According to many historians, after the death of Abraham Lincoln at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, the most powerful man in America became Edwin McMaster Stanton. Stanton was a famous lawyer and politician; a man at the very center of power during the American Civil War. He was born in 1814 to a Quaker family in Ohio. Edwin practiced law in Ohio and Pennsylvania until 1856; then moved to Washington D.C. where he expanded his practice and represented important clients before the Supreme Court.
Edwin M. Stanton was appointed as U.S. Attorney General by Democrat lame duck President James Buchanan in December of 1860 (Abraham Lincoln having won the presidential election the month before). There was little to do for Stanton during his four month term of office; but he did convince Buchanan to abandon his position that state secession from the Union might be acceptable. Always the staunch Democrat, Stanton was sharply opposed to the new Lincoln administration. In a letter to Buchanan in 1861 he wrote, “The imbecility of this administration has culminated in a catastrophe (the Battle of Bull Run) and irretrievable misfortune and national disgrace . . . as the result of Lincoln’s running the machine for five months.”
LINCOLN NAMES STANTON SECRETARY OF WAR
For the first year of his administration, Abraham Lincoln had Simon Cameron as his Secretary of War, with Edwin Stanton as the secretary’s legal adviser. In early 1862, Lincoln and Cameron had a falling out when Cameron, in a report, called for the President to arm freed slaves to fight against the Confederacy. Lincoln was opposed to this policy, but Cameron refused to delete the statement and was replaced. Surprisingly, the President named Edwin Stanton his successor. Lincoln was never aware that it was actually Stanton who wrote the report for which his boss was fired.
After taking office, Stanton wasted no time making his presence known. First, he took over control of all the telegraph lines in the north. He then began a campaign to censor the press over all war news; keeping the public from hearing anything of which he didn’t approve.
There were those who warned Lincoln about his new Secretary of War, but the President responded, “We may have to treat him as people are sometimes obliged to treat a minister I know out west. He gets wrought to so high a pitch of excitement in his prayers that they are obliged to put bricks in his pockets to keep him down. We may be obliged to treat Stanton in the same way, but I guess we’ll let him jump a while first.”
According to historian David Long, “Stanton would become furious and fly into fits of rage at Lincoln time and again.” Edwin Stanton’s arbitrary temper was heightened by his habit of jumping to conclusions. He would take a stand on an issue just to demonstrate his authority. He was known for being intolerant and for holding onto prejudices and grudges.
CRITICISMS OF LINCOLN
The new Secretary of War continued to be critical of the administration of which he was a member. He confided to a friend, “(there is) no token of any intelligent understanding of Lincoln, or the crew that governs him.” He sometimes bristled at the President’s directions and occasionally refused to obey them. He even conspired with other cabinet members behind Lincoln’s back.
But amazingly in spite of this, Lincoln and Stanton worked well together. The President knew Stanton’s intense and irritable nature. He knew how the excitement of the times tried the nerves of men. Lincoln frequently let Stanton’s indignations unacknowledged. Both Lincoln and Stanton were professional politicians who tolerated each other to accomplish a common goal. Their dedication to preserve the Union and end slavery was the glue that kept their relationship functioning.
Once, a congressman from Illinois suffered a brusque rejection by Stanton when he delivered an order from the President. The Secretary of War said the order was issued by a “damned fool.” The congressman went back and told Lincoln immediately.
“Did Stanton say I was a damned fool?” asked Lincoln.
“He did, sir; and repeated it.”
After a moment’s pause, the President said, “If Stanton said I was a damned fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means.”
(The implication was that Lincoln could not control Stanton. In reality, Lincoln was the actual leader of the country and whenever he chose, he could control Edwin Stanton.)
STANTON’S WARTIME ACTIVITIES
In 1862, the overly zealous Stanton far exceeded his authority by issuing an order to arrest anyone discouraging voluntary enlistment in the army, or committing any other disloyal activities related to the war effort. This was a clear violation of civil rights even in the nineteenth century.
