Recollections of Stanton Under Lincoln

EDWIN M. STANTON entered President Lincoln’s Cabinet in January, 1862, on the retirement of Mr. Cameron from the war office. He had previously been a member of the Cabinet of Mr. Buchanan, and continued in that of Mr. Johnson after Mr. Lincoln’s death, until driven from it by the President in his quarrel with Congress over the results of the war. Although he was conspicuous in each of these Cabinets, still his fame and place in history will rest upon his course and conduct in that of Mr. Lincoln, which covered substantially the entire period of the war.

The call of Stanton to office by Mr. Lincoln was a surprise in politics, and a departure from all precedent. He was a lawyer, not a politician, having attained prominence in his profession as a man of learning and power, with only two months’ experience in the administration of public affairs, and that the limited experience of law officer in Mr. Buchanan’s Cabinet. He was not in political affiliation with those who had placed Mr. Lincoln in power, and on the stump had opposed his election with some bitterness, while he had given no evidence of a change of views. Why then was one called into the council of the President, at that critical moment, who was neither his political nor personal friend, nor yet distinguished for long public service ? He was summoned to take up the work of this very important department of the government, in the most serious crisis that had yet overtaken it, because he was a Union man, who had shown great energy, power, and courage in its behalf, regardless of personal or political consequences, during his brief service in the demoralized and paralyzed Cabinet of Mr. Buchanan. Mr. Lincoln needed and commanded the help of every Union man, wherever found. He had met and had been associated with Mr. Stanton professionally before his election, and had had occasion to note his great energy and will power joined with large capacity and brain force. He knew, too, that this man had been called into Mr. Buchanan’s Cabinet to meet an emergency when it was in extremis, at the solicitation of Mr. Black, who, while attorney general, had employed him in some of the most important litigations in which the United States had been involved. What Stanton had done and had shown himself capable of doing had justified his appointment in President Buchanan’s Cabinet, and was likewise President Lincoln’s justification in summoning him to like service in his. Neither Lincoln nor Stanton thought of politics in the invitation or acceptance.

As a personal friend of Mr. Stanton, and a political friend of Mr. Lincoln, I had taken the former by the hand, on the night after he had accepted place under Mr. Buchanan, and had thanked him for having done so. I called upon Mr. Lincoln as soon as it became known that Stanton had accepted an appointment in his Cabinet, and congratulated him on having secured so valuable a coadjutor. Mr. Lincoln replied that it was an experiment which he had made up his mind to try, and that whenever a Union man was willing to break away from party affiliations, and stand by the government in this great struggle, he was resolved to give him an opportunity and welcome him to the service. He remarked that he had been warned against this appointment, and had been told that it never would do ; that “ Stanton would run away with the whole concern, and that he would find he could do nothing with such a man unless he let him have his own way.” The President then told a story of a minister out in Illinois who was in the habit of going off on such high flights at camp meetings that they had to put bricks in his pockets to keep him down. “ I may have to do that with Stanton ; but if I do, bricks in his pocket will be better than bricks in his hat. I ’ll risk him for a while without either.”

There had been much criticism of the management of the War Department before Mr. Cameron had left it, and a committee had been appointed by Congress to investigate its doings. The retirement of Mr. Cameron was so closely connected, in point of time, with these criticisms freely made in Congress that at first it was generally supposed they had had much to do with it. Although there was no foundation for this suspicion, yet two members of the committee having this investigation in charge, Elihu B. Washburn and I, received from Mr. Stanton an invitation to call at the War Department the next morning after his appointment. We found him with his coat off, busy, and surrounded with papers, endeavoring to bring into his notions of order the somewhat demoralized condition into which things had fallen. “ I want a little conference with you, gentlemen, before I begin,” was the direct and rather abrupt salutation we received almost as soon as seated. “I am surrounded with the assistants and employees of the régime I am called upon to succeed. Their experience will be valuable to me ; the aid of some of them seems now indispensable. But before I move I want to know from you if there is anything the matter with any of them.” He then went on to speak of certain men in particular. “ That gentleman in the adjoining room I have known myself for many years; he has no equal in his specialty. I cannot spare him unless I must. My own confidence in him would suffice, if I alone were to be consulted in this matter. But it is not enough that I do not doubt his honesty. The public must have confidence in him, also. I have no time to spend in vindicating him against false charges. It is as important that the public believe in him as that I do; and if they do not, he must go before I begin, for I am to open new books. Now, gentlemen, what do you say ? Does anything appear against this man, in your investigations ? ” And so on with several others holding prominent positions in the department. This was Stanton’s ideal of fitness and usefulness in the public service. He left all past disputes behind him, and left behind him, too, all debatable characters.

