Edwin Stanton

Edwin Stanton

Edwin Stanton was born in Steubenville, Ohio, on 19th December, 1814. After attending Kenyon College he was admitted to the bar in 1836. He worked in Pittsburgh for nine years before moving to Washington he built a large practice in the federal courts.

A member of the Democratic Party, he was appointed attorney general by President James Buchanan in December 1860. He lost office when President Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1861. Stanton returned to power when he agreed to work as a legal adviser to Simon Cameron, the Secretary of War. This job became more important on the outbreak of the American Civil War.

In January, 1862, Stanton helped Simon Cameron write his yearly report. He personally wrote the section that called for freed slaves to be armed and used against the Confederate Army. President Abraham Lincoln was opposed to this policy and ordered Cameron to remove the offending passage. When he refused he was dismissed. Lincoln, who was unaware of Stanton's role in the report, appointed him as his new Secretary of War.

After taking office Stanton took over the management of all the telegraph lines in the United States. Stanton also censored the press and in this way kept full control over the news reaching the public. To maintain this system Stanton doubled the size of the War Department.

Convinced that the war would soon be over Stanton closed down the government recruiting offices in the spring of 1862. When he realised his mistake he advocated the recruitment of black soldiers.

Stanton was privately highly critical of the government and once told a friend that he could find "no token of any intelligent understanding of Lincoln, or the crew that govern him". However, Stanton and Abraham Lincoln worked well together during the war.

During the summer of 1863 an agreement under which Union and Confederate captives were exchanged, came to an end. Stanton and Ulysses S. Grant decided that the Confederate Army had more difficulty in replacing men than the Union Army. This included the decision not to take 30,000 soldiers from Andersonville. When Stanton heard about the high death-rate in Andersonville he decided to reduce the rations of captured soldiers by 20 per cent.

In 1863 Stanton recruited Lafayette Baker as his replacement for Allan Pinkerton, head of the Union Intelligence Service. Baker was given the job as head of the National Detective Police (NDP), an undercover, anti-subversive, spy organization. One of his successes was the capture of the Confederate spy, Belle Boyd. Later Baker was accused of conducting a brutal interrogation and despite the inhuman treatment Boyd refused to confess and she was released in 1863.

Baker was also suspected of being guilty of corruption. He went after people making profits from illegal business activities. It was claimed he arrested and jailed those who refused to share their illegal gains with him. Baker was eventually caught tapping telegraph lines between Nashville and Stanton's office. Baker was demoted and sent to New York and placed under the control of Charles Dan, the Assistant Secretary of War.

As the organizer of internal security, Edwin M. Stanton was blamed for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on 14th April 1865. Stanton immediately summoned Lafayette Baker, head of the National Detective Police (NDP) to Washington with the telegraphic appeal: "Come here immediately and see if you can find the murderer of the President." Baker arrived on 16th April and his first act was to send his agents into Maryland to pick up what information they could about the people involved in the assassination.

Within two days Baker had arrested Mary Surratt, Lewis Paine, George Atzerodt and Edman Spangler. He also had the names of the fellow conspirators, John Wilkes Booth and David Herold. When Baker's agents discovered had crossed the Potomac near Mathias Point on 22nd April, he sent Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty and twenty-five men from the Sixteenth New York Cavalry to capture them.

On 26th April, Doherty and his men caught up with John Wilkes Booth and David Herold on a farm owned by Richard Garrett. Doherty ordered the men to surrender. Herold came out of the barn but Booth refused and so the barn was set on fire. While this was happening one of the soldiers, Sergeant Boston Corbett, found a large crack in the barn and was able to shoot Booth in the back. His body was dragged from the barn and after being searched the soldiers recovered his leather bound diary. The bullet had punctured his spinal cord and he died in great agony two hours later. Booth's diary was handed to Baker who later passed it onto Stanton. Baker was rewarded for his success by being promoted to brigadier general and receiving a substantial portion of the $100,000 reward.

On 1st May, 1865, President Andrew Johnson ordered the formation of a nine-man military commission to try the conspirators involved in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It was argued by Stanton, that the men should be tried by a military court as Lincoln had been Commander in Chief of the army. Several members of the cabinet, including Gideon Welles (Secretary of the Navy), Edward Bates (Attorney General), Orville H. Browning (Secretary of the Interior), and Henry McCulloch (Secretary of the Treasury), disapproved, preferring a civil trial. However, James Speed, the Attorney General, agreed with Stanton and therefore the defendants did not enjoy the advantages of a jury trial.

The trial began on 10th May, 1865. The military commission included leading generals such as David Hunter, Lewis Wallace, Thomas Harris and Alvin Howe and Joseph Holt was the government's chief prosecutor. Mary Surratt, Lewis Paine, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold were all charged with conspiring to murder Lincoln. During the trial Holt attempted to persuade the military commission that Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government had been involved in conspiracy.

