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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
    03/12/2011 at 11:19am

    tom_turner

    Herb:

    I've read Anthony Pitch's book. I'll go back and take a look. As you say, who knows what this was all about but it is certainly intriguing. One thing that comes to mind immediately is the idea of joint venture in the kidnapping enterprise. If you are in a plot to kidnap and try to say you backed out, you have to notify the authorities. Otherwise if kidnapping culminates in murder you can still be legally be charged with being guilty of the murder. Although he doesn't seem to warn specifically about Booth's plotting (unless this was a wide part of Booth or somebody's plan that we don't know about)could he have attempted to argue in court that he warned the authorities that Lincoln was in danger?

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  • Herb
    03/11/2011 at 8:09pm

    Herb

    Tom,I am glad that you have an open mind and think out the box.Yes,I hired two handwriting experts from the Rochester area and they agreed that it looks like John Surratt's handwriting.It was a letter warning Lincoln that people left from Rochester to assassinate him.2-21-1865.1-It was in the Holt collection.Anthony Pitch mentions it in his book"They have killed papa dead"-Why did Holt keep THAT letter.My speculation is that Surratt was in Dansville,NY to scout out his escape route.2-He was in Elmira,NY the night of the assassination and then goes on to Canandaigua,NY, stays at the Webster House goes to ST.Marys church for Easter Sunday Mass.3-Then he goes to Albany,NY and on to Montreal.I have his signature from the St.Lawrence Hotel ledger three days after the the assassination[Canadian National Archives].This is intriguing and speculative,but who knows?

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  • Herb
    03/11/2011 at 8:08pm

    Herb

    Tom,I am glad that you have an open mind and think out the box.Yes,I hired two handwriting experts from the Rochester area and they agreed that it looks like John Surratt's handwriting.It was a letter warning Lincoln that people left from Rochester to assassinate him.2-21-1865.1-It was in the Holt collection.Anthony Pitch mentions it in his book"They have killed papa dead"-Why did Holt keep THAT letter.My speculation is that Surratt was in Dansville,NY to scout out his escape route.2-He was in Elmira,NY the night of the assassination and then goes on to Canandaigua,NY, stays at the Webster House goes to ST.Marys church for Easter Sunday Mass.3-Then he goes to Albany,NY and on to Montreal.I have his signature from the St.Lawrence Hotel ledger three days after the the assassination[Canadian National Archives].This is intriguing and speculative,but who knows?

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  • tom_turner
    03/11/2011 at 12:14pm

    tom_turner

    Herb:

    Good luck on your search for further information about John Surratt in New York. You seem to hint that you think the letter you discovered might have been written by Surratt which would be intriguing. Also why would Holt keep one particular letter in his papers among the many others that were received?

    I have to admit that I have never seen any convincing evidence about either Stanton or Johnson being involved in Lincoln's death. Prior historians like Eisenschiml based theior charges on inuendo but no solid proof of any kind. Works by authors like Finis Bates which accuse Johnson are pretty shoddy although it is not uncommon for people to suspect the vice-president who they believe has a lot to gain from his predecessors death. Barbara Garson wrote a short play "McBird" where using the MacBeth theme she portrayed Johnson as being behind Lincoln's murder. I teach a course on American assassinations and I believe that studying them in a comparative manner is sometimes useful.

    You are correct as to just how long it has taken to add to our knowledge about the Lincoln assassination. The archival material wasn't even widely available until the 20th century allowing sensationalists to dominate the field. Unfortunately, the farther removed you are from the events the chances increase that there may be important materials that have been lost forever.

    Like any historian though I have an open mind about new discoveries.

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  • tom_turner
    03/11/2011 at 11:55am

    tom_turner

    Thanks to Tennessee for pointing out that the official name of the camp was Sumter although the National Park Service on its website uses Sumter/Andersonville interchangeably and notes that the latter is very commonly used.

    While Champ Ferguson was tried and executed after the civil war and in a broad sense there is a similarity with the Wirz case as both were charged with wartime atrocities, Ferguson was a guerilla leader who was accused among other crimes of personally executing captives in cold blood. Wirz on the other hand was accused of mistreatment leading to the deaths of thousands of Union prisoners.

    Even if one concedes two executions, however, it does not negate the general point I was attempting to make. After many revolutions and civil wars there are often mass executions of military and civilian leaders on the losing side, permanent stripping of basic rights, and thousands of refugees who are forced to flee. Reconstruction was pretty mild by the standards of similar historical events.

    I would agree that one can make the case that one Captain could hardly have been guilty of all he was charged with. Wirz became a scapegoat for the alleged treatment of Union prisoners in the same way that Mary Surratt became a symbol of Southern women who had sent their sons off to battle the Union. I recommend Elizabeth Leonard's "Lincoln's Avengers, Justice, Revenge, and Reunion after the Civil War" which clearly details the mood of the public in 1865 and after.

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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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