A Peace Conference Fiasco at Niagara Falls (Article 74)

“The recent Niagara Falls Peace tryst, was a gathering of un-elected men, who were sanctioned by neither Lincoln or Jefferson; and who only accomplished further inflamement of passions, North and South. We have Horace Greeley and the Tribune to blame for this scandal.” – editorial by a competitor of Greeley’s at another newspaper.

In July 1864, Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, decided to become a negotiator for peace. When he learned that several Southern representatives had gathered in Niagara Falls, Canada, and were prepared to discuss peace terms, Greeley encouraged President Abraham Lincoln to participate. Although he received a response from Lincoln, it was not as enthusiastic as Greeley hoped; but he pressed on without any real authority. The meetings were held among several men including a minor political influence peddler, three Confederate operatives with no credentials, and Greeley, whose ego was only surpassed by his outrage and vindictiveness when he perceived a slight. With that cast of characters, the conference was a failure; however, the incident gave Abraham Lincoln the opportunity to clearly express his conditions for peace, and in that respect, the meeting served some purpose.

Those gathered in the Canadian town of Niagara Falls, plus others in New York City and in Washington DC, over a two-week period included, in addition to Greeley, William “Colorado” Jewett, who was known to Lincoln and Greeley, and who had been on the periphery of several schemes, usually unsuccessful, to influence politicians. Jewett had been the person who notified Greeley that “Southern Peace Commissioners” were in Canada. Those “commissioners” were Clement Clay, of Alabama, and Jacob Thompson, of Mississippi, both former U.S. Senators before the Civil War, and Professor James Holcomb of the University of Virginia. Also, in attendance was George Sanders whose role has never been clearly defined, but was a liaison to some Northerners who sought Canadian help in opposing the American Civil War. And, eventually, Lincoln sent John Hay, one of his secretaries with a message for Greeley.

By mid-1864, many in the North had become very tired of the war. In June, Abraham Lincoln had been re-nominated for a second term, but the delegates were not enthusiastic about his re-election chances. The people wanted peace, and peace at almost any price. Thompson, Clay, and Holcomb, staying in Canada, let the word out that they were authorized by the Confederacy to confer about possible peace terms. As they hoped, Jewett, whose political machinations were well known, contacted Horace Greeley, publisher/editor of the New York Tribune, who immediately contacted President Abraham Lincoln.

On July 7, 1864, Greeley wrote to Lincoln and encouraged his participation in discussions. In his long letter Greeley wrote, “Our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country also longs for peace-shudders at the prospect for new conscriptions (Lincoln was contemplating a new draft), of further wholesale devastations, and of new rivers of human blood. And, a wide-spread conviction that the Government (meaning Lincoln) is not anxious for peace, and do not improve proffered opportunities to achieve it, is doing great harm now, and, is morally certain, unless removed, to do far greater in the coming elections.” Greeley was giving a veiled threat to Lincoln that if word got out that he refused any opportunity for peace, he would lose the 1864 Presidential election. And, Greeley would have been ready to be the one who would spread that word through his newspaper and other contacts.

Greeley added an admonition for Lincoln, “Mr. President, I fear you do not realize how intently the people desire any peace consistent with the national integrity and honor. I do not say that a just peace is now attainable, though I believe it to be so. But I do say, that a frank offer by you to the insurgents of terms…will…prove an immense and sorely needed advantage to the national cause; it may save us from a northern insurrection. I beg you to invite those now at Niagara to exhibit their credentials and submit their ultimatum.” (The words “do” and “offer” were underlined in Greeley’s letter and not by this author)

Lincoln did not believe that Jefferson Davis had authorized any delegation. However, not wanting to give the New York editor ammunition to accuse him being unwilling to hear a possible prospect for peace, Lincoln wrote Greeley and suggested that he go to Niagara Falls and determine if their credentials were, in fact, legitimate authority on behalf of Jefferson Davis. Then, if they possessed such written credentials, Greeley should tell them that Lincoln would grant them safe-passage to Washington.

Lincoln’s apparent trust in Greeley might seem strange since Greeley had done everything possible to prevent Lincoln’s re-nomination. But Greeley’s vanity was such that he assumed Lincoln would (or at least should) value his advice. Privately, Lincoln referred to Greeley as, “an old shoe — good for nothing now, whatever he has been.”