He was of as strange a make-up as Mr. Lincoln himself, and yet no two men were more unlike in all that enters into the character of men. The one was gentle-mannered, tender-hearted, trustful, hopeful; the other was brusque in his intercourse and stern in his dealings with others, on his guard at all times, and prone to despond. The one sorrowed over the calamities of the war ; the other sorrowed that more was not achieved by it. Yet these two men, so wholly unlike in ways of work and thought, walked together arm in arm, each sustained in the load he carried by the arm he leaned on, and helped on his way by the caution and counsel of him who walked by his side. Still, there never was a moment when official relations were lost sight of, or command and obedience forgotten. There were doubtless occasions when there were sharp differences of opinion on points of administrative policy, — in which sometimes the chief yielded to the subordinate ; but it was yielding to the force of reason and argument, and not to that of an imperious will. These occasions were greatly exaggerated, both in numbers and importance, by the gossip of the day, and perhaps not a little by Mr. Lincoln’s own playful remark that he “ had no influence with this administration,”— an administration whose history has demonstrated that he was in truth its master, from the first to the last of its existence. But his standpoint and that of the Secretary were not in the same angle of vision, and consequently the relations of different objects to each other could with difficulty be seen in the same proportions. Mr. Lincoln was commander in chief not of the army alone, but also of the political forces which controlled the republic; and the guidance of the one was as necessary to success as that of the other. On the other hand, Mr. Stanton knew nothing of politics and would have none of them, and in the study of a campaign took no account of public opinion. It was inevitable, therefore, that often considerations not to be ignored by Mr. Lincoln had no weight with his Secretary in determining the policy of the war office. Hence, at times there were short antagonisms ; but Mr. Lincoln, when he could not be convinced, always in the end won a cheerful acquiescence. Such an occasion was that when the President, yielding to special political considerations, had issued an order allowing the officials of a particular congressional district, short of its quota of men, to fill it out by enlistments of such rebel prisoners as, desirous of abandoning the enemy, were willing to take the oath of allegiance and enlist in our army. Mr. Stanton, looking at it solely from a military point of view, considered it exceedingly unwise, and, fearing disastrous eonsequences, declined to comply with the order. At an interview, Mr. Lincoln was made to see pretty clearly the mistake, but, having gone too far to retreat in good faith, adhered to the order, simply answering, “ I reckon, Mr. Secretary, you will have to execute the order.” A sharp reply from Mr. Stanton, “ Mr. President, I cannot do it. The order is an improper one, and I cannot execute it,” brought hack a response calm but unmistakable in its tone : “ Mr. Secretary, it will have to be done.” And it was done without further criticism. Mr. Lincoln afterward wrote to General Grant admitting the mistake, saying that the blunder was his, and not the Secretary’s, and would not be repeated.

