L. E. (Lucius Eugene) Chittenden.

Recollections of President Lincoln and his administration online

. (page 14 of 35)
Online LibraryL. E. (Lucius Eugene) ChittendenRecollections of President Lincoln and his administration → online text (page 14 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

investigation. The Treasury officer asked him whether
he was discharging the functions of an " auditor" of these

" I am discharging a duty imposed by statute," he re-
plied. " No further payments will be made by the Treas-
ury on the requisitions of this Department until I know
that they ought to be made !"

" You are undertaking an impossibility," said the rep-
resentative of the Treasury. " You will stop the wheels
of government. No five men can do what you are un-
dertaking !"

" I am not responsible for that," said the Secretary. "I
am responsible for aiding the payment of fraudulent
claims. You yourself have put me upon inquiry. You
arrested a warrant for the payment of $26 each for
muskets, previously offered to this Department for less
than $4 each, and the offer was declined. Such claims
are scandalous as well as fraudulent. I intend to arrest

He would not be moved from this position. He would
not approve the formal requisitions, which were unques-
tionably just, out of their regular order. He would do
nothing but take up each account in its order, and either
approve or reject it, as the facts seemed to warrant. To


every argument or statement of the evil consequences
that must follow from this practical suspension of the
payment of war claims, his answer was that the statute
and not the secretary was responsible.

In a few days the Department of the "West was in an
uproar there was a rebellion within the loyal states.
Every Western man, of any influence, hurried to Wash-
ington. The War Office was in a state of siege the
Secretary was waylaid in the streets, at his residence,
even in his bed. No combination so powerful had been
made since the fall of Sumter as that which now beset
the White House and all the departments to induce Sec-
retary Stanton to change his policy, and permit these
claims to be presented to the Treasury for payment.
Every conceivable means, influence, effort, and endeavor,
every imaginable prediction of calamity, mischance, and
disaster, even denunciations, menaces, and threats were
brought to bear to persuade or to drive him to remove
the obstruction, and permit the current of public money
into the Department of the West to resume its flow.

But all in vain. The Washington Monument was not
more insensible to the breath of a summer wind than
was Secretary Stanton to all these supposed influences.
He labored diligently, through the night-watches as well
as in the daytime. Possibly a tenth of the average num-
ber of requisitions were made daily by his Department
upon the Treasury; but when the average was once
established, it never increased, nor had the Treasury
any difficulty in meeting the moderate aggregate of his

Many weeks of this delay did not elapse before the
claimants began to implore for some measure of relief.
Was no compromise possible ? Was there no way of ob-
taining payment of such portion of these demands as


was clearly just ? Secretary Stanton had one uniform
reply. The Court of Claims was open. It was the tri-
bunal provided by law for claimants not satisfied with
the proceedings of the Department. At length, when
all other resources had failed, the claimants in the De-
partment of the West voluntarily offered to submit their
claims to the Davis Commission, if the Treasury would
pay such amounts as that commission found was equita-
bly due. To this Mr. Stanton would assent, provided
the claimants would accept the amount so found justly
due in full payment, but not otherwise. After a vain
effort to move him from this position, the claimants con-
sented, and the whole accumulated mass of unpaid war
claims in the Department of the West was sent to the
commission for investigation. They were so numerous
that it was more convenient to measure them by the
cubic foot than otherwise.

The commission dealt with them justly, and with all
practicable despatch. It was readily proved that, as a
rule, claimants and contractors had been permitted to fix
their own prices. Blankets, tents, provisions, and nu-
merous other articles had been accepted at four and six
times the ordinary retail prices, and the account certified
as just. Many of the claims were allowed at twenty and
thirty per cent, of the amounts claimed, and the final re-
sult was that the amount of all the claims allowed by the
commission was about one half the aggregate allowed by
the accounting officers. As fast as the claims were liqui-
dated they were paid by the Treasury. The claimants
accepted payment of these reduced amounts under pro-
test and, as they claimed, upon compulsion. Suits to re-
cover the amounts reduced were brought in the Court of
Claims, and that court rendered judgment in favor of the
claimants ; but, upon appeal, the Supreme Court of the


United States reversed these judgments, on the ground
that the acceptance of the amounts allowed by the Com-
mission operated in law to discharge the entire claim.