Joseph Holt attempted to obscure the fact that there were two plots: the first to kidnap and the second to assassinate. It was important for the prosecution not to reveal the existence of a diary taken from the body of John Wilkes Booth. The diary made it clear that the assassination plan dated from 14th April. The defence surprisingly did not call for Booth's diary to be produced in court.

On 29th June, 1865 Mary Surratt, Lewis Paine, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold were found guilty of being involved in the conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln. Surratt, Paine, Atzerot and Herold were hanged at Washington Penitentiary on 7th July, 1865. Surratt, who was expected to be reprieved, was the first woman in American history to be executed.

In January, 1867, Lafayette Baker published his book, History of the Secret Service. In the book Baker described his role in the capture of the conspirators. He also revealled that a dairy had been taken from John Wilkes Booth when he had been shot. This information about Booth's diary resulted in Baker being called before a Congress committee looking into the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Stanton was forced to hand over Booth's diary. When shown the diary by the committee, Baker claimed that someone had "cut out eighteen leaves" When called before the committee, Stanton denied being the person responsible for removing the pages.

This information about Booth's diary resulted in Baker being called before a Congress committee looking into the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Edwin M. Stanton and the War Department was forced to hand over Booth's diary. When shown the diary by the committee, Baker claimed that someone had "cut out eighteen leaves" When called before the committee, Stanton denied being the person responsible for removing the pages.

After the war Stanton continued as Secretary of War but found it difficult to get on with the new president, Andrew Johnson. Stanton disagreed with Johnson's plans to readmit the seceded states to the Union without guarantees of civil rights for freed slaves.

In March 1867 Congress passed the first of the Reconstruction Acts that provided for Negro suffrage. Johnson attempted to veto the legislation but when this failed, he managed to delay the program and undermined its ineffectiveness.

Stanton made it clear he disagreed with Andrew Johnson and in 1867 the president attempted to force him from office and replace him with Ulysses S. Grant. Stanton refused to go and was supported by the Senate. Grant now stood down and was replaced by Lorenzo Thomas. This was a violation of the Tenure of Office Act and some members of the Republican Party began talking about impeaching Johnson.

In November, 1867, the Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 that Johnson be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. The majority report written by George H. Williams contained a series of charges including pardoning traitors, profiting from the illegal disposal of railroads in Tennessee, defying Congress, denying the right to reconstruct the South and attempts to prevent the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.

On 30th March, 1868, Johnson's impeachment trial began. Johnson was the first and only president of the United States to be impeached. The trial, held in the Senate in March, was presided over by Chief Justice Salmon Chase. Johnson was defended by his former Attotney General, Henry Stanbury, and William M. Evarts. One of Johnson's fiercest critics, Thaddeus Stevens was mortally ill, but he was determined to take part in the proceedings and was carried to the Senate in a chair.

Charles Sumner, another long-time opponent of Andrew Johnson led the attack. He argued that: "This is one of the last great battles with slavery. Driven from the legislative chambers, driven from the field of war, this monstrous power has found a refuge in the executive mansion, where, in utter disregard of the Constitution and laws, it seeks to exercise its ancient, far-reaching sway. All this is very plain. Nobody can question it. Andrew Johnson is the impersonation of the tyrannical slave power. In him it lives again. He is the lineal successor of John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis; and he gathers about him the same supporters."

Although a large number of senators believed that Johnson was guilty of the charges, they disliked the idea of Benjamin Wade becoming the next president. Wade, who believed in women's suffrage and trade union rights, was considered by many members of the Republican Party as being an extreme radical. James Garfield warned that Wade was "a man of violent passions, extreme opinions and narrow views who was surrounded by the worst and most violent elements in the Republican Party."

Others Republicans such as James Grimes argued that Johnson had less than a year left in office and that they were willing to vote against impeachment if Johnson was willing to provide some guarantees that he would not continue to interfere with Reconstruction.

When the vote was taken all members of the Democratic Party voted against impeachment. So also did those Republicans such as Lyman Trumbull, William Fessenden and James Grimes, who disliked the idea of Benjamin Wade becoming president. The result was 35 to 19, one vote short of the required two-thirds majority for conviction. The editor of The Detroit Post wrote that "Andrew Johnson is innocent because Ben Wade is guilty of being his successor."

A further vote on 26th May, also failed to get the necessary majority needed to impeach Johnson. The Radical Republicans were angry that not all the Republican Party voted for a conviction and Benjamin Butler claimed that Johnson had bribed two of the senators who switched their votes at the last moment. Stanton was now required to give up his Cabinet post.

Edwin Stanton returned to his private law practice but when Ulysses S. Grant became president he appointed Stanton to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unfortunately, Stanton died four days later on 24th December, 1869.

In his book, Why Was Lincoln Murdered? (1937). The historian, Otto Eisenchiml, suggested that Stanton had engineered the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. The evidence for this theory included the employment of John Parker to guard Lincoln, Stanton's failure to close all the roads out of Washington, the shooting of John Wilkes Booth, tampering with Booth's diary, and the hooding of the conspirators to stop them from talking.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Section of the report written by Edwin Stanton that led to Simon Cameron losing his job as secretary of war (January, 1862)

Those who make war against the Government justly forfeit all rights of property and, as the labour and service of their slaves constitute the chief property of the rebels 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 became necessary as it is to use gunpowder or guns taken from the enemy.

