L. E. (Lucius Eugene) Chittenden.

Recollections of President Lincoln and his administration online

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mont was not of the number, who do not like to be
praised. The interested persons referred to were ex-


tremely vigilant. They took almost entire possession of
the general, and made it very difficult for others to ap-
proach him, or to get his attention to the most urgent
public business. A profitable contract was the one thing
needful, the single reward which every one of these per-
sons was seeking. The demands upon the Treasury in-
dicated that few of them sought it in vain.

The criticisms upon the conduct of General Fremont
culminated in charges against him, preferred by General
Frank Blair. Although the confidence of loyal citizens
in his fidelity to the Union remained unshaken, Presi-
dent Lincoln determined that the good of the service re-
quired his removal from his command. The order to
that effect reached him at Springfield, Missouri, on the
2d of November. His conduct upon that occasion should
always be remembered to his credit. He was in hourly
expectation of a Confederate attack. His body-guard,
which was devoted to him, was excited and indignant.
But instead of sulking in his tent, he continued his prep-
arations to meet the enemy, and spent the night in watch-
ful inspection of the defences, ready to lead the army if
the anticipated attack should be made. His brief ad-
dress to his men, written during that night, is a model of
its kind. It contains no trace of sullenness. It urges
the army principally to make him proud of them by
continuing to his successor the cordial support which
had so much encouraged him. His single regret was
that he could not have the honor of leading them to the
victory they were about to win, but he should claim the
right to share in the joy of their triumph, and to be al-
ways remembered by his companions in arms. He will
be a cold-hearted American, who in after-times shall
read that letter and fail to recognize the fervent patriot-
ism of its distinguished author.


The first experiences of the commission in the investi-
gation of these claims in St. Louis produced discoveries
which led to the enlargement of its jurisdiction to all
the claims in the Department, whatever their date or
origin, which had not passed the accounting officers of
the Treasury. But this increase of its powers was
among the least important results of the commission.
By the end of the year the amount of these claims al-
lowed by the accounting officers became so large as to
again threaten the solvency of the Treasury. By their
allowance they became a part of the admitted national
debt. What Avas to be done with them? There were
many anxious Cabinet consultations for the purpose of
devising some means of refusing payment of these
claims, without subjecting the Treasury justly to the
charge of repudiation. There was but one way discov-
ered in which it could be done. Possibly there was but
one man in the nation who had the moral courage to do
it. The way was for the Secretary of "War to undertake
the personal examination of the facts in each case, and
to refuse to send any claim to the Treasury for payment
until he had become satisfied of its justice and equity.
In this way the aggregate daily demands upon the Treas-
ury might be kept within its ability to pay.

At this time another subject was demanding the
greatest possible efficiency in the administration of the
War Office. Treasonable utterances in the loyal states
from newspapers and individuals were becoming bold
and frequent. The fact that such newspapers were
allowed freely to continue their objectionable publica-
tions was certainly one form of giving aid and comfort
to the enemy, and made it difficult to call, with success,
upon the country for volunteers, money, and materials.
The voice of loyalty to the Union was suppressed in the


Confederate States on pain of death. To permit the ad-
vocacy of Secession principles in the loyal states was to
place them at an insufferable disadvantage.

The Habeas Corpus Act had not yet been passed, and
the measures for the suppression of open disloyalty must
necessarily originate in the War Department. The ex-
cellent judgment of Mr. Cameron determined that he
was not the secretary who could enforce such measures
with the greatest success. He was conservative, delib-
erate, strongly averse to going beyond the bounds of
lawful authority. If the writ of Habeas Corpus was to
be suspended, certain Northern newspapers suppressed,
and Northern men of disloyal tendencies imprisoned by
military authority, the exigency demanded at the head
of the War Department a bold, fearless man, prompt to
assume responsibility in doubtful cases.

