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The Conspirator

Posted By - Thomas R. Turner
Feb 25, 2011 at 6:40pm | Filed Under “The Conspirator

“Edwin Stanton: Hero, Villain, or Something Else?”

Edwin Stanton reportedly said when Abraham Lincoln died, "Now he belongs to the ages." Unfortunately the ages have been a lot kinder to the 16th president than they have to the war secretary.

If Lincoln had never been assassinated, it is likely that Stanton would be remembered as one of his most important cabinet members, the man who worked closely with the president in the struggle to preserve the Union during one of the greatest crises that the United States has ever faced. His entire public career, including service as Attorney General in the Buchanan administration, would be held up as a model of devoted and incorruptible public service. The capstone to his distinguished career was his nomination to the United States Supreme Court although he died before he could take his seat.

In an ironic turn of events, however, the bullet which took Lincoln's life ultimately tarnished Stanton's reputation. Many nineteenth and early twentieth century historians portrayed Radical Republicans like Stanton as having taken advantage of Lincoln's death to impose a harsh and vindictive Reconstruction on the helpless southern states. David DeWitt, one of the first historians to write about the assassination, used the provocative term "reign of terror" to portray Stanton's actions.

As noted in a previous post, in the 1930's and 1940's, Otto Eisenschiml raised a series of questions which hinted that Stanton and the Radicals might have been behind Lincoln's death. According to Eisenschiml the Radicals believed that Lincoln was too tenderhearted toward the south and therefore his removal eliminated a roadblock to their plans. A number of authors, following in Eisenschiml's footsteps, filled in the details of this treacherous betrayal.

Despite efforts by historians to dispel this mythology, negative images of Stanton have persisted. The late Mike Maione, the Ford's Theatre historian, used to despair that hardly a week passed without a visitor to the museum inquiring about Stanton's role in Lincoln's murder.

The real Stanton was a far different person than the one created by the conspiracy historians although admittedly his rather prickly personality has contributed to his negative image. The war secretary did not suffer fools lightly and he could be quite blunt, creating a number of enemies. His first encounter with Lincoln in 1855 (when they both were hired as co-counsel in a case involving the McCormick Reaper Company and alleged patent infringement) reveals Stanton in action. He snubbed his fellow lawyer referring to him as a "giraffe" and a "long-armed baboon." What is usually not cited is a later statement that he had made a great mistake about Lincoln when the two first met.

During the war, Stanton and Lincoln were not just close professional colleagues but also shared many personal moments. The families shared adjoining cottages on the grounds of the Soldier's Home and their children were playmates. On one memorable occasion the two men who were dressed in their best clothes climbed a tree to free some entangled pet peacocks. When Stanton died, Robert Lincoln wrote to his son not only expressing sorrow but also recalling the war secretary's kindness after the death of his own father.

The two men also had a good cop-bad cop working relationship. Despite Lincoln's reputation of pardoning every sleeping sentry, there were cases involving military justice brought before the president where he thought the sentence was just and the punishment should be carried out. In those instances, Lincoln sent the petitioner for leniency to Stanton who had to break the bad news. Conversely, the war secretary felt it would be bad precedent for the Secretary of War to be issuing pardons, but he could also see that in some cases the accused deserved mercy. Those cases he sent to Lincoln to issue the pardon. In both situations Stanton received the blame while Lincoln reinforced his kindly image.

After Booth shot Lincoln, Stanton was the one person who took charge in the midst of chaos. Although other government officials cowered in their homes surrounded by armed guards, Stanton despite warnings about his own safety, made his way to the Petersen House where Lincoln lay dying. He alerted the military forces, took testimony that conclusively identified Booth as the assassin, and set the wheels in motion that quickly led to the arrest of the assassin's co-conspirators. Corporal James Tanner who was pressed into service taking testimony called him the "one man of steel" while Charles Leale the first physician to treat Lincoln referred to him admiringly as the "acting president."

Modern historians no longer portray the Radical Republicans as evil and vindictive in the manner that DeWitt and other authors did. Rather they are seen as the last of the great mid-nineteenth century reformers who strove to provide voting rights and citizenship for the freed slaves. Although they lost the battle in the 1870's they were committed to making the fight.

The Stanton who worked closely with the president and who zealously sought to bring his assassins to justice is the real person who should be remembered in history not the caricature created by his enemies, an image which was reinforced by conspiracy authors. He may have been an abrasive personality and insisted on seeing Lincoln's killers harshly punished, but it is absurd to argue that he unleashed a reign of terror upon the south or that he was behind Lincoln's murder. Edwin Stanton was a great American, who can disagree?

