L. E. (Lucius Eugene) Chittenden.

Recollections of President Lincoln and his administration online

. (page 25 of 35)
Online LibraryL. E. (Lucius Eugene) ChittendenRecollections of President Lincoln and his administration → online text (page 25 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

had not been already involved in war.

The Detective Bureau was established as one of the
regular bureaus, not under the control of the commis-
sioner of internal revenue, or the commissioner of the
customs, as it should have been, if permitted to exist,
but as an annex to the office of the secretary. One L.
C. Baker, who had acquired some notoriety as a detec-
tive, was appointed its chief. By some means, never
clearly understood, his jurisdiction was extended to the
army, and he exercised his authority in all the depart-
ments and throughout the United States.

Baker wore the uniform, and probably had authority
to assume the rank, of a colonel in the army. He took
into his service, from all parts of the country, men who
claimed to have any aptitude for detective work, with-
out recommendation, investigation, or any inquiry, be-
yond his own inspection, which he claimed immediately
disclosed to him the character and abilities of the ap-


plicant. How large his regiment ultimately grew is
uncertain, but at one time he asserted that it exceeded
two thousand men.

With this force at his command, protected against
interference from the judicial authorities, Baker became
a law unto himself. He instituted a veritable Keign of
Terror. He dealt with every accused person in the
same manner; with a reputable citizen as with a de-
serter or petty thief. He did not require the formality
of a written charge ; it was quite sufficient for any per-
son to suggest to Baker that a citizen might be doing
something that was against law. He was immediately
arrested, handcuffed, and brought to Baker's office, at
that time in the basement of the Treasury. There he
was subjected to a brow-beating examination, in which
Baker was said to rival in impudence some heads of
the criminal bar. This examination was repeated as
often as he chose. Men were kept in his rooms for
weeks, without warrant, affidavit, or other semblance
of authority. If the accused took any measures for his
own protection, he was hurried into the Old Capitol
Prison, where he was beyond the reach of the civil
authorities. Baker's subordinates in other cities emu-
lated and often surpassed the example of their chief.
Powers such as they exercised were never similarly con-
ferred by law under any government claiming to be

Corruption spread like a contagious disease, wherever
the operations of these detectives extended. It soon
became known that impunity for frauds against the
government could be procured for money. Men who,
but for the detective system, would never have thought
of such enterprises, went into the regular business of
illicit distilling, bounty -jumping, smuggling, defraud-


ing the customs, and other similar practices. Honest
manufacturers and dealers, who paid their taxes, were
pursued without mercy for the most technical breaches
of the law, and were quickly driven out of business.
The dishonest rapidly accumulated wealth, which they
could well afford to share with their protectors. Good
citizens became discouraged, and ceased to take any in-
terest in the administration of justice, or the suppression
of fraud. The worst predictions of the opponents of
the detective system were speedily verified.

The methods of Chief Baker were shown by actual oc-
currences, one of which I will relate. It became evident
that certain contractors were receiving preferences in
the payment of their claims, in violation of an impera-
tive rule of the department. Evidence of repeated in-
fractions of this rule was produced. Brokers in New
York would, for a commission, not only undertake to
secure payment of claims by certain dates, but would
inform claimants, in advance, of the date on which they
would receive their money. This favoritism could only
be accomplished in one of two ways ; either by changing
the order of issuing the warrants for the payment of
settled claims, or by changing the warrants on their way
through the Treasury. If the first was the case, the
fraud was in the secretary's office ; if the second, it was
probably in the office of the register. I was satisfied
that the warrant clerk in the office of the secretary was
the guilty party, but he had the secretary's confidence,
and regarded his position as impregnable.

Baker undertook the investigation of this fraud with
great enthusiasm. He announced that he should report
to me twice every day ; that my suspicions had fallen
upon the right person, but that he was operating with
another clerk, and that the two were criminals of such


experience and skill that nothing short of the machinery
of his office would suffice for their detection. His re-
ports were made with great detail, and finally announced
that the guilty parties had become alarmed, and were
on the point of taking flight with their plunder. The
secretary, however, would not authorize their arrest, un-
less I would certify that &prima facie case against them
was made out.

