The Champagne and Oysters Must Stop

President Abraham Lincoln had been reluctant to make Simon Cameron his secretary of war from the start. As a boss of the Pennsylvania political machine, Cameron had been synonymous with corruption in government. But he had helped deliver Pennsylvania to Lincoln in the election, and his backers had put strong pressure on Lincoln to put Cameron in his cabinet. Lincoln finally did so, warning the backers that if the decision backfired, the responsibility for it would be theirs.

Just as Cameron’s enemies had predicted, charges of vast corruption and mismanagement in the War Department started circulating almost as soon as the war began. Congressman Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts had discovered widespread fraud and theft in the way the department awarded supply contracts, particularly regarding horses and beef. Cameron had allegedly saw to it that his 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.

Abraham Lincoln and Simon Cameron | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Cameron tried to befriend the influential Radical Republicans in Congress to hide the malfeasance. But even in this he went too far; the report he had issued in December (without Lincoln’s authorization) recommended not only freeing slaves in Confederate states but also inducting them into the Federal military. Lincoln immediately recalled the report and removed this controversial excerpt. By early this year, the president realized that appointing Cameron to such an important position had been a mistake.

Lincoln consulted with Secretary of State William H. Seward and others before making his decision to remove Cameron. He also recalled that Cameron had once suggested resigning to avoid the intense scrutiny that his alleged mismanagement had caused. Therefore, Lincoln wrote to Cameron on January 11: “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 called on Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase 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.”

Seward and Chase persuaded Lincoln to rewrite his letter to Cameron to make it seem that Cameron had willingly resigned, not summarily fired. Lincoln therefore 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 had helped General-in-Chief George B. McClellan write his official report on army strength the past October, and he had also helped Cameron write his controversial report on arming slaves in December. Cameron, Seward, and Chase had all recommended Stanton to head the War Department.

U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton | Image Credit:

Stanton had been highly critical of Lincoln during the past year. Even McClellan, a vocal critic of Lincoln who was Stanton’s friend and fellow Democrat, noted “the extreme virulence with which he abused the President.” Even so, Lincoln offered Stanton the post. 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.”

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 decided to take the job and the pay cut. 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 the 15th.

McClellan happily wrote to prominent Democrat S.L.M. Barlow, “Stanton’s appointment was a most unexpected piece of good fortune.” The general believed that he finally had a staunch ally within the administration that would back him unconditionally and not question his plans. Barlow told Stanton that “nothing since the war began with the exception of your appointment & that of General McClellan has seemed to me to be right.”

Stanton assumed duties the next day. His work ethic and devotion to efficiency greatly contrasted with Cameron’s slipshod management style. It was also quickly evident to McClellan and the Democrats that Stanton would be no ally, as he 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.”

On the 20th, Stanton testified before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War at his own request, gaining lavish praise from committee members, particularly the Radical Republicans. George Julian of Indiana 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, at one end an efficient champion of the Union and at the other a dictator subverting constitutional freedoms. As such, corruption in the War Department instantly stopped as Stanton turned full attention to destroying the Confederacy at all costs.


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