Early on in the Civil War, Edwin Stanton was a close friend of General George McClellan. But by 1862, he conspired with other cabinet members to block McClellan from being given the command of the Union Army. Lincoln appointed the general anyway, suffering a chorus of complaints from Stanton and others. Years after the war, McClellan wrote about Stanton saying, “Stanton told me that the great aim of the war was to abolish slavery, and to end the war before the nation was ready would be a failure. The war must be prolonged and conducted so as to achieve that.” This was clearly a misunderstanding as Stanton, like Lincoln, had always hoped for an early end to the war.
By 1863, an agreement was reached that prisoners of war would be exchanged. Although considered by most as a humanitarian gesture, Edwin Stanton (with the support of Ulysses Grant) knew that the Confederate Army would have much more difficulty replacing captured soldiers than would the north. Stanton fought hard to reverse the agreement, or at least delay its implementation. The following year, he refused to exchange Confederate prisoners for the 32,000 Union captives held at Andersonville Prison in Georgia. The suffering at Andersonville was epic but, when made aware of it, Stanton remained opposed to any exchange and ordered that Confederate prisoners of war would have their meager rations reduced by 20% in response.
Also in 1863, Stanton named Lafayette Baker as the head of the new National Detective Police; a federal undercover, anti-subversive organization. Although successful, Baker and his subordinates were accused of carrying out brutal interrogations and imprisoning many suspects who were later found to be innocent. Baker himself was suspected of corruption by arresting and jailing people who refused to share their illegally gotten war supply profits with him.
When the war ended with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Stanton tendered his resignation due to poor health. It was rejected by Lincoln who is quoted as saying, “Stanton, you cannot go. Reconstruction is more difficult and dangerous than construction or destruction. You have been my main reliance; you must help us through this final act.” ‘Final act’ may have been prophetic words.
BLAMED FOR LINCOLN’S ASSASSINATION
As Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton was in charge of all internal security, including security for the President. As such, he was blamed in part for the death of Abraham Lincoln. Having a growing concern for the President’s safety and the inadequacy of security, Stanton tried to keep President and Mrs. Lincoln from going to Ford’s Theatre on April 14th. He thought that he could convince the Lincolns to stay in the White House that night by ordering his subordinates not to accompany them. They went in spite of this, and it became the greatest mistake of Stanton’s life.
Edwin Stanton was one of the first officials to arrive at the gruesome scene as Lincoln lie dying in a Peterson House bedroom across the street from the theatre. He immediately took charge. He sent for his subordinate, Lafayette Baker (head of the National Detective Police) saying, “Come here immediately and see if you can find the murderer of the President.” Trying to bring order out of chaos, Stanton ordered the distraught Mary Lincoln out of the room saying, “Take that woman out and do not let her in again.” Mary wept in the parlor, never seeing her husband alive again. When the President died, Stanton wept openly and said, “Now he belongs to the ages” (some present reported the last word was ‘angels’ instead of ‘ages.’)
Over the next two days, Baker’s men had taken four “conspirators” into custody and knew the names of two others, including John Wilkes Booth. He dispatched a cavalry troop to pursue and capture Booth, thought to be hold up at a Virginia farm. After a standoff, Booth was shot and killed by one of the soldiers. Booth carried a small diary that contained very recent entries. The diary was confiscated and delivered to Edwin Stanton.
Many citizens were arrested and jailed in connection with the investigation. Stanton favored the tactic of arresting anyone who could be remotely responsible, and then releasing them if no culpability was found. Even the owner of Ford’s Theatre was held in jail for forty days. Ultimately, seven men and one woman, Mary Surratt, were accused.
MANIPULATING THE TRIAL OF THE CONSPIATORS
On May 1, 1865, President Andrew Johnson authorized a commission to try the charged conspirators. Stanton argued vehemently with Johnson that the trail must take place in a military court. He asserted that since Lincoln was the Commander in Chief and the defendants were in fact “enemy combatants,” a civil trial (with more civil protections) would not be acceptable. Most of the President’s cabinet disagreed, but Johnson and his key advisors backed down. High ranking officers were chosen as jurors. Some of whom reported years later that they were told that if a guilty verdict was not returned, their military careers would be terminated.