The official reputation of Mr. Stanton was essentially
established by these early acts of his public career. They
were fiercely denounced at the time as unjust and arbi-
trary. As he never defended his acts as no one was
interested to justify them his reputation has necessarily
suffered. Now that the supposed sense of personal in-
jury has passed away, a more just judgment of these
acts may be formed. It should be remembered that the
Treasury could not have paid these claims. The scale of
prices they introduced would have bankrupted the na-
tion during any six months of the war. The claims were
fraudulently excessive. The equity of the Commission
was never challenged it would not have reduced the
claims one half without good reason. The net result,
then, of this conduct of the Secretary of War was to
save the Treasury from bankruptcy, the country from
the payment of unjust claims to a very large amount,
and from the introduction of a ruinous standard of
prices, and to administer a stinging rebuke to the pre-
tended patriots who were robbing the Treasury while
vaunting their loyalty.

It was the common opinion that the nature of Mr.
Stanton was pitiless, that he was insensible to all ap-
peals for mercy, or for the relief of human suffering or
sorrow. This opinion has outlived him, and still dark-
ens his memory. There are individuals who have under-
taken to write history who have recorded dark hints
that the torments of a conscience, awakened too late to
undo the miseries he had inflicted, actually drove him
to end his own life. "While these persons have earned


nothing but contempt for their prurient vagaries, it is
time that this injustice should be corrected.

I will call a single witness to the accuracy of this im-
perfect sketch of the character of Mr. Stanton. Charles
O'Neill, of Philadelphia, entered Congress before the
war, and his term of useful service is not yet ended.
No man knew Mr. Stanton better than Mr. O'Neill.
As chairman of a committee which reported a bill for
the erection of a monument to Mr. Stanton, Mr. O'Neill's
committee made the following record :

" To the intense patriotism and great personal force
manifested by Mr. Stanton in 1860-61 was due his ap-
pointment as Secretary of War, Jan. 20, 1862. He was
thus made chief of staff of President Lincoln, who was
by virtue of his office the commander-in-chief of the
military forces of the United States ; and, although that
great magistrate never abdicated his authority, the world
knows that the confidence he reposed in Mr. Stanton
made the latter mainly responsible for the placing of
armies in the field and for the selection of the generals
who finally led them to victory.

" From the day of his entrance into the War Office
the change in the conduct of affairs was most marked.
His organizing power was felt at once in every bureau
of the Department. To the raising of men and the sup-
plying of them with the munitions of war, clothing, sub-
sistence, medicines, and transportation, he gave his great
capacity for organization, his restless energy, and his
wonderful powers of endurance. He was a prodigy for

" He had a resolute will to do what his judgment told
him was necessary, and struck out new paths when the
old ones led only to pitfalls, and the moral courage to
pursue the course thus marked out.


" His faith in the national cause was never shaken,
and he had the magnetism which enabled him to com-
municate it to those with whom he came in contact.

"Laggards and absentees from the army, contract
brokers, and purveyors of contraband news were made
to feel his righteous anger. Called upon to perform
labors which would have exhausted a dozen men, taking
but little sleep, and his nerves constantly wrought up to
the highest tension, it would have been strange if he had
not often been abrupt and impatient while engaged in
the rapid despatching of business, and especially with
people who insisted upon consuming time which could
not properly be given them.

"The leaders of Congress had the most unbounded
confidence in his wisdom as well as in his integrity, and
treated him as one of themselves. The committee which
had to deal with questions connected with the war gave
great weight to his recommendations. The vast levies
of troops and the enormous appropriations for their
movement and support were in the main measured by
him under advice of the generals of the army.