The immediate cause, however, of the secretary's res-
ignation was the decision of the Cabinet to decline pay-
ment of claims from the Department of the West which
arose out of contracts lawfully made and for which the
government was liable according to established rules of
law, and especially such as had been allowed by the ac-
counting officers. He had no doubt that, in fact, the
claims were grossly exaggerated, but the method pro-
posed for dealing with them he regarded as undignified,
or, as he expressed it, too much like pretending to pay
specie by counting out dimes and half-dimes when bills
were presented for redemption. Such a proceeding, he
did not think, would be successful under a secretary en-
tertaining his views, and he therefore tendered his res-
ignation, which was accepted on the 14th of January,

I think I was in a position to know that Mr. Cameron
retained the full confidence of the President and of his


associates in the Cabinet, notwithstanding some criti-
cisms made at the time by his enemies upon his official
conduct. These criticisms produced considerable im-
pression. One act of his led to the passage by the pop-
ular branch of Congress of a resolution of censure, some
months subsequent to his resignation. The charge was
that he had intrusted Mr. Alexander Gumming with the
custody of large amounts of the public money, and au-
thority to purchase military supplies, without taking any
security. But the President was too just a man to per-
mit an act to be exclusively imputed to Mr. Cameron
for which himself and the whole Cabinet were responsi-
ble. He promptly answered the resolution by a message,
in which he stated that on the 20th of April, 1861, after
the fall of Sumter, and while the capital was in a state
of siege, he authorized Governor Morgan and Alexander
Gumming to make all necessary arrangements for the
transportation of troops and munitions of war, and gen-
erally to assist the officers of the army in its movements,
until communications should be re-established ; and di-
rected the Secretary of the Treasury to advance, with-
out security, two millions of dollars to John A. Dix,
George Opdyke, and Eichard M. Blatchford, of New
York, to be used in meeting requisitions for the public
defence. Every dollar of the money had been accounted
for, and Mr. Cameron was no more responsible than him-
self and the other members of the Cabinet for whatever
fault had been committed in the premises. This vigor-
ous language ended all further criticism, and no more
attacks were made upon the late secretary. So long as
the President lived he entertained the kindliest feeling
for Mr. Cameron, and gave him a large measure of his

Edwin M. Stanton belonged to a class of men whose


public acts seem to invite misinterpretation. There was
no man in a conspicuous position during the war whose
objects were more universally misunderstood or whose
motives were more harshly criticised. These results,
equally unjust to himself and unfortunate for the coun-
try, were more his fault than his misfortune. They
were induced by his own carelessness of speech and
contempt for public opinion ; they might have been at
any time corrected. He had been so long accustomed
to uncharitable criticism that it had ceased to annoy him
or even to attract his attention.

In the year 1861, Mr. Stanton was in the very prime
of his intellectual and physical life. He was about five
feet eight inches in height, his figure being slightly in-
clined to corpulence. His face was dark, and the lower
portion of it was completely covered with a long, heavy,
dark beard. His eyes were small, dark, and piercing.
His movements were quick. Vigorous alertness was
indicated by every change of his countenance and
movement of his body. His mind was as active as his
person. It was original and mechanical rather than
philosophic or thoughtful. Its type was indicated by
his success at the bar, where he had attained an enviable
reputation as an advocate in patent cases, with but little
celebrity in the investigation or discussion of abstract
principles. His perceptions were too quick to be always
accurate ; his ideas seemed to burst forth from his brain
like a torrent from a mountain-side, with a force of cur-
rent which swept along with it obstructions of every
description. He impressed those who knew him best
with a sense of his own personal courage, the existence
of which was denied by his numerous enemies. What-
ever he may have been in the presence of danger to his
person, his whole official life was a witness to his com-


plete insensibility to the opinions of others upon his ac-
tions. These qualities constituted a character eminently
aggressive ; a man capable of lofty purposes, which, once
formed, were to be pursued to failure or success. He
was, or at least appeared to be, insensible to all influ-
ences outside of his own construction of the law. He
had the capacity of so shutting in his own consciousness
that he was as impervious to external influences as if he
had been made of metal or stone.