The trial began on May 10th and lasted seven weeks. Hundreds of witnesses testified. Several claimed that Stanton, through his subordinates, had tried to alter their testimony. Trial observers alleged that witness tampering was widespread. The eight defendants were held in isolation. They were not allowed to speak to each other. Stanton ordered that, “The prisoners, for better security against conversation, shall have a canvas bag put over the head of each and tied around the neck, with holes for proper breathing and eating, but not seeing.” A one inch thick cotton pad was placed over their faces. Thus, they were not allowed to speak or see, and feeding was very difficult. No bathing or washing was allowed. The male defendants were also hobbled with wrist and ankle irons.
On June 29th, all eight defendants were found guilty. They were denied any appeal, except by the President. All were executed. In the excellent 2010 film “The Conspirator,” Edwin Stanton is depicted as the driving force behind the prosecution of those allegedly plotting the assassination.
WAS STANTON INVOLVED IN THE CONSPIRACY?
Although generally not supported by most historians, some people have put forth a theory that Edwin Stanton was the real mastermind behind Lincoln’s assassination. Several hypotheses were put forth to give credence to these accusations. Stanton’s last minute removal of security officers assigned to accompany Lincoln to Ford’s Theater and his failure to promptly close the bridges and roads leading away from Washington on the night of the assassination were seen as evidence of Stanton’s involvement. He ordered the defendants to be kept in isolation and hooded during the trial to keep them from talking, and his censure of news coming out of the courtroom was seen to cover up his participation.
There was an accusation that Andrew Johnson did not replace Stanton immediately after taking office because Johnson himself knew about the plot. Another claim was made that 11 congressmen and 15 high ranking officers were involved in the plot. Lafayette Baker, head of Stanton’s secret agents, claimed that Stanton included him in the conspiracy after the fact; then later forged documents showing that Baker himself was in charge of the plot. His claim was written in code and not discovered until 1960.
The diary taken off the body of John Wilkes Booth included evidence that the plot was hatched by Stanton himself. After the diary’s existence became public in 1867, Congress demanded that Stanton turn it over. He did, but 18 pages had been removed while in his possession.
THE POWER STRUGGLE WITH
Edwin Stanton remained the Secretary of War, under Andrew Johnson, until 1868. He found it almost impossible to agree with anything the new President did however. Their primary conflict was over the implementation of reconstruction terms. Johnson favored the readmission of seceded states to the Union as easily and quickly as possible. Stanton argued that some guarantee of civil rights for freed slaves must be included in the readmission of these states.
Congress agreed with Stanton’s ideas and passed the first Reconstruction Act which did provide for Negro suffrage (voting). Johnson vetoed the legislation but was overruled by Congress. The President did manage to delay the program’s start which undermined its effectiveness. This infuriated Stanton. So Andrew Johnson, tying to eliminate this opposition from within his own cabinet, tried to force Edwin Stanton out of office. Stanton refused to go and barricaded himself in his office. The Senate supported Stanton.
Shortly before this standoff, the Congress had passed the “Tenure of Office Act” which required, for some specific positions in the government, the approval of the Senate before an official could be removed from his position. In November of 1867, the Senate voted that Johnson should be impeached for high crimes including pardoning traitors, profiting from the sale of government property, defying Congress, attempting to prevent the ratification of the 14th Amendment (civil rights), and . . . illegally trying to remove Edwin Stanton from office.
Edwin M. Stanton left office and returned to his private law practice. In 1869, he was appointed by President Grant to the U.S. Supreme Court. Four days after he was confirmed by the Senate, but before taking his seat in the court, Stanton died of an asthma attack. He had a tumultuous career during a most critical period in our history. He could be a loyal friend and a bitter enemy, occasionally at the same time.