On another occasion, I myself experienced one of these storms, or, as the sailors would say, was out in one of these gales. It is worth relating only as it shows in contrast the striking elements of character which dominated these two men, carrying on harmoniously along a common line the great work of the war, yet thinking and acting all the while in different if not diverging directions. A quartermaster of one of the regiments from my own State had been caught in one of the dens in Washington gambling with the government money, and had been sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in the Albany penitentiary. I had received a petition to the President, signed by many leading citizens of the neighborhood of the offender’s home, indorsed and certified to by the physician of the penitentiary, and also by a leading physician of my own town, asking for his pardon on the ground of failing health, and representing him to be in a sad condition of decline, with every prospect of a speedy death unless he were released. I took this petition to Mr. Lincoln, who, after carefully reading it, turned to me and said, “ Do you believe that statement ? ” “ Certainly, I do, Mr. President, or I should not have brought it to you,” “ Please say so here on the back of it, under these doctors. I did as requested, adding, “ And because I believe it to be true I join in this petition.”As I signed my name he remarked, “We can t permit that man to die in prison after that statement,” and immediately wrote under it all, “ Let this man he discharged. A. L.” He handed the paper back to me, and told me to take it to the war office and give it to Mr. Stanton. He saw at once something in my countenance which led him to think that I had already encountered some rough weather in that quarter, and had little relish for more. He took backthe paper, and, smiling, remarked that he was going over there pretty soon, and would take it himself. The next day, on going to the House, I was met by two Michigan Representatives with the inquiry, “What have you been doing at the White House ? We went up to get a poor Michigan soldier pardoned who had been sentenced to be shot for desertion, but we couldn’t do anything with the President. He told us that you were there yesterday and got him to pardon a man out of the penitentiary, and when he took the paper to Mr. Stanton he would n’t discharge him, ‘ and told me,’ said the President, ‘ that it was a sham, and that Dawes had got me to pardon the biggest rascal in the army, and that I had made gambling with the public funds perfectly safe. I couldn’t get him to let the man off. The truth is, I have been doing so much of this thing lately that I have lost all influence with this administration, and have got to stop.’ ” I went immediately to the White House, with my hair on end, but was greeted by the President in the mildest manner, and with a look which told me that he knew my errand. Indeed, his face was always a title-page. I said to him that I understood he had had some trouble with the pardon of the day before, and inquired if it had gone out. He replied that it had not, and then recounted, in his quaint way, the Beene in the war office, much ns it had been already repented to me. I said to him that I could not afford to have this matter rest on any uncertainty. “ Retain this pardon, send a messenger to Albany, and make certain the truth or falsity of this statement, — at my expense, if we have been imposed upon.” His reply was, “I think, if you believe it, I will. At any rate, I will take the risk on the side of mercy.” So the pardon went out. And yet the sequel proved that Mr. Stanton was the nearest right of the three; for on my return to Massachusetts, at the adjournment of Congress, almost the first man who greeted me in the street was this same “ dying ” quartermaster, apparently as hale and robust as the best of the people around him.

Mr. Lincoln could never keep out of sight or mind the woes of the war. In the vision and thought of Mr. Stanton its issues were ever uppermost, often to the exclusion of every other consideration. The President strove to carry on the war and secure its great ends with as little pain as possible. To the Secretary war was in its nature terrible, and could not be made other than the work of a grim-visaged monster, whom to temper was to tame. All the friction which ever arose between these great co-laborers in the mighty work they had in hand can be traced to this difference in temperament, and not to any lack of harmony in purpose. They were the warmest of personal friends to the end, and were fond of each other’s society, spending together the larger part of any leisure possible to both. Those were days which afforded very few opportunities for social amenities at the capital, and the least of them all fell in the way of the commander in chief and his war minister. What of leisure they had they seemed best to enjoy in each other’s society, and after the labors of the day were over Mr. Lincoln would seek relaxation and rest In a brief visit to the then plain, uncarpeted, and ungnrnished rooms of the war office. There, if the public business permitted, or public perils did not forbid, these great functionaries unbent themselves in a free - and - easy social intercourse, which has been represented by those whose good fortune it was sometimes to enjoy it as having been of the most charming and delightful quality. There came of these brief social hours not only the necessary relaxation from the tension of arduous and unremitting daily duties, but that complete understanding and appreciation of each other which led to the most unreserved confidence and cooperation, ripening into the friendship and love of brothers.