The circumstances under which Mr. Stanton had en-
tered the Cabinet of the last administration were as try-
ing to himself as his services there were invaluable to
the country. The crimes of Floyd, the machinations
of Cobb and his associates, had driven that loyal old
Democratic soldier, General Cass, from the chair of
state. Cobb had resigned ; Floyd and Thompson were
still there, with the new Secretary of State, whose opin-
ion, as Attorney-General, " that Congress had no power
to make war upon a state," still dominated the Cabinet.
Stanton was tendered the office of Attorney-General, as
the successor of General Black, whose political faith he
was supposed to have embraced. He had decided to de-
cline the appointment. There was nothing of reputa-
tion to be gained in the office during the fraction of the
term which remained ; there was but one loyal member
left, and he was a Kentuckian. Mr. Stanton went to
the Executive Mansion to thank the President and ex-
plain his declination. He saw and appreciated that the
only defence of the Union against Secession for the mo-
ment was the wavering President who had called him
to his aid. The picture changed his determination. In-
stead of declining, he then and there accepted the ap-

The circumstances of the first Cabinet meeting he at-


tended should be recalled by those who care to deal
justly with the reputation of Mr. Stanton. In addition
to those already mentioned, they were reported to be as
follows : The meeting occurred on an unfortunate day
for Secession. It was the 8th of January, the anniversary
of the battle of New Orleans. Floyd had made the
refusal of the President to withdraw the troops from
Charleston Harbor the pretext for tendering his resig-
nation, which had not been accepted. Cobb, after deal-
ing a deadly blow at the national credit, had been suc-
ceeded by a man of no positive opinions from a Border
state. The only member present known to be true to
the Union was Judge Holt. All the other members were
in sympathy with Secession, or, like the President, were
struggling to maintain a neutral position, when neutral-
ity was little better than treason.

" Should Major Anderson be reinforced or withdrawn
from Fort Sumter ?" was then the burning question. The
discussion was fierce and long, and almost wholly on the
Secession side. It ended by a motion made by Secretary
Thompson that Major Anderson be commanded to retire
and abandon Fort Sumter. The only voice raised against
it was the single one of Judge Holt. Floyd, Thompson,
Thomas were openly, Judge Black and the President
secretly inclined in its favor.

The occasion demanded a man of courage, and he was
there. It was the first Cabinet experience of Mr. Stanton.
The proprieties of the occasion, the traditions of Cabinet
action, and his own inclinations combined to secure his
silence. But he was not the man to become an accom-
plice in crime. It is a public misfortune that the words
of burning denunciation which constituted the first re-
marks of Secretary Stanton in a Cabinet meeting were
not recorded at the time ; that, to recall them, we are


constrained to rely upon the memory of Judge Holt, the
only other loyal member among traitors in intention,
to whom the whip of his stinging scorn was applied.
From him we learn that the words were, in substance,
these :

" Mr. President : At your solicitation I have consented
to become, for a very brief time, your constitutional
adviser in matters of law. It is an office I did not seek,
but while I hold it I shall perform its duties. The mo-
tion of your Secretary of the Interior presents my first
official duty. That motion is, that you surrender the
soldiers and abandon the property of the United States
to its enemies. When that motion passes, its author, its
supporters, every member of your Cabinet present, and
yourself, if you and they do not oppose it, will have com-
mitted a crime as high as that of treason !"

Had a bomb exploded, the party would not have been
more astounded. Such words had never been heard in
that presence. Thompson and Floyd, their voices para-
lyzed with anger, vented their wrath in threatening gest-
ures. Judge Holt moved around the end of the table to
Stanton's side. Menaces were not replied to in kind by
him, but, if contempt could have burned, his look would
have scorched the traitors. Thompson first controlled
his voice into intelligible speech. "Who," he almost
screamed, "will dare to arrest me for treason? And
what army officer will assist him in his Black Kepublican
work ? There are two hundred men in my own depart-
ment who will protect me if I call on them !"

" If the officer appointed by law calls for assistance
to arrest you or any other traitor, I will render it, for
one," replied Mr. Stanton, " and one of the oldest and
bravest of our generals has publicly declared that, if
Fort Sumter is surrendered, he will, within twenty days,


lead two hundred thousand men to take vengeance on
all the betrayers of the Union!"