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  • tom_turner
    04/23/2011 at 6:38pm

    tom_turner

    Michael C:

    I think you try to draw too much of a distinction between Stanton and Lincoln. For a long time historians castigated Lincoln for suspending the writ of habeas corpus, trying civilians before military commissions, shutting down newspapers, and other civil rights violations. In fact they argued that in this area Davis had a better record than Lincoln. While Mark Neeley provided an excellent corrective to the older anecdotal evidence about Lincoln and civil liberties in his Pulitzer Prize winning work "The Fate of Liberty," demonstrating that most arrests were in the border areas and involved people doing things against the government rather than saying things, Lincoln's record is still hotly debated.

    Stanton is remembered for one famous case, that of the assassination conspirators, but the Lincoln administration tried over 4000 civilians before military courts over the course of the Civil War. I agree that Lincoln didn't see such extraordinary actions as permanent; they would go away when peace was restored. Nonetheless Lincoln made it clear he would do what he had to in order to save the Union and he seems to have had very few regrets about any such action that he had to take.

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  • MichaelC
    04/22/2011 at 9:54pm

    MichaelC

    Who can disagree? Everyone who believes that the Constitution trumps the impulses of someone like Stanton or, more recently, General Haig -- people more than willing to suspend the Constitution for what they regard as the greater good. Can you imagine Lincoln himself behaving as Stanton did? Certainly not, and for good reason. Lincoln cared for the whole country, Stanton was obsessed with domination.

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  • RickS
    04/20/2011 at 10:39pm

    RickS

    A few years ago I researched Edwin McMaster Stanton to learn about the man himself. As a result, I learned some surprising personal things about him, which no doubt had a profound effect upon his public persona. Hopefully, it helps to know Mars Stanton a little bit better than before.

    For example, he had a preoccupation, a morbid mania if you will, with the dead and death in general. On one hand he dreaded the dead, on the other he was obsessed over the dead. It seemed to have started in his late teens. He was working in an Ohio book store to help support his family – his father had died when Stanton, a chronic asthma sufferer, was age 13. It was soon after he that began to suffer from migraine headaches as well. In 1833, at age 19, his landlady’s daughter suddenly died of cholera. Stanton refused to accept the fact that the girl was dead. So he returned to the cemetery and exhumed her body to confirm the death.

    As Shakespeare wrote: “the past is prologue”, it was in Stanton’s life. In 1836 Stanton married May Lamson and they had two children; Lucy Lamson Stanton and Edwin Lamson Stanton They built a house in Cadiz, Ohio, and he began to practice law. All seemed fine for the Stanton until his daughter Lucy died in 1841. Stanton was so overcome with grief that he had her coffin exhumed and kept in a spare room in his home for two years before he relented and returned it to the ground. Then his wife Mary abruptly died 1844 and Stanton became comatose and depressed. He seemed on the verge of recovery when his brother Darwin suddenly committed suicide in 1846 [he slit his own throat causing blood splatter across the ceiling]. At the funeral Stanton became so distraught he had to be forcibly restrained by other mourners.

    The four deaths in a dozen years changed Stanton for the rest of his own short life [he’d die at only age 55]. Moving to Pittsburgh, He became a crude and rude man, which perfectly fit both his profession and personality – a litigator akin to an alligator. In June 1856, after another twelve years of misery, Stanton married his second wife Ellen Hutchinson, a member of a prominent Pennsylvania family. They had four children, Eleanor Adams Stanton, James Hutchinson Stanton, Lewis Hutchinson Stanton and Bessie Stanton. Rich and successful, Stanton had four servants taking care of his household, when in 1862 William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase successfully lobbied Abraham Lincoln to name Stanton, a Democrat, as his new Secretary of War. The two men, working side by side, hit it off and bonded.

    Stanton’s biographers, B.P. Thomas & H.M. Hyman put the odd pairing in proper perspective as follows:

    “The President, heartsick over the failures that had attended the Union cause thus far, and weary of the ineptitude and incapacity of many of those who served him, saw in Stanton the man he needed. Almost immediately a deep intimacy began to grow up between these two disparate personalities. Lincoln never referred to the abuse he had suffered at Stanton's hands in earlier years, or to the epithets Stanton had used against him more recently. Stanton had found a man to follow”