"When Congress had given the authority asked, he
directed the marshalling of the great resources of the
country thus made available. From his executive mind
came the organization of the work by which two mill-
ions and a half of soldiers were enlisted to fight the
battles of the Union. He was the impersonation of
honesty, and, after controlling the expenditure of
$3,000,000,000, he died poor as he had lived.

" President Lincoln had in him an absolute trust.
"WTien the chief-justiceship was vacant, and the good
Bishop Simpson was urging Stanton for the place, Mr.
Lincoln replied that he would gladly place him there if
he would find him another such Secretary of War.



" When the nation made General Grant President, he
appointed Mr. Stanton to a place on the Supreme Bench.
He received his commission, but disease prevented him
from entering upon the duties of the office. The mighty
strain of the war upon him impaired his constitution and
caused his death. He was a martyr as well as a hero.

" To perpetuate by enduring monuments the memory
of the great few who are thus raised up in great crises
for the salvation of a nation is a duty and a privilege,
sanctioned by custom and demanded by the natural feel-
ings of grateful patriotism."



TEN millions are " a good many " things of any kind.
They seemed to be more than a good many to the offi-
cer who had to sign coupon-bonds to that amount in de-
nominations of $1000 and less, within the time and under
the pressure of the circumstances about to be described.
Except upon this single occasion, it is questionable wheth-
er so large an amount of coupon securities, of the same
issue, of our government were ever brought together.

Communication between the United States and Great
Britain was much more irregular and required longer
time in 1862 than in 1891. Now, on regular sailing'
days, twice every week, as many as ten large steam-
ships leave New York for English ports on a single
tide. Telegraphic communication between Washington
and London is almost as frequent as between New York
and Philadelphia, and it is not interrupted unless four
cable-lines are simultaneously broken. Then there were
fewer lines of steamships, and during the war the sail-
ing-days of some of them were irregular ; only one cable
had been laid across the Atlantic, and that was not in
working order. Special messengers carried all the im-
portant despatches between our country and Great Brit-
ain ; there was time for a revolution to break out and


be suppressed on the Continent before we heard of its
existence. It was such a messenger who brought the
first news to America of the furious rage of our trans-
atlantic cousins excited by the capture by Captain Wilkes
of those Confederate (almost) protomartyrs Mason and

About eleven o'clock on a well -remembered Friday
morning, in 1862, the Eegister of the Treasury was re-
quested to go to the Executive Mansion immediately,
without a moment's delay. He obeyed the summons,
and found there Secretaries Chase and Seward, in anx-
ious consultation with the President. They wished to
know what was the shortest time within which $10,000,000
in coupon " five-twenties " could be prepared, signed, and
issued. They were informed that the correct answer to
that inquiry would depend upon the denominations al-
ready printed ; that if a sufficient number of the largest
denomination, of $1000, were on hand, they might be
issued within four or five days; if the denominations
were smaller, longer time would be required ; that the
number printed could be ascertained by sending to the
Register's Office, for there was a report from the custodi-
an of unissued bonds made every day. Both Mr. Chase
and Mr. Seward said that so much time could not be
given ; that these bonds must be regularly issued, and
placed on board a steamer which was to leave New York
for Liverpool at twelve o'clock on the following Monday,
if this could possibly be done; that the register could
command all the resources of the government, if neces-
sary, but he must see that the bonds were on board the
steamer at the hour named. There was one condition
the bonds must be regularly and lawfully issued, with
nothing on their face to indicate that the issue was not
made in the regular course of business.


