This Day in History: Edwin Stanton avenges Lincoln’s death

On this day in 1862, Edwin Stanton is confirmed as Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War. He’d been nominated only two days earlier.

It’s hard to imagine such an easy confirmation process these days, isn’t it?

Stanton would become one of Lincoln’s closest advisors, so perhaps it is unsurprising that he rushed to Lincoln’s side when the President was shot in April 1865. One witness later wrote of Stanton’s reaction as Lincoln lay dying.

“Stanton’s gaze was fixed intently on the countenance of his dying chief,” Corporal James Tanner reported. “[He had] been a man of steel throughout the night, but as I looked at his face across the corner of the bed and saw the twitching of the muscles, I knew that it was only by a powerful effort that he restrained himself.” When Lincoln passed away, Stanton spoke, although his exact words have been the subject of some dispute. (In fact, one recent biographer, William Marvel, doubts that Stanton said anything at all.)

Corporal Tanner reported the comment as: “He belongs to the ages now.” Others heard “He now belongs to the Ages” or “He now belongs to the Angels.”

After the President passed away, Stanton’s grief was “uncontrollable,” according to one soldier. But Marvel again adds a little more color to the traditional account. He notes that, as Lincoln lay dying, Stanton “showed none of the emotional collapse attributed to him when his first wife and his brother died.”

Either way, Stanton was in charge, at least for now. How did a Cabinet member find himself in such a situation? A second Stanton biography sums it up: “[Stanton was] in virtual control of the government. He had charge of the Army, Johnson was barely sworn in and vastly unsure of himself, and Congress was not in session.”

Stanton had already been at work throughout the evening, making sure witnesses were interviewed, sending telegrams to military officers, and giving orders to police. He seemed determined to find and punish the assassin and any accomplices. He was also already ready to conclude that a broader conspiracy was afoot, perhaps planned with the help of Confederate officials.

After all, Lincoln hadn’t been the only victim that night. Secretary of State William Seward had also been attacked with a knife.

Within days, investigators were making arrests. Several accused conspirators were taken into custody, but the actual assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was killed during the attempt to capture him.

Stanton was relentless, and he decided to try the captured conspirators in a military setting. His excuse for abandoning the civilian court system? He claimed that the conspiracy was part of the rebellion, thus giving him authority to use military tribunals. Much of the public was outraged. A trial in a civilian court would have provided more protection for the rights of the accused.

Nevertheless, a military commission met in early May and heard the case. Ultimately, all eight defendants were found guilty, and four were sentenced to death. Shockingly, one of the defendants to hang was Mary Surratt. She was the first female to be put to death by the federal government.

Stanton had apparently achieved his goal.

One interesting postscript? An issue later cropped up when Booth’s diary was discovered with 18 missing pages! People were suspicious. Did Stanton or someone else rip out pages that could incriminate them? Would the pages have shown that some of the defendants knew nothing about the murder plot? Possibly, though, the explanation is very simple: Booth ripped out his own diary pages, using them to write messages during the days when he was a fugitive.