suggestion,
but begged that Stanton be taken along. The War Minister was not
at all well either; it was thought that he was overworked. Spc-nl
expressed the wish that the trip be made on the President's yaclii,
the River Queen, on which Lincoln had been in the habit of
traveling. Plans were made accordingly, and General Mussey,
the President's secretary, ordered that the craft be prepared in
sail the next day.
Welles was slightly disturbed, as the River Queen was m>i
under his jurisdiction, and therefore went to the White House
to change the arrangements. But this proved unnecessary; Im
Mussey brought him the startling information that Johnson
would not set foot on the yacht. The President came in shortly
afterward and confirmed the message of his aide; he demanded
a naval vessel for the excursion.
No one seems ever to have made further reference to this
strange affair, which is made more significant by Johnson's almost
superstitious avoidance of Lincoln's name in his speech when he was made President in a Kirkwood House
. . . an unpleasant impression was created," wrote Elaine,
"by its evasive character respecting Mr. Lincoln. The entire absence
of eulogy of the slain President was remarked. There was
no mention of his name or of his character or of his office."
Later, when Robert Lincoln sought to sell the various
Lincoln carriages to the new President, the latter declined to buy
them. The Johnson files fail to show any reason for this refusal
on his part.
The attacks on Johnson, intended to arouse suspicion against
him, date back to the days following his proclamation of May 2,
1865, in which Jacob Thompson, Beverly Tucker and other
Confederate leaders in Canada were being openly accused by the
President of having been a party to the conspiracy. These Southern
gentlemen were not slow in responding and were savage in their
"I know," said Jacob Thompson in a public letter, "there is
not half the ground to suspect me as there is to suspect President
"First. There was an absence of all motive on my part. . . .
"Second. A paper is found in President Johnson's room . . .
signed by the assassin himself . . . this note is from a private
citizen to a high official, and it is certain that if it had been sent
by any other man at any other time . . . it would have implied
previous intimacy . . . and a wish to have an interview without
witnesses . . .
"Third. President Johnson goes to bed on the night of the
assassination at the unusual hour, for Washington, of 9 o'clock,
and is asleep . . . when an anxious gentleman leaves . . . to
inform the new incumbent of his great good fortune, which filled
him with unutterable distress."
Mr. Thompson made it clear that he did not really suspect
Johnson, but suggested that if such circumstantial evidence could
have been secured against a citizen of the South, the bureau of
military justice would have considered it "testimony as strong as
proofs from Holy Writ."
Beverly Tucker struck at Johnson in the same vein, but with
still more vigor: "He . . . must expect to be dealt with as a man,
not as a potentate," he exclaimed. "He shall not escape me by a
dastardly attempt to throw the responsibility on the . . . tools
. . . in his employ. I intended to strike at the head, not at the tail,
and if God spares my life, Andrew Johnson, and not I, shall go
down to a dishonored grave."
Tucker also pointed to the established law of evidence that no
man shall be adjudged guilty who cannot be shown to have
benefited by the crime. Cul bono? None but Johnson. Whence
did the intimacy between Booth and the Vice President arise? "Is
it impossible" he asks, "that Booth may have met Mr. Johnson
in that lower circle they were both known to frequent . . ."
For twenty years "all the arts and appliances which the fruitful
brain of the unscrupulous demagogue could invent and employ
have been exhausted to ... reach the position of second
civil officer of the Government. Then the prize, so long dazzling
his vision, seemed within his grasp. . . . But the illusion was
shortlived . . ."
The disgraceful scene of Johnson's drunkenness on his inauguration
day destroyed his hopes and made him desperate,
Tucker believed. "The crimsoned blush of indignation and shame
mantled the cheeks of ambassadors, senators, justices . . . while-
. . . Abraham Lincoln . . . on the evening of the same day, at
the inauguration ball, declined to recognize him." Thus Johnson's
future political hopes seemed blasted forever. He might become
President by succession, but never by election.
. . . this, it is true [Tucker concluded], is but hypothesis, and y i ,
when you support it by the fact that . . . Booth was not captured alive,
as he unquestionably could have been, we must induce some one more
plausible ere we wholly reject this. Dead men tell no tales, and the wantonly hushed voice of this unhappy man leaves behind his bloody tragedy a
At the time these events occurred, there lived in Washington
the son of Senator Howard of Michigan. This young man, whose
given name was Hamilton, acted as secretary to his father and in
this capacity acquired knowledge of some facts which were not
given to the public until he printed them in 1907 as Civil Wat
Echoes — Character Sketches and State Secrets. One of the chief
items related by Howard is Governor Salomon's account of his experiences.