The meeting dispersed while the President was wait-
ing for mutual concessions. Within a few hours the
frauds of Floyd became public, and compelled the ac-
ceptance of his resignation. Thomas also made way in
the Treasury for General Dix, who, within the month,
had written an order which will carry his name to the
last page of the latest history of patriotism, and enough
of stamina was infused into the enervated administra-
tion to carry it through its expiring hours without any
very humiliating concessions to disunion.

With the undeniably strong and valuable qualities
which controlled the mind of Mr. Stanton were mingled
others which were injurious to his reputation and a det-
riment to his usefulness. His judgment of other men
was as partial as that of Secretary Chase. But while
the latter did not resist the influence of personal ad-
miration and praises of himself, Mr. Stanton was ex-
tremely suspicious of anything like personal commenda-
tion. Probably no man ever repeated the attempt to
praise him. The first almost certainly produced either
a shaft of satire or a glance of contempt. Other great
faults were mixed with his great powers. He acquired
permanent prejudices against others without an effort
and often without a cause, and, once imbibed, they be-
came indelible. His temperament was censorious and
rather gloomy. He was parsimonious of his commenda-
tions of others, but not sparing in his criticisms. Men of
his very peculiar nature are constantly making enemies,
who are retained without effort, while they make but few
friends, and those are not to be retained without watchful

Cant, pretence, and hypocrisy were the Parcae which


never passed the door of Mr. Stanton's favor. He could
not endure the breath of either. It irritated him to hear
any one speak of his own patriotism, or his sacrifices.
Such men, he maintained, were necessarily hypocrites,
and it must be admitted that herein his estimate was
seldom at fault. There was one sin for which, before the
bar of his judgment, there was neither excuse, pardon,
nor remission : it was fraud or peculation in the public
service. In the catalogue of crimes, as he would have
arranged it, these were more iniquitous than openly
bearing arms against the government.

This was no hasty or superficial conclusion of his
mind it was reached by a process of logical reasoning.
To him the republic was like a woman whom we pro-
fessed to love, assailed on every side by some of the
children she had borne and nourished ; herself defenceless,
with her life depending upon the loyalty of those who
were still faithful. "While these, by thousands, were
shedding their blood and laying down their lives to save
hers, there were a few clothed in her uniform and sworn
to defend her flag who were treacherous enough to make
profit of her necessities by selling the arms, the food, the
clothing of their sick, wounded, and dying brothers. In
such a stress and strain there could be no abstraction
from the national resources by unjust profit or by fraud,
which did not in some way diminish the arms, supplies,
the clothing or comforts of our soldiers in the field. A
defrauding contractor was a greater criminal than an
open, willing rebel. And there was one superlative type
of unmitigated rascal, and that was a man who, wearing
the uniform or invested with the authority of the United
States, could use his rank, his office, or his position for
his own secret, unlawful, personal gain !

An actual occurrence will illustrate both the careless-


ness of expression in which Secretary Stanton indulged,
and the intensity of his feeling towards men of this class.
At a reception one evening he was engaged in conversa-
tion with an officer when a person passed them. Turning
the subject, he suddenly exclaimed :

" Do you know that person?" at the same time indi-
cating the individual who had passed, who still stood
within hearing but for the sound of conversation.

" Know him ? Certainly. He is Mr. , chief of

the bureau in your own Department. Why do you


" Because he is a pretender, a humbug, and a fraud,"
said Mr. Stanton. " Did you ever in all your life see the
head of a human being which so closely resembled that
of a cod-fish ?"

" He is not responsible for his head or his face. But
why do you say he is a fraud ? The newspapers call him
a reformer, and give him credit for great efficiency."

" I deny your conclusions," he replied. " A man of
fifty is responsible for his face ! Yes, I know he is
courting the newspapers : that proves him a humbug and
presumptively a fraud."