I declined to make this certificate. Baker's next re-
port was, that the two clerks had become so suspicious
that they did not speak to each other, nor correspond
through the post-office ; that each sent his letters to a
hollow tree in Georgetown, where they were deposited ;
that he had already opened and read two of their let-
ters and replaced them, and that, very soon, he expected
to have proof of their criminality under their own hands.

One day, while I was reading one of his rambling re-
ports, Baker, on the opposite side of the table, was print-
ing words with a pen on a loose sheet of paper, and had
nearly covered a half-sheet with his own name, and other
words, in imitation of printed capitals. This sheet he
left on the table, and I, without any purpose in my
mind, swept it into a drawer. Shortly afterwards, he
came to inform me that the suspected persons were
about to attempt a flight to Havana, and that one of
them had written to the other, fixing upon the train
by which they were to abscond, and asking for an an-
swer, which answer he expected every moment to re-
ceive from one of his men who was on the watch at the
hollow tree.

"While he was giving me this account, he was called
out of the office in an excited manner by one of his men.
He soon returned, and, with an air of mystery, threw a
letter on the table, observing that, " If we could see the


inside of that, I would probably be willing to consent
to the arrest, for we should have the scoundrels, sure !"

My eye had caught the direction. I took up the let-
ter and began deliberately to open it.

" Hold ! hold !" he exclaimed. " Don't you know
that it is a felony to open a letter addressed to another
without his authority ?"

" I think I will take the risk," I said. I opened and
read from it a long farrago about steamers from Cuba,
the register's suspicions, Baker's unrelenting pursuit and
watchfulness, the writer's danger, etc.

" Are you not willing to give the order for their ar-
rest upon that evidence ?" he asked.

I smoothed the letter upon the table, and laid by its
side his own scribbled sheet, taken from my drawer,
and asked somewhat sternly,

" Colonel Baker, do you not think both these docu-
ments were written by the same hand ?"

Perfectly unabashed, without a blush, the fellow
smiled as he looked me in the face and said,

" That game didn't work, did it ? It was a good one,
but the best plans will sometimes fail. If I could have
got your consent to an arrest, I would have had their
confessions before morning. We must now try another

" No," I said. " I suspected you were a fraud, and
now I know it ! You are of the same pattern with al-
most every detective I ever knew. You were willing
to involve me in your scheme of deceit, in order to get
an opportunity of frightening these men into confession.
You may have the poor excuse of having practised false-
hood so long that you have forgotten how to be honest.
However that may be, I shall end all communication
with you by reporting you to the secretary.


I knew he was armed, but I was very sure that he
was a coward, and would not resent a kick, if I chose
to administer it. He took no offence whatever.

" I always did like a frank man," he observed. " I
think we now understand each other, and shall get along
admirably. You will like me when you know me better."

I satisfied him that the conversation could not be pro-
tracted. But from this time forward he always insisted
that we were the best of friends. An accident soon af-
terwards led to the exposure of the guilty clerk.

I never did understand under what authority Baker
exercised his unendurable tyranny. He never hesitated
to arrest men of good position, put them in irons, and
keep them imprisoned for weeks. He seemed to control
the Old Capitol Prison, and one of his deputies was its
keeper. He always lived at the first hotels, had an
abundance of money, and I am sure did more to disgust
good citizens and bring the government into disrepute
than the strongest opponents of the system had ever
predicted. He opened an office in the Astor House in
New York, formed a partnership with a notorious per-
son called " The. Allen," who enlisted twelve hundred
vagrants and tramps, promising them an opportunity
to desert. Instead of being permitted to desert, the re-
cruits were hurried to the front. They Avere worth-
less as soldiers, having been enlisted by deception, and
the whole scheme was a detestable fraud. This was
Baker's method of breaking up " bounty -jumping," and
may be taken as an average illustration of his practices.
He managed to appropriate the credit due to a party of
cavalrymen in the pursuit and capture of the assassins
of the President, and maintained his rank and office to
the end of the war.