I have spoken of the hard side of the character of Stanton in contrast with the tenderness of Lincoln, but it must not be inferred that this was wanton or carried beyond a stern sense of duty. What of sacrifice the war, in Stanton’s judgment, demanded, that he exacted, and nothing more. Where, within its needs and exigencies, its ills could be averted or softened he never failed to embrace the opportunity. If he did not search out ways to relieve its distresses as much as did others, it was largely attributable to the engrossing character of its demands. There were many instances where a kindly nature led him to the most generous efforts in mitigation of the necessary asperities of flagrant war, and in removing those not inseparable from its presence. He had no patience with the petty persecutions visited by the disloyal sentiment in the States bordering on Washington upon Unionists. This sentiment was most intolerant, vindictive, and unrelenting, dividing families, severing personal ties, and destroying the peace of homes. He never failed, when it was in his power, to put himself between these persecutors and their victims. Many were the instances of special relief at his hands which were witness to the kindness of his nature. Families crossing the Long Bridge, homeless and penniless, were, by orders from the War Department, put at work wherever opportunities were furnished in the variety of needs attendant upon the movement of armies. Contrabands, wandering hither and thither, aimless and helpless, fed on the manna of the War Department, and were provided an abiding-place in the vacant shelters under its control.

Mr. Stanton came into the Cabinet of Mr. Lincoln, as has been stated, from an outside political affiliation which never had any sympathy with the purposes towards which the current of events had early turned the war, and he took office with no intention of contributing to those ends. But by degrees he grew into the plans and methods forced upon his chief, and was daily driven farther and farther into that current which was sweeping on to their consummation. He was not long in the work before he became a convert to the necessity of the course pursued, and a believer in the righteousness of the retribution which was overtaking those seeking to build up the slave power on the ruins of the republic. The quickening influence of his sleepless energy was immediately felt in every branch and detail of the service. It was not two weeks before General McClellan, at the head of the army, which had not yet moved from its encampment on the heights around Washington, began to complain of the annoyance given him by this new force in the War Department which permitted no rest, and demanded a reason for every hour’s delay.

In six months Mr. Stanton had so taken in the inevitable of the war, and had so imbibed its final and ultimate purpose, that, with only Mr. Bates of the Cabinet to join him, he urged the President to publish immediately his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, when, in July, he first submitted it for their consideration. Under the advice of other members of the Cabinet, however, that publication was postponed till the 23d of September following. There is no occasion or opportunity to chronicle here the rapid succession of steps taken by the war minister, under the direction and inspiration of his chief, in that conduct of the war which forced the end and the results that gladdened all hearts. The work seemed to have greatly changed the whole nature of the Secretary, and to have made another man of him. His earnestness became so intense as to be at times actually fierce. When something had gone wrong or some bold stroke was in contemplation, it was well to give him a wide berth, for woe was sure to betide the man who approached him at such a time with a request for leniency towards some hapless soldier or delinquent brigadier. He always worked at a high desk in his office, and there he stood the day long, and into the late hours, if need were, with the persistency of a sentinel at his post, dispatching business with great rapidity, and brushing one side or the other, as rubbish in the way, everything that did not pertain to the business on hand. It was his habit to have his luncheon brought to him while he worked, and many were the dinners served him in the same way. It is apparent that, under such conditions, there could be no patient ear or opportunity for fair consideration of complaints or requests coming up to Representatives from their constituents serving in the army or lying in the hospitals. There was no one of us whose daily mail was not laden with matters of concern for us to attend to at the War Department, and the necessity of going there came to be looked upon, in many cases, as a painful duty. On these occasions, one could not reach the office so early in the morning as not to find the room full of those on similar errands, waiting their turn. There the Secretary would stand at his desk, surrounded by papers, with a stenographer at his side (that terror of those who came there twice for the same thing), and hear the story of one after another, passing each along to the door with a decision pronounced in less time than it took to state the case. There was no place for a rehearing or time for reconsideration, and another case would often be half through before the decision that preceded it was fully comprehended. In the nature of things, justice could not be safe under such treatment. And to all this was added a lack of judicial temper. Mr. Stanton was too intense to make a good judge. He could brook no shortcoming, nor would he palliate any departure from a straight line. He was prone to be suspicious of those who did not work as he did, and was sometimes unconsciously ridden by his prejudices. Thus it was that in some cases he committed grievous wrongs which were never repaired. Some of them may be attributed to the haste which could not be avoided, and others to the lack of a full knowledge of the facts on which the cases rested. Still, there were those which are yet to be accounted for, cases of gross injustice for which a reason has not yet been given. Foremost among these was the order for the arrest of General Charles P. Stone, without charge; his imprisonment, without trial, for six months; and his final release, by force of an act of Congress, without explanation or apology from the War Department for the proceeding. General Stone was a native of my own congressional district, and, knowing him from a boy, I felt too keenly to forget or cover the wrongs he suffered under an order for which no explanation was ever given or redress offered. The author of this wrong and his victim are both dead, but the motive and cause are still a mystery. Until some future search shall unfold it, the burden and the reproach will rest upon him who struck the blow, and not on him upon whom it fell. Admiration for the great qualities of this ablest of war ministers and for his marvelous work must here find qualification until the silence shall be broken and the justification made complete.