(2) Frank A. Flower, Edwin Masters Stanton (1905)

Lincoln was unaware that the iron-willed giant he was putting it was more stubbornly in favour 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.

(3) George McClellan, McClellan's Own Story (1887)

Stanton told me the great aim of the war was to abolish slavery. To end the war before the nation was ready for that would be a failure. The war must be prolonged, and conducted so as to achieve that.

(4) Edward Bates diary entry (1864)

Stanton believes in mere force, so long as he wields it, but cowers before it, when wielded by any other hand. If the President had a little more vim, he would either control or discharge Stanton.

(5) Edwin Stanton, proclamation concerning the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (20th April 1865)

All persons harboring or secreting the conspirators or aiding their concealment or escape, will be treated as accomplices in the murder of the President and shall be subject to trial before a military commission, and the punishment of death.

(6) Edwin Stanton, order issued concerning the captured conspirators (23rd April 1865)

The prisoners for better security against conversation shall have a canvas bag put over the head of each and tied around the neck, with a holes for proper breathing and eating, but not seeing.

(7) Samuel Arnold, The Baltimore American (1902)

The covering for the head was made of canvas, which covered the entire head and face, dropping down in front to the lower portion of the chest. It had cords attached, which were tied around the neck and body in such a manner that to remove it was a physical impossibility. It was frequently impossible to place food in my mouth.

(8) George Milton, The Age of Hate (1930)

The country could not understand why Johnson did not discharge the faithless Secretary of War. Radicals were as amazed as Conservatives. Doolittle, the senator from Wisconsin, wrote that: "For six long months, I have been urging the President to call on Grant temporarily to do the duties of the War Department. But Stanton remains, and so the report has spread all over the State, that there is something sinister. It started through the Milwaukee Sentinel printing the letter of a correspondent from Washington, which says that Stanton is not removed because it is rumoured and believed that Stanton has testimony to show that Mr. Johnson was privy to Lincoln's assassination."

(9) In his autobiography, Men and Measures, Henry McCulloch, Andrew Johnson's Secretary of the Treasury, wrote about the president's decision to keep Edwin Stanton in power for so long.

The failure of the President 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.

(10) Edwin Stanton, comments made to Charles Sumner (1869)

I know General Grant better than any other person in the country can know him. It was my duty to study him, and I did so day and night, when I saw him and when I did not see him, and now I tell you what I know, he cannot govern this country.

(11) Lafayette G. Baker, chief of the National Detective Police Force, wrote a report on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in code in a bound edition of Colburn's United Services Magazine. It was found and deciphered by Roy Neff in 1960.

It was on the 10th April, 1865, when I first knew that the plan was in action. I did not know the identity of the assassin, but I knew most all else when I approached Edwin Stanton about it. He at once acted surprised and disbelieving. Later he said: "You are a party to it too. Let us wait and see what comes of it and then we will know better how to act in the matter." I soon discovered what he meant that I was a party to it when the following day I was shown a document that I knew to be a forgery but a clever one, which made it appear that I had been in charge of a plot to kidnap the President, the Vice-President being the instigator. Then I became a party to that deed even though I did not care to.

There were at least eleven members of Congress involved in the plot, no less than twelve Army officers, three Naval officers and at least twenty-four civilians, of which one was a governor of a loyal state. Five were bankers of great repute, three were nationally known newspapermen and eleven were industrialists of great repute and wealth. Eighty-five thousand dollars were contributed by the named persons to pay for the deed. Only eight persons knew the details of the plot and the identity of the others. I fear for my life.

(12) Otto Eisenchiml, Why Was Lincoln Murdered? (1937)

There was one man who profited greatly by Lincoln's death; the man who 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.

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 a political liability to him. It was to his advantage to have the President out of the way; it would mean a continuance in office, increased power over a new and supposedly weak Chief Executive and a fair prospect of replacing the latter at the next election.

As secretary of war Stanton failed in his duty to protect the President's life after he was convinced that there was danger in the air. He bluntly denied Lincoln's request to be protected by Major Eckert and did not provide a proper substitute.

It was probably due to the efforts of Stanton that all evidence of negligence on the part of John F. Parker was carefully suppressed. He directed the pursuit of Booth and allowed it to be conducted in a manner that, but for the assassin's accidental injury, would have allowed his escape.

The actual pursuit and subsequent capture of Booth were silenced by unusual methods and were subsequently removed from contact with the public, either by infliction of the death penalty or by banishment to a desolate fortress. Other prisoners, of at least equal guilt, escaped punishment.

Plausible as such an indictment may seem, it would stand no chance of surviving a legal attack. There is not one point in this summary than can be proven; it is all hypothesis. Circumstantial evidence, at best, is a dangerous foundation upon which to build.