It is probably too late now to dispense with the de-


tective system. The system itself created a class of
criminals who now require its continuance. Training
and attention have developed a better class of officers
for the secret service of the Treasury. Here and there
a few men of ability have taken up the detection of
crime as a science, and among them the Pinkertons, and
Inspector Byrnes, of New York city, may be recognized
as useful officers of great ability. But they are con-
spicuous exceptions to a very general rule, and do not
affect the estimate of conservative men with old ideas
of integrity and principle in regard to the system as a
whole. Such men will not approve the use of such
means, although the multitude may cry out, "Let us
do evil, that good may come !"

The guilty clerk whom Baker was pursuing was not
long in exposing his methods. His New York asso-
ciates now openly offered their facilities for securing
prompt payment of claims, for a commission, to con-
tractors. The suspected clerk set up his carriage, be-
came a patron of coryphees of the ballet, and indulged
in other luxuries quite inconsistent with his salary of
$1600 per year. I carried the next warrant, marked
" special," that was presented for signature to the secre-
tary. As I suspected, he knew nothing about it. In
as few words as possible I pointed out the circumstances,
and the secretary instantly sent for the warrant clerk.
It was too late. He must have seen me enter the secre-
tary's office with the warrant in my hand he had taken
the alarm and fled. He was not arrested. For such a
piece of work as the arrest of a real criminal Baker was
worthless. The practice, however, was broken up.

Some years afterwards, in my office in New York, I
was told that a person wished to see me who bore every


appearance of a " tramp." In the outer office I found
a poor palsied, ragged creature, having every mark of
poverty and destitution. He extended his hand in a
furtive manner, then withdrew it, and in a broken voice
said, " You don't remember me. I am II , once war-
rant clerk in the Treasury. I was discharged from the
hospital yesterday. I have eaten nothing since. I am
weak and hungry. Will you not lend me two shillings
to get a breakfast ?" It was the man who once kept his
carriage, and was the confidential clerk of the Secretary
of the Treasury. " How much money will take you to
your home and your friends ?" I asked. " I have no
home and no friends," he said, despairingly. I relieved
his necessities ; he went from my office and I saw him
no more.



IP civil offices were estimated at their actual instead
of their imaginary value, those who dispense them would
not be troubled by the pertinacity of the office-seeker.
Civil officers of the United States of all grades, with few
exceptions, are underpaid. The amount and character
of the service required, given to almost any of the pur-
suits of private life, would be much better rewarded.
Why, then, do so many good citizens enter this mad race
for office at every opportunity ? It is a race in which
scores are beaten and endure the shame and mortifica-
tion of defeat where one succeeds ; in which the winner
is in the end the loser, and deserves commiseration rather
than congratulations for his success.

There is a certain glamour over public office which is
extremely deceptive. This is particularly the case with
offices which have to do with the receipt and disburse-
ment of money. Many times I have pointed out to ap-
plicants for these offices the inadequacy of their salaries,
and the impossibility of increasing their income in any
honest way. They see, but will not be convinced. They
are certain that handling so much money must be profit-
able. If they can once get the place, they are sure that
they can find a way to make it lucrative.

From the days when Hamilton was the Secretary of
the Treasury to the present time, the ingenuity of finan-
cial officers and members of Congress has been taxed to


render impossible the very results for which the office-
seeker is hoping. They have so surrounded official life
with checks, guards, and penalties that it may now be
stated as an axiom that, except by stealing, there is no
way known among men of making an office profitable
beyond its appointed salary.

Errors in judgment in this respect have been the ruin
of many worthy men. The subject is important. An
actual occurrence, which fell under my own observation,
will serve as an illustration.