It appears that Johnson and Salomon, ex-governor of
Wisconsin, were well acquainted and occupied adjoining rooms at
the Kirkwood House. Salomon had witnessed the assassination at
Ford's Theater and hastened to Johnson's room to apprise him
of the murder. When he reached the door, he tried to open it
without ceremony, as was his wont, but to his surprise found it
fastened. Knocking loudly, he was at last answered by Johnson,
who appeared in his night shirt, as if he had just arisen from his
bed. Salomon was surprised because he knew Johnson's fixed
habit of sitting up late. The Vice President gave his visitor no
reasons for having gone to bed so early.
Salomon then described Johnson's blasphemous threats against
all traitors, his weeping fit and his indulgence in whiskey.
Early the following morning Governor Salomon discovered
in his mail the famous card — "Dont wish to disturb you Are
you at home?" — and found that this message had been left for
Vice President Johnson by a fine looking gentleman. Salomon
now felt that he held in his possession a highly important state
secret. After worrying for some time about the best course to
pursue, he finally decided to hand Johnson this telltale card while
the new President was in the midst of a meeting with the members
of his Cabinet. But the expected sensation did not materialize.
Johnson took the card and, after examining it with placid and
unruffled countenance, remarked that he did not know Wilkes
Booth, had never seen him, and that it was nothing but sheer
presumption on the part of the actor to leave such a message.
"He spoke deliberately," said Salomon, "and with much
dignity and unction."
Salomon finished his recital to Senator Howard with the remark
that he had private suspicions which he did not wish to reveal.
This left Howard far from satisfied, and, calling upon
Secretary Stanton shortly afterward, the senator volunteered
his personal opinion and belief that Johnson was an accessory before
the crime. The only reply he received from his listener was
a shrug of the shoulders, which Howard interpreted as: "I could
disclose a great deal of very interesting information on that particular
subject, but it will not do to tell even you . . ."
What struck Howard as particularly damnable was the fact,
established by a senator who was anxious to impeach the President,
that Johnson did know Booth and that his dignified denial
at the Cabinet meeting apparently did not conform to the truth.
While Johnson was military governor of Tennessee, he and John
Wilkes Booth had kept two sisters as their mistresses in Nashville
and had been frequently in each other's company. This information
came to young Howard from his father, who subsequently became
chairman of the Senate committee on President Johnson's
impeachment. The story had been uncovered through the efforts
of private detectives.
The value of Hamilton Howard's story is greatly impaired
by his obvious prejudice against Johnson. Having associated
largely with the most radical element in Congress, he naturally
was hostile toward the Vice President. His bias makes him even
relate as evidence the opinion of a doorkeeper's wife who exclaimed,
when she heard of the assassination, "Yes, and Andy
Johnson has had a hand in it." When asked on what she based her
opinion, she replied that it was founded on her intimate knowledge
of Johnson's character} that while a senator and boarding with her,
he had always sat up drinking strong liquor until early in the
morning and that his associates had been hard and tough-looking
customers; that he had been generally very drunk by midnight,
had been disloyal to the Union and had consorted with
Rebels. The doorkeeper assured Howard that his wife was a
"right smart woman", and believed she was "almost generally
This is a type of evidence that even the managers of a military
commission might have hesitated to parade in open court.
What is perhaps more to the point is that Hamilton Howard is
inaccurate in some of his statements which are subject to verification. He confuses General David Hunter with General Winfield
Scott Hancock, and cites the latter as the president of the conspiracy
trial commission. The story attributed to Governor Salomon
more probably concerned former Governor Farwell of Wisconsin
who swore on the witness stand that:
On the evening of the 14th of April last, on leaving Ford's Theater, 1
went immediately to the Kirkwood House, to the room of Vice-Presiden!
Johnson. I should think it was between 10 and half-past 10 o'clock. I found
the room door locked. I rapped, but receiving no answer, I rapped again,
and said, in a loud voice, "Governor Johnson, if you are in the room, I must
see you." I believe the door was locked, but am not certain. . . .
I remained in Mr. Johnson's room about half an hour. I took charge
of the door, and locked and bolted it . . .
Can it be possible that two former governors of Wisconsin
should have had identical experiences on the same night? No;
the chances are that the statement attributed by Howard to
Salomon really emanated from Farwell.
Moreover, Salomon's elaborate account of Booth's calling card
is flatly contradicted by the sworn statement of William A.
Browning, private secretary to Johnson, who claimed that this
singular piece of pasteboard was handed to him by the clerk of
the Kirkwood House in the late afternoon of April 14. Robert
Jones, the clerk mentioned by Browning, corroborated this testimony
while on the witness stand.