By the act of Congress which authorized the issue of
these bonds it was declared that they should be signed by
the register. The construction given to the act in the de-
partment was that the register must sign them in person,
and that he could not delegate his authority. Any number
of clerks could be employed in their preparation and entry,
but the point of difficulty was whether the register could
sign them within the time. There were seventy hours be-
tween the time of the discussion and the hour when the
securities must be on board the special train that would
carry them to the steamer. The time was long enough.
Ten thousand signatures and a greater number could be
made in seventy hours, with proper seasons of rest and
sleep. But could the physical strength of one man hold
out to the end of such a dreary, monotonous work with-
out sleep or rest ? The question was one of physical en-
durance, only to be determined by a trial. But a few
moments could be spared for discussion. It was speed-
ily settled that the register would set about the task at
once ; that he would sign until his strength gave out.
He would then resign his office ; the President would
appoint another register, who would complete the issue.
This would lead to complications, and was otherwise
objectionable ; but the faith of the government was in-
volved ; the emergency justified extreme measures.

The immediate occasion of this sudden determination
to issue these securities was a despatch just received by
Mr. Seward, by special messenger, from Mr. Charles
Francis Adams, our minister to the court of St. James.
As already intimated, the cable was not in working
order, and no suggestion of the facts had been made to
the State Department previous to the arrival of the mes-
senger. Its importance was obvious to the two secreta-
ries, but will not be understood by the reader without


an explanation covering a considerable period of time
and events which are now for the first time made public.

Mr. Adams had for several weeks been aware, and
had communicated the fact to his government, that the
Messrs. Laird, extensive ship-builders, were building at
their yards in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, two armored
vessels for the Confederate government. They were to
be furnished with powerful engines, and capable of great
speed. When completed, they were to proceed to a small,
unfrequented British island in the West Indies, where
they were to be delivered to the agents of the Confed-
eracy. They were then to receive their armament, pre-
viously sent thither, take their crews on board, and then
set forth on their piratical cruises, after the example of
the Alabama. After sweeping our remaining commerce
from the seas, by burning and sinking every merchant-
ship bearing our flag, they were to come upon our own
coast, scatter our blockading fleet, and open all the South-
ern ports to British commerce, which would no longer
be required to take the great risk of breaking the block-
ade. This feat was to be accomplished by vessels which
had never entered a Confederate port, nor, indeed, any
harbor which was not covered by the British or some
other flag which protected the iron-clads against pursuit
or capture by vessels of the United States navy.

Greater danger than these vessels never threatened
the safety of the Union. In tonnage, armament, and
speed they were intended to be superior to the Kearsarge
and every vessel of our navy. Their armor was supposed
to render them invulnerable. If the blockade was not
maintained, an immediate recognition of the belligerent
character of the rebels by Great Britain was anticipated.
Even if that did not take place, all the cotton gathered
in Confederate ports would be released and find a prof-


itable market ; while the old wooden vessels, now prin-
cipally constituting the blockading fleet, would not resist
one of these iron-clad vessels long enough for a second

The impending danger was fully appreciated by Mr.
Adams. With his accustomed energy, notwithstanding
the secrecy in which all the Confederate movements in
Great Britain were shrouded, he had collected and laid be-
fore the English authorities clear proofs of the rebel own-
ership and intended unlawful purpose of these vessels.
He had even procured copies of the contracts under which
the Messrs. Laird were building them, and had ascertained
the fact that payments on their account had been made
from proceeds of cotton owned by the Confederacy. He
had represented that the evidence furnished by him, ver-
ified by the oaths of credible witnesses, was sufficient
not only to justify their seizure, but to secure their con-
demnation in the courts, and he had insisted, with a force
apparently unanswerable, that it was the duty of Great
Britain to prevent the vessels from leaving the Mersey,
and setting forth upon their piratical career.

But, unfortunately, the sympathies of the party in
power in England were not with the Union cause. It
suited the view of the law-officers of the crown not to
interfere, and to excuse their inaction by raising objec-
tions to the legal sufficiency of the evidence. The situ-
ation was perfectly comprehended by the President and
his Cabinet, but remonstrance appeared to be unavailing,
and the departure of the vessels was expected at an
early day.