    But maybe perhaps it was deeper than even that. Due to the war, death was all around them. As fathers, both men loved their children. As fathers, they both lost children as well. When Willie Lincoln died in February of 1862 to be followed by James Hutchinson Stanton in July of 1862, the President and his Secretary of War would be there for each other, when their wives weren’t. In other words, they shared both the work and the worry. For Lincoln and Stanton, keeping busy was the best medicine there was. During the research and development of Dixie Reckoning, I discovered a document that put it all together for me regarding Stanton:

    [Congressional Medal of Honor recipient] Nineveh Shaw McKeen, one of the fifteen original diggers of the “Little Tunnel” party, would escape from Libby Prison with one hundred and eight other Union officers during the night of February 9, 1864. Paired with Captain William S.B. Randall of the 2nd Ohio Infantry, McKeen and Randall would manage miraculously to make it through the lines until they literally ran into the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry who escorted them to a hero’s welcome in Washington and a private audience with Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton. Randall would recall both their extraordinary escape and an exceptional exchange with Stanton as well:

    “At 7:30 p.m. on the evening of the 9th of Feb., 1864, we started out…We went only two at a time…My working partner, and my partner all through, was Lieut. N.S. McKeen, of the 21st Ill. (Gen. Grant’s old regiment) We locked arms and walked right up through central Richmond with but little real trouble; but we had many ‘hair-breadth’ escapes. We got though their fortifications and picket lines, making a circuitous route first north, then northeast, and then east…when we waded the Chickahominy, and the green briars and hedges and thickets robbed us of nearly all of our scanty clothing…we almost perished with hunger. We often found ourselves in the midst of our enemies, but somehow we managed to escape them. They trailed us with bloodhounds, but we broke their trail with cayenne pepper…We finally came in sight of what we supposed to be rebel cavalry dressed in our uniform…We watched them for a long time…they were a detachment of the 11th Pa. Cav….We were sent to Washington, where we met the Hon. E.M. Stanton, Secretary of War. I shall never forget his look when we came into his presence; it was a mingled look of pity, grief, and hatred. Every kindness was shown us after we reached our lines, and we felt our sufferings had not been in vain. We felt as though we had been tried by fire, and our love for our country and devotion to the old flag was a thousand times stronger than before our capture”.

    National Tribune. Published: Thursday March 27, 1890. Libby Prison Experience. Reprint of Letter dated December 21, 1889 from W.S.B. Randall to Hon. H.L. Morey.

    Nineveh Shaw McKeen [1837-1890] McKeen would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor on June 23, 1890 with the following citation: “Conspicuous in the charge at Stones River, Tenn., where he was three times wounded. At Liberty Gap, Tenn., captured colors of 8th Arkansas Infantry (C.S.A.)”. The Edwardsville Intelligencer reported his death six months later on December 24, 1890: “N.S. McKeen, aged 53 years, after an illness of three weeks, died at his home on Church Street, Sunday night, December 22, 1890, of congestion of the brain…”

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  • tom_turner
    04/16/2011 at 3:09pm

    tom_turner

    One correction. Arnold was released but
    O'Laughlen died of yellow fever at Fort
    Jefferson.

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  • tom_turner
    04/16/2011 at 1:37pm

    tom_turner

    chsteine:

    I have little doubt that Mary Surratt was aware of the kidnapping plot. "The Conspirator" is accurate when it portrays her in this manner. Joan Chaconas discovered George Atzerodt's so-called confession in the papers of his lawyer where Atzeodt says that Booth sent Mary to tell Loyd to have the guns ready. As Ed Steers and others have written, the kidnapping was a joint venture with the possibility that things might go wrong and Lincoln could be injured or killed. If kidnapping turned to murder then all could be charged with that crime.

    However Arnold and O'Laughlen who were clearly in on the kidnapping avoided the death penalty and were released several years later. If you wan't to examine the view that Mary Surratt might even have been involved in the murder plans read Kate Larson's book "The Assassin's Accomplice.' Even Kate admits that you cannot prove her involvement in the president's death with 100% certainty and historians seemed destined to continue the debate about the degree of her involvement.

    I am hesitant to generate a debate about the death penalty but as a historian who has studied this case and others such as Sacco and Vanzetti I oppose the death penalty. There is no doubt that innocent people have been executed in American history and I believe life without parole would allow injustices to be corrected if new evidence casts doubt about the original verdicts. Otherwise controversial cases are left to the court of history.

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Thomas R. Turner

Professor and Historian, Bridgewater State College

Thomas R. Turner is a historian and professor at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. He is also the editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Lincoln Herald, the oldest continuously published journal devoted to the study of Abraham Lincoln which includes articles examining all facets of... More

Thomas R. Turner

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