January 11, 1862 – President Lincoln responded to the swelling charges of corruption in the War Department by firing Secretary of War Simon Cameron.
Charges of vast War Department mismanagement had circulated almost since the war began. In late 1861, Republican Congressman Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts had discovered widespread fraud and theft in the way the department awarded supply contracts, particularly regarding army horses and beef.
Cameron, who had been a notoriously corrupt political boss before joining Lincoln’s cabinet, allegedly saw to it that cronies got rich selling goods to the government at exorbitant prices. These goods, which included army equipment, horse tack, weapons, and food, were sometimes so shoddy that they jeopardized soldiers’ lives. Meanwhile, Cameron enriched himself through his holdings in the Pennsylvania railroads that transported the goods.
Even Cameron’s befriending of the influential Radical Republicans could no longer save him, and by early this year, Lincoln realized that appointing Cameron to such an important position had been a mistake. After consulting with Secretary of State William H. Seward and others, Lincoln wrote to Cameron on the 11th:
“As you have, more than once, expressed a desire for a change of position, I can now gratify you, consistently with my view of the public interest. I therefore propose nominating you to the Senate next Monday, as Minister to Russia.”
Cameron wept when he read this letter. He went to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase’s house and complained that he had never asked to go to Russia. Even worse, such a short, cold note “meant personal as well as political destruction” because it was “intended as a dismissal, and, therefore, discourteous.”
Seward then arrived at Chase’s house and was asked his opinion. He urged Cameron to confer with Lincoln personally. In his diary, Chase noted that he had summoned Seward to his home without telling him that Cameron would be there. Chase wrote that Seward “may think Cameron’s coming… pre-arranged, and that I was not dealing frankly.”
On the 13th, Seward and Chase persuaded Lincoln to rewrite his letter to Cameron to make it seem that Cameron had willingly resigned, not summarily fired. Lincoln wrote a new, more courteous letter and antedated it two days to replace the original:
“I therefore tender to your acceptance, if you still desire to resign your present position, the post of Minister to Russia. Should you accept, you will bear with you the assurance of my undiminished confidence, of my affectionate esteem, and of my sure expectation that, near the great sovereign whose person and hereditary friendship for the United States, so much endears him to Americans, you will be able to render services to your country, not less important than those you could render at home.”
Publicly, Lincoln complimented Cameron’s “ability, patriotism, and fidelity to the public trust.” Privately, he had already decided to replace him with Edwin M. Stanton of Ohio. Stanton, a pro-war Democrat, had been a prominent trial lawyer and the former U.S. attorney general under President James Buchanan. He recently worked as one of Cameron’s legal advisors in the War Department, helping to draft his annual report calling for the arming of slaves which Lincoln had disavowed. Cameron, Seward, and Chase had all recommended Stanton.
After rewriting his letter of dismissal to Cameron, Lincoln met with Stanton to offer him Cameron’s job. Stanton already knew that Lincoln was considering him for the post, and as such he had sought advice from General-in-Chief George B. McClellan, his close friend and fellow Democrat.
McClellan later claimed that Stanton said the only reason he wanted the job was to help the general “in the work of putting down the Rebellion; that he was willing to devote all his time, intellect, and energy to my assistance, and that together we could soon bring the war to an end.” McClellan also claimed that Stanton said that if the general “wished him to accept he would do so, but only on my account.” Stanton shared McClellan’s opinion about the president’s “painful imbecility.”
Having McClellan’s approval, Stanton then had to consider the money. Becoming secretary of war brought an annual salary of $8,000, a massive cut from his trial lawyer salary of $50,000. After giving this some thought, Stanton accepted the job nonetheless. Aside from Seward and Chase, no other cabinet member had any idea that Lincoln was considering Stanton until he submitted the nomination to the Senate, which confirmed him on January 15.
Stanton assumed duties the next day. His work ethic and devotion to efficiency greatly contrasted with Cameron’s slipshod management style. Putting business before friendship, Stanton immediately declared: “I will force this man McClellan to fight or throw up.” Later that day he said, “This army has got to fight or run away. And while men are striving nobly in the West, the champagne and oysters on the Potomac must be stopped.”
Four days later, Stanton testified before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War at his own request, gaining lavish praise from committee members. George Julian of Indian said, “We are delighted with him!” William P. Fessenden of Maine said, “He is just the man we want! We agree on every point: the duties of the Secretary of War, the conduct of the war, the Negro question and everything.”
Lincoln immediately transferred press censorship from Seward to the more militant Stanton. The new secretary of war soon became a highly polarizing figure, displaying a tendency toward subverting constitutional freedoms that many felt made him unfit for the office. However, corruption in the War Department instantly stopped as Stanton turned full attention to destroying the Confederacy.
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