Hopeless as the task appeared to be, neither Mr. Ad-
ams nor his active agents relaxed their efforts for a mo-
ment. Their recent investigations had been prosecuted
with such energy that the minister had finally been able


to furnish the British premier with the sworn affidavits
of some of the officers and men actually enlisted in Liv-
erpool and other English cities for service on these ves-
sels ; that the advance payments to these men had been
made by Confederate agents ; that the ships were to leave
the Mersey at an early appointed date for an island near
Bermuda ; that their guns and ammunition had already
been sent thither. Mr. Adams had also secured the
names of several of the ship's officers, with copies of
their commissions, bearing the signature of President
Davis and the seal of the Confederacy.

The last instalment of affidavits forwarded by our
minister proved to be more than the crown lawyers
could digest. They covered every defect named in their
former objections ; they could not be answered even by
a special demurrer. They were reinforced by the caus-
tic pen of Mr. Adams, whose argument so clearly point-
ed out the duty of the English government in the prem-
ises that it would obviously be regarded as conclusive by
every one but these lawyers, who possessed the exclusive
power to move the slow authorities of the customs to
action. The crown lawyers finally decided that the de-
mand of Mr. Adams must be complied with, and that an
order must issue, prohibiting the departure of these ves-
sels from the Mersey, until the charges of the American
minister had been judicially investigated.

There were, however, some incidents attending this
most important decision which prevented its communi-
cation from giving to Mr. Adams a satisfaction wholly
unalloyed. The decision had been withheld until the
vessels were on the very eve of departure. The order
must be immediately served, and possession taken by
the customs authorities, or the vessels would escape.
The crown lawyers, properly enough, observed that the


affidavits furnished by Mr. Adams were ex parte the
witnesses had not been cross-examined. If Mr. Adams
should fail to prove his charges by evidence which would
satisfy the judicial mind, and the vessels be released, the
damages caused by arresting them might be very heavy.
It was a settled rule of procedure in the courts in such
cases to secure the payment of such damages beyond
any peradventure. The restraining order would, there-
fore, be issued, but it would not be enforced against the
vessels until these damages had been secured by a de-
posit of 1,000,000 sterling in gold coin.

The situation was well known to be critical. Within
three days the vessels were to sail for their destination ;
if necessary, they might sail forthwith. The cable was
useless broken or disabled and Mr. Adams could not
communicate with his own government. Without such
communication he had no authority to bind his govern-
ment as an indemnitor, or to repay the money if he could
borrow it. Even if he had the fullest authority, where
was the patriotic Briton who would furnish a million
pounds on the spur of the moment to a government which
was believed by the party in power in Great Britain to
be in articulo mortis f Unless, therefore, the crown
lawyers supposed our minister to have anticipated their
decision by providing himself with this money, they
must have known that this condition could not be com-
plied with, and that they might just as well have de-
clined to interfere. If they had intended that these
ships should not be prevented from making their intend-
ed crusade against our commerce and our cause, no bet-
ter arrangement could possibly have been devised. It
is not to be denied that suspicions existed that such was
their purpose.

But the unexpected sometimes happens. The event


which prevented these floating engines of destruction
from entering upon their intended work was as unan-
ticipated as a miracle. It constituted, possibly, the most
signal service ever rendered by a citizen of one country
to the government of another. It was all the more no-
ble because it was intended to be anonymous. The em-
inently unselfish man who performed it made a positive
condition that it should not be made public ; that not
so much as his name should be disclosed, except to the
officers of our government, whose co-operation was re-
quired, in order to transact the business in a proper man-
ner and upon correct principles. So earnest was his in-
junction of secrecy that his identity will not even now
be disclosed, although he has long since gone to his re-

Within the hour after the crown lawyers' decision,
with its conditions, had been made known to Mr. Adams,
and when he had given up all hope of arresting these
vessels, a quiet gentleman called upon him and asked if
he might be favored with the opportunity of making

Online LibraryL. E. (Lucius Eugene) ChittendenRecollections of President Lincoln and his administration → online text (page 14 of 35)