The War of the Kebellion created or developed many
brave and brilliant soldiers. None of them had a better
record than Major-General George J. Stannard. On the
15th of April, 1861, he was the superintendent of an iron
foundry in St. Albans, Vermont, and an officer of a com-
pany of uniformed militia in that town. He entered the
service as a colonel, and was rapidly promoted through
all the grades to the rank of a major-general. He never
failed in his duty, and seldom omitted to distinguish
himself in battle. He was several times wounded, and
finally lost an arm. He appeared to be destitute of
fear, and was at once the pride and admiration of his
men. An account of the battle of Gettysburg will never
be read which does not contain a conspicuous notice of
General Stannard. It was his brigade which held the
front line on the left centre of the Union forces, on
which General Lee, for more than two hours, concen-
trated the fire of 140 pieces of artillery, and against
which the famous charge of Pickett's division was di-
rected. It was his inspiration that caught the instant
when that mad rush of a charging army was defeated
to order out upon its flank two regiments which, at the
distance of a pistol-shot, poured their deadly volleys into
the mass of Confederates, which so demoralized them that


they never halted until three or four thousand of them
passed to the rear as prisoners of war. It was conceded
by military critics to have been one of the most brilliant
military acts of the war to have been almost without a
parallel in its history. In the final campaign he com-
manded a division of the Eighteenth Corps, which capt-
ured and held Fort Harrison, and it was in defending
it against an attempt made by ten brigades to recapture
it that he lost his arm.

When General Grant was elected President, General
Stannard became a candidate for the office of collector
of the district of Vermont. He asked me to sign his
recommendations. I declined, on the ground that I es-
teemed him too highly to promote his ruin. I argued
with him, I pointed him to the statute which limited the
annual pay of the office to $2500. I showed him that it
might not amount to half that sum, and that none but a
close business man, who would rigidly obey the law, and
touch no dollar of the government money, could take
the office without peril to himself and to the friends
who became his sureties. I failed to make the slightest
impression upon him. Somebody had told him that a
former incumbent had cleared annually $10,000 from the
office; that what had been done could be done. He
went away offended, and for some months treated me as
his personal enemy.

He obtained the appointment. His intimate friends
became his sureties, and for something like a year he
was a most popular collector. To the rigid rules of the
Treasury he paid not much attention. As the receipts
of the office flowed in, they were deposited in the Treas-
ury, or in the pocket of the collector, as happened at the
time to be most convenient. Money was abundant with
him, and, with the open hand of a soldier, when he had


a dollar he gave half of it to any friend who had none.
In short, he administered the office under a code of rules
of his own invention. Everybody was delighted. He
was the friend of everybody, and he naturally had a
larger circle of friends than any of his predecessors in
the office.

Very gentle is the first letter of the first auditor to a
collector when his quarterly accounts show a balance
on the wrong side. The error is attributed to accident,
to inadvertence, of course. The collector is referred to
certain rules, which he will observe in future ; one of
these is that every dollar received be deposited in the
Treasury. But under its most courteous concluding
words the collector will discover, upon close examina-
tion, a most positive direction to deposit the balance im-
mediately !

Woe to the collector if, instead of acting upon the
hint, he lays the letter aside to be attended to at some
more convenient season, until perhaps some friend pays
his loan, or money flows in from some other quarter.
He may have a short grace of a few days at first, but
never afterwards. These letters require attention. No
doubt there is a " First Auditor's Complete Letter Writ-
er," with progressive examples, each sharper and more
pointed than the last, to enforce upon the delinquent the
conviction that he is the servant of a department which
has rules that must be obeyed and enforced. These re-
minders become so frequent that the sight of an official
envelope gives him a chill. Then for a few days the
correspondence ceases. The officer flatters himself that
his case has been laid aside, and he breathes more freely.