It may also be worthy of note that Gideon Welles, who attended
Johnson's first Cabinet meeting and accorded it a full
description in his diary, made no mention of the dramatic incident
which Governor Salomon described with such minute care.
In their attempt to connect Johnson with the untimely death
of his predecessor, the Radicals tried to secure the aid of John
Surratt, who had been brought back from Egypt and was about
to be put on trial for his life. What Ashley, Stanton's close
friend, promised him in return can only be imagined. But the
prisoner knew nothing against the President and could not be induced
to give the desired testimony. News of this reached Johnson
through a physician whom Anna Surratt, John's sister, had summoned
as a messenger. She also had been tempted by Butler and
Ashley, but when she sent word that she would be interviewed
only in the presence of her lawyer, their interest seemed to wane,
and they declined to see her at all.
The last warrior to enter the lists against Johnson was none
other than Judge Holt, the judge advocate general who had
fought so fiercely to place the guilt on the shoulders of Jefferson
Davis and other Southern leaders and to incriminate
the eight shackled prisoners who, thanks to his efforts, had been
Holt's accusation came in 1873 and was the outcome of a
controversy with the former President regarding the petition of
mercy for Mrs. Surratt. Holt insinuated that, in 1865, there
might have been reasons that "would in all probability have
operated against any development of the facts of this case." But
he goes even further than that. "There must have been," he
sneered, "something very fearful in his [Johnson's] contemplation
to lead him to disregard an imperative public duty . . .
rather than suffer the field of inquiry in relation to the conspiracy
and assassination to be again opened. Was it apprehended that in
the shadows of the field an accomplice or accomplices might be
lurking who could not be safely dragged to light?"
Holt's attack took place in 1873, four years after Stanton's
death. Johnson did not deign to reply to it.
This is the evidence in the case against Andrew Johnson.
To it there may be added the docility with which he obeyed
Stanton's orders to come to Lincoln's bedside and leave it again,
and his continued unwillingness to rid himself of his Secretary of
War, long after the latter's treachery had become evident.
"The failure of the President," wrote Secretary McCulloch,
"to exercise his undoubted right to rid himself of a minister who
differed with him upon very important questions, who had become
personally obnoxious to him, and whom he regarded as an enemy
and a spy, was a blunder for which there was no excuse."
No excuse — and no explanation. None of Johnson's contemporary
friends could account for his strange patience with
Stanton, and none of his biographers and apologists has put forth
any plausible justification for it. It has remained to this day an
THERE was one man who profited greatly by Lincoln's death;
this man was his Secretary of War, Edwin M. 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
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 M. Stanton,"
wrote De Witt, "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 in
quirer . . . 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 hos 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."4 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, Inkept
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 superpatriotism.
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 be rid
Cameron, however, and it was well known how eluctant Lincoln was to change his Cabinet officers. Finally, the appointment
of Stanton came about through one of the neatest moves in ihe
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
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
"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. I I is
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 Postmaster
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.12 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
afew days belore 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
"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.
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
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 favor
able 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 ' ,
1860, according to this account, when President Buchanan :ip
peared to be yielding to the demand of South Carolina dial
Major Anderson and his garrison be removed from Fort Sumtcr,
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, t h e 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 tyro 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 Stan I on
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.
F. P. Blair's imputations surpassed even those made by BJack;
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 5 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 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
"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 p i .
gave the War Minister a power never before dreamed ol, 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
Stanton could be a man of Machiavellian finesse whenever it
suited his purpose. While all his efforts were being directed In
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,
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 j but the Secretary of War
had to meet this new situation. He did so in his own inimitable
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
own opinion on this subject.
A man named Hurrt 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
A second court was convened in the following year 5 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
"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
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
Probably it was only a coincidence that General Burnside him
self 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.
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
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
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.35 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 ... Wallon
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 anyother 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, roundshouldered
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
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 j 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 pown Lea -
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 gurr
he did . . ." The distinguished general evidently recognized
that in a political sense he had been thoroughly assassinated and
Thus, with one blow, the idol of the western armies was
vanquished by Stanton's artifices and was prevented from becoming
a dangerous rival.
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 bountyjumpers,
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 lowan
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, 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
six votes were given on the Secretary's side, 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
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 Pres. and for the aspiring Secretary."
Later on in the summer when the outlook lor the Northern
cause was more dismal than ever the opposition press did not
hesitate to put into plain words that it suspected more t h a n 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
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.57 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.58 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 cmad 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, presented
the opening of Fords Theatre . . . After that, what may
he not do? What is to hinder him from transferring estates I nun
one man to another, annulling land titles and dissolving the tie
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