Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

11.4 Mars Attacks? Secretary of War Edwin Stanton


Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War

Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War

If Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was Lincoln’s “Neptune,” then Edwin Stanton was certainly Lincoln’s “Mars”; his god of war.  Lincoln referred to him fondly in this way throughout the Civil War, and depended on the administratively skilled Democrat to manage the War Department after the disastrous leadership of his predecessor, Lincoln’s initial appointee, Simon Cameron.

Stanton initially took the post with some reluctance.  He had been a respected member of (although a late addition to) President Buchanan’s Cabinet, serving as Attorney General from 1860-1861.  It has been suggested that during his brief role under Buchanan, he convinced the President to move away from his policy of leniency towards the secession of Southern states, and declare such acts as unconstitutional.

Stanton was to maintain his strong antagonism towards the South throughout his political career.  He was ruthless to Union officers and officials who expressed sympathy for the Southern cause.  He also appointed Lafayette Baker as head of the National Detective Police (NDP)–essentially the secret police/spy service for the Union; although quite efficient at his job, Baker was later known for dirty tactics, and according to some sources engaged in the torture of Confederate spies such as Belle Boyd.

Stanton’s one great tactical mistake during his management of the War came when he closed recruitment offices in 1862, under the false assumption that the Civil War would be ending soon thereafter.  This stem in the flow of new recruits likely hastened the addition of black soldiers to the war effort; 1863 marked the year when the first black regiments, such as the famous Massachusetts 54th, began to form.

Like many of his colleagues on the Cabinet, Stanton went from a great skeptic of Lincoln to being a great supporter.  Like the god he was named for, he had a quick and fiery temper, which he often launched and Lincoln or his subordinates.  Despite his many disagreements with the President, it was ultimately he who gave us one of the most lasting remarks about Lincoln:  “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Following Lincoln’s assassination, Stanton oversaw the capture and arrest of John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators.  Subsequently, Stanton remained on President Andrew Johnson’s Cabinet, where he argued fiercely against what he perceived as Johnson’s gentle treatment of the South during Reconstruction.  Stanton’s antagonism was actually at the root of Johnson’s later impeachment trials; the President tried to have Stanton removed from office without the knowledge or approval of the Senate, and thus earned their enmity.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing suggestions about Stanton was that he may have been behind the Lincoln assassination.  Although it is a rather far-fetched conspiracy theory, it was put forward by Stanton’s “superspy” Lafayette Baker, who was demoted when he was found to have tapped Stanton’s office telegraph line from Washington to Nashville after the war had ended.  Recalled after Lincoln’s assassination, Baker contributed to the capture of John Wilkes Booth and subsequently presented Stanton with Booth’s diary.  Later, when it was discovered that the diary was missing 18 pages, Baker suggested that Stanton had removed them to cover up his connection to the crime.  Baker died in 1868, under mysterious circumstances that were labeled “meningitis.”  More recent tests on his remains have suggested that he died of arsenic poisoning.

And so we are left to wonder:  did Mars attack?