Some morning (they always appear early in the day)
a stranger enters the office of the collector, and delivers
to him another official envelope. It contains his sus-


pension from office, and an order to turn over to the
bearer the entire contents of the office, the duties of
which will be discharged by Special Agent Roe or Doe,
pending an investigation. From that day the growth
of the delinquent's troubles begins, and proceeds beyond
anything he ever imagined. With the sharpness of an
expert the agent finds every dollar of the money of the
United States, and follows it to its illegitimate disposal.
Higher and higher mounts the balance, until it reaches
a sum which the officer might as well undertake to dis-
charge the national debt as to pay. The climax of mis-
ery is reached when the agent points the collector to
the statute which declares the misappropriation of each
of these dollars a felony, punishable by imprisonment at
hard labor. All this happened to General Stannard in
an incredibly short space of time. He was really guilty
of no crime but negligence. He had not squandered the
money among evil companions, nor in riotous living, nor
in the payment of his own debts. In fact, he could not
tell why or whither the money had gone. But it had
taken to itself wings, it had departed, it was not where
it should have been, in the Treasury, and he was a de-
faulter, a ruined bankrupt, a disgraced man. It was
even doubtful whether his sureties could make up the
loss. Some of them were certainly ruined. His reputa-
tion as a citizen was gone forever, and even his hard-
earned fame as a soldier was stained and tarnished.

Those who visited the Ladies' Gallery of the House of
Representatives in Washington during the Forty-first
and Forty-second Congresses may have noticed, seated
at the door, a silent, sad-faced man who had lost an arm.
He was attentive to his duties, very courteous to every
visitor. But he did not often speak to any one, and a
smile seldom dispelled the sadness of his face. There


he remained until he died. No one asked for his place
or sought his removal. Even the fiercest of the appli-
cants for office appeared to concede his right to retain
this one until he surrendered it of his own will.

When I first recognized him there, it was a long time
before I could break through his reserve and engage him
in conversation. At last it gave way. " If I had fol-
lowed your advice," he said, "I might have remained
poor, but I should at least have preserved my own self-
respect, and the respect of my friends and bondsmen.
I must have been insane when I treated you as my
enemy !"

There is no reason for giving further details. This
poor, discouraged, ruined man, a doorkeeper in one of
the legislative branches of the republic, was all that re-
mained of a gallant general of division, who had led
armies over the walls of forts, against thrice their num-
ber, to victory. He it was who many times had wrested
triumph out of the iron jaws of defeat. It was his flash-
ing eye which had faced the rush of an army as it hurled
itself upon the Union forces ; and, seizing the critical
moment, it was his hand that delivered the decisive blow
in the greatest battle of the century, his genius that won
the victory which restored a divided union and made ours
the greatest republic of the world.

I hope, and I believe it is true, that under the opera-
tion of the civil-service system, the rush after clerical
positions under the government has been checked, if not
wholly arrested. Thousands, who might have been ac-
tive and useful citizens in private life, have condemned
themselves to lives of anxiety and misery by their suc-
cess in securing one of these positions. A man is buried
in them. His duties become routine, he is soon inca-
pable of doing anything better ; in an incredibly short


time he has lost all connection with the world, he is in
peril of removal with every change of administration,
and as he has forgotten how to do anything else, re-
moval is his ruin. No men better deserve the atten-
tion of philanthropists than the clerks in the government

In the few salaried offices not subject to the civil-ser-
vice system, the situation is no better. These necessa-
rily change with the administration. The term of service
is so brief, the demands upon the incumbent are so numer-
ous, that no active man can afford to accept one of them,
unless for a brief honor he is willing to pay a large price.
It will be a fortunate day for the country when the civil-
service system is extended to all the government offices,
except the Cabinet and those immediately connected with

While a few have managed to keep their heads above
water, how many of my contemporaries have gone down
beneath the waves of government service ! Some, sent
to Washington as members of Congress, have degenerat-
ed into claim agents, and thence into the depths of politi-
cal pauperism. Some, appointed to small offices, have
bartered their independence for insignificant salaries,

Online LibraryL. E. (Lucius Eugene) ChittendenRecollections of President Lincoln and his administration → online text (page 25 of 35)