A few months later the official in question was found
guilty by a court-martial of peculation and fraud in the
management of his bureau, and dishonorably expelled
from the service.

Mr. Stanton's unpopularity, if the term is permissible,
was due to his own neglect and carelessness. It was
owing to his negligence that he never cared to give any
one a favorable impression of himself it was his fault
that his dislikes were caused by slight circumstances,
and often inexplicable. When he made an unpleasant
remark about another it was seldom forgotten, for he
could put more caustic bitterness into a brief sentence of


personal criticism than Carlyle, or any known master of
the vocabulary of denunciation. But, perhaps, enough
has been said to indicate the qualities which led to his
selection by President Lincoln as the successor in the
War Office of Secretary Cameron.

Men of Mr. Stanton's temperament could not be the
favorites of President Lincoln. There were also reasons
of a personal character which would have barred his en-
trance into the Cabinet, if Mr. Lincoln had been an ordi-
nary man. They were known to each other before the
war. Both had been counsel for the same party in an
action in which, by professional courtesy, Mr. Lincoln
was entitled to make the argument, unless he voluntarily
waived his right. It was an action in which he took a
deep interest professionally, and for which he had made
thorough preparation, and was, consequently, certain to
have made a better argument than his associate. But
Mr. Stanton, without consulting his colleague, in a domi-
neering manner not uncommon with him in similar
cases, although he was the younger man, coolly assumed
control and crowded Mr. Lincoln out of his own case.
The latter felt deeply hurt at the slight, which was the
more remarkable since it is the only recorded instance
in which he seems ever to have claimed in his own favor
any question of precedence. No lawyer would have ex-
pected Mr. Lincoln to overlook such a gross discourtesy,
or to take its author into confidence, without the most
ample apology.

But when did any personal consideration weigh a
feather in the mind of President Lincoln if the public
safety was in question? Oblivion of himself on such
occasions was the indisputable demonstration of his
moral greatness. He who, two years later, could say
of one who, without excuse, had added to the heavy


burden of his cares, " If I have the opportunity I will
make him chief justice," and kept the promise, now
recognizing in Mr. Stanton the qualities which the War
Office required, invited him into his Cabinet as cordially
as if they had been old friends. From that time, through
dark and evil days, through nights of solicitude and fear-
ful responsibility, they together carried the burden of
war, until, and largely owing to their joint labors, the
rebellion was crushed and the republic saved.

In the dark night of another day of evil the most
sorrowful heart by the bedside of the murdered Presi-
dent throbbed in the bosom of his Secretary of War, and
his voice it was which spoke his grandest eulogy in the
words, " There lies the most perfect ruler of men the
world has ever seen !"

On the 14th of January, 1862, Mr. Stanton was in-
vited into the Cabinet and accepted his nomination as
Secretary of War. He was expected to diminish the
demands of the Department of the West upon the Treas-
ury, but it was not supposed that he would wholly arrest
them. There were numerous monthly requisitions from
the War Department upon the Treasury, authorized by
statutes, which it was necessary to provide for, in order
to carry on the regular operations of the government.
For almost a fortnight none of these were made. The
delay became so embarrassing to the daily operations of
the government that the Secretary of the Treasury re-
quested one of his bureau chiefs to call upon Secretary
Stanton and ascertain the reason for the delay. This
officer solicited an interview, and the Secretary of War
named six o'clock P.M. on January 28th as a convenient
time. Two hours after the close of business on January
28th this officer found Secretary Stantoij literally buried


in accumulated heaps of requisitions on the Treasury,
each paper of which was an account, upon which some
one was, by the judgment of the "War Office, lawfully
entitled to a Treasury warrant for its payment. There
were, literally, cords of these requisitions. The piles sur-
rounded the Secretary's desk, and were higher than his
person when he stood erect. He was carefully examin-
ing each account with its vouchers. The result of his
day's work lay by his side, possibly a dozen requisitions
approved, and five times as many reserved for further

Online LibraryL. E. (Lucius Eugene) ChittendenRecollections of President Lincoln and his administration → online text (page 13 of 35)