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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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  • chsteine
    04/14/2011 at 10:47pm


    Professor Turner, Do you yourself believe that Mary Surrat was a conspirator?

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  • sinecure
    04/04/2011 at 12:27pm


    A sidenote on Stanton:. . .I photographed Stanton's grave in Georgetown last year [along with the graves of Generals Jesse Reno and Cadmus Wilcox and a dozen other ACW era notables] and noticed that a large tree is growing out of the center of his grave . .other than whatever symbolism may be there, I found it odd that this was allowed to happen to the burial site of such a personage. . .It is a beautiful cemetery, maintained magnificently . .and then . . there is the 'tree' . . .anyway . .nuff said . .

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  • tom_turner
    03/15/2011 at 7:14pm


    I would not suggest that there can never be conspiracy involved in assassinations but the burden of proof falls on those who argue sensational conspiracy theories. Since conspiracies are seen behind many American assassinations it is all too easy to believe the wildest tales, which can often be easily disproven. I mentioned "The Lincoln Conspiracy" under "books related to this subject" as an example of a book (and movie) that proposes Stanton's involvement in Lincoln's death. In this scenario the Radicals replace Booth who is a bungler at kidnapping Lincoln with James Ward Boyd, a former Confederate soldier. An angry Booth, however, will not be warned off of the plot and just as Boyd is about to kidnap the president Booth shoots him. Through a series of events Boyd ends up dying in Garrett's Barn and Booth gets away. Of course the Radicals conceal this because of their own involvement. While this may sound plausible to some, convincing evidence shows that Boyd died in January of 1866 (not April 1865), meaning that "The Lincoln Conspiracy" is based on fraudulent documentation. With this in mind I want a lot of proof before I will rewrite history.

    I do agree with one point that austinmanix makes about the dangers of a violent political climate. Reconstruction witnessed high assassination levels and the assassinations of the 1960's and early 1970's occurred during the Vietnam War. Heated rhetotic and random violence don't guarantee assassinations will happen but they can create a dangerous climate.

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  • austinmanix
    03/13/2011 at 9:45pm


    It is hard to study the assassination of a president or other political leader and not wonder if their (the assassinated or injured) own party was behind it. Look at those who benefited from the deaths of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy.

    I have to agree with Eisenschiml that the Radicals believed that Lincoln was too tenderhearted.

    We'll never know the real reasons behind the assassinations of any of our presidents. Unfortunately, we're lied to on a daily basis by our leaders. It almost as if they are wanting to create another civil war. I hear people on the news calling Obama a dictator, Hitler, and Mussolini among other things.

    The pot is being stirred and I believe that it will come down to Americans once again having to pick sides.

    It's sad.

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  • Herb
    03/12/2011 at 3:03pm


    Tom,This is very intriguing and it could be an open "hornets"nest.You have raised an excellent point.Who knows and what can be proven?

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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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