But there was, after all, in Mr. Stanton a very tender heart, and his attachments were like those of a lover. He loved those he trusted, and he trusted without question those he loved. When the end of his service under Lincoln came at last, and he stood by the bedside of his murdered chief, he broke down in his grief, and the iron man became a child.

When Mr. Stanton passed from the service of Mr. Lincoln to that of his successor, he was an old man. It is true that when he entered upon that service he was but forty-seven years of age, and that, by the calendar, three years and three months covered the entire period. But, measured by what of vital power he was called upon to spend in the work which fell to him during those three years, it was a lifetime. At the beginning he was a stalwart athlete; though short of stature and of a thickset frame, still alert and nimble in motion. His eye was dark, and both keen and soft. He wore a long full beard falling down over his chest, and was careless of his attire. But his hand was warm, and he greeted every one with a smile. On the morning of the 15th of April, 1865, he left the bedside of the great chief whom he had served to the end with all the powers at his command, and spent the next three hours in the discharge of such duties as the peril of the moment forced upon him, in a government without other head. At the end of that time he stood by the side of Mr. Johnson, as the new President took the oath of office at his rooms in the Kirkwood House. But he was not the same Stanton who entered the war office three years before. The eye had lost much of its lustre and fire; care had wrought wrinkles on his brow and angles in his face, while gray hairs had made grim his flowing beard, and elasticity of step had given place to the motions of one who had been bearing heavy burdens. He had overdrawn his bank account of vitality, and was never afterwards able to make it good. Those only who saw him on the day which marked the beginning of his service with Lincoln, and on that which closed it, noticed this great change and understood its meaning. Could the curtain have lifted from the next three years of his life, even this contrast would have been lost in the marvel of the change.

We leave him at the threshold of his new service. He had already made his place in history, and the storm period which followed, valuable as it was in shaping results, added little of lustre or renown. The fame of a great character achieved in patriotic service was assured. If Lincoln was essential to the success of the cause of the Union, it is no less true that Stanton was essential to the success of Lincoln. They were complements of one great instrumentality which has had no parallel in our history. The life of neither of these great men can be written without that of the other. And yet there was no conspicuous character at any period of the war more bitterly denounced than Mr. Stanton. This was the penalty of fidelity, and its intensity certified his efficiency. It was because he laid hold of wrong with a strong hand, and never loosened his grasp, that its perpetrators hated him. With him absolute rectitude was an iron rule, and he exacted it of all in official service. The seekers of opportunity, those lying in wait for the gains and profits of war, found him their enemy, and treated him as such. He was no courtier, but, on the contrary, was rough and blunt, especially with those in his way. He had no flattering tongue or sinister methods, and tolerated none: therefore he failed to be a popular leader as the world counts popularity. He had defects. His temper, often tried beyond measure, sometimes inflicted unnecessary wounds ; prejudice sometimes led him to do injustice. Suspicion and uncharitableness were too often present with him, blinding his eyes. These were the scourges laid hold of by imbittered foes to drive him from his great work. But he heeded them not, and turned neither to the right nor to the left, nor slackened his endeavor while the day lasted and the need continued. He administered his office under the eye of Mr. Lincoln himself, and subject to his order, and during it all was his trusted, confidential friend, commissioned to carry out his policy by means be approved. In minor details he committed errors, for he was human. But his countrymen will judge him by his great achievements, not by his little errors. There is much material for his biographer in the national records of this period, and in the memory of contemporaries who still survive him, full of interest and instruction to every student of our history. It should not be lost.

H. L. Dawes.