Greeley desperately wanted some conference to occur and just as desperately, now wanted to be part of it. He wrote Lincoln on July 13: “I have now information on which I can rely that two persons duly commissioned and empowered to negotiate for peace are at Niagara Falls, in Canada. Their names, only given in confidence, are the Hon. Clement C. Clay, of Alabama, and Hon. Jacob Thompson, of Mississippi. If you should prefer to meet them in person, they require safe-conducts for themselves, and for George N. Sanders, who will accompany them. In negotiating directly with yourself, you would be enabled at all times to act upon the freshest advices of the military situation. All that is assumed is a mutual desire to terminate this wholesale slaughter, and it seems to me high time that an effort to this end should be made. I am quite sure that a frank, earnest, anxious effort to terminate the war on honorable terms would immensely strengthen the Government in case of its failure, and would help us in the eyes of the civilized world, which now accuses us of obstinacy, and indisposition even to seek a peaceful solution of our sanguinary, devastating conflict.” (This is an edited version; Greeley never used a few words, when he had a chance to use many.)

Lincoln sent another message to Greeley encouraging him to verify the credentials of the emissaries and offering safe-passage if Greeley believed they were valid and urged him on by stating, “I was not expecting you to send me a (another) letter but to bring me a man or men.”

President Lincoln could not afford to alienate Greeley or to appear to reject a genuine peace overture. But, Lincoln smelled a rat! And, he thought it was time to bring the matter to a close. He was ready to teach the meddlesome Greeley a few lessons on the art of politics (and of over-confidence). And, Lincoln realized that he could use Greeley’s actions to show the country that any such negotiations were either unauthorized by Jefferson Davis or doomed to failure because of irreconcilable differences.

John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary, was dispatched to New York bearing a personal, confidential note for Greeley from Lincoln which clearly stated his position.  But this time the letter was addressed “To Whom It May Concern” and Lincoln wrote, “Any proposition which embraces the restoration of peace, the integrity of the whole Union, and the abandonment of slavery, and which comes by and with an authority that can control the armies now at war against the United States will be received and considered by the Executive government of the United States, and will be met by liberal terms on other substantial and collateral points; and the bearer, or bearers thereof shall have safe conduct both ways.” Lincoln was sure the letter would be leaked to the press; in fact, he counted on it! 

Greeley now had his authorization from Lincoln, but even he must have recognized that the President left no “wiggle room” for the future existence of the Confederacy or continuation of slavery by including language about the “…integrity of the whole Union and abandonment of slavery” in the letter. But, Greeley plowed on; and, after some disagreement over the exact terms of safe-passage” for the Confederates who feared arrest when they crossed the border, Greeley headed for Niagara Falls.  Upon arrival he notified the Confederates of Lincoln’s safe-conduct pass and willingness to meet, if Greeley could be satisfied that they were truly authorized by Jefferson Davis to speak on behalf of the Confederacy.

Greeley told the Confederates, “I am informed that you are duly accredited from Richmond as the bearers of propositions looking to the establishment of peace; that you desire to visit Washington in the fulfilment of your mission. If my information be thus far substantially correct, I am authorized by the President of the United States to tender you his safe-conduct on journey proposed, and to accompany you at the earliest time that will be agreeable to you.”  

Then things began to fall apart.

The Southern “delegates” hesitated; and then admitted that they had no credentials from Jefferson Davis but were earnest in trying to broker a peace deal. They declared that no negotiations were possible based on Lincoln’s continuing insistence that the Confederacy dissolve and the seceded states rejoin the United States. Further, they said that they intended to inform Davis and his administration that their sincere efforts had been rebuffed. Greeley realized that he had been used. The Southerners would make it appear to not only their constituents, but to Northerners and the world at large, that it was Lincoln and the Union which were roadblocks to peace, not the Confederacy.

Greeley thought he could shrewdly bring the two side together before any firm negotiating positions were stated; but in fact, he had been out-maneuvered by Lincoln and the Southerners.

The entire episode was an embarrassment for Greeley, who did not take any slight very well. To further his discomfort, the Southern delegates released Lincoln’s letters to the press and declared that Lincoln’s demand that slavery be abolished was the primary cause for failure of the peace initiative. Democratic newspapers in the North and almost all newspapers in the South, accused Lincoln of continuing the war for the sole purpose of ending slavery; knowing that a majority in the North supported the war only to re-unite the Union (but not to end slavery). Even many of Lincoln’s political friends believed that his “To whom it may concern” letter would cost him re-election because it was a declaration that the war was now to be fought to abolish slavery; a notion not accepted by many in the North.

While Lincoln had gambled that he would not lose too many constituents with his position; he also knew that the Democratic Presidential Candidate, expected to be former General George McClellan, would press the point in his bid to wrest the presidency from Lincoln in November 1864. Lincoln’s best hope was that events over the next few months, including prospective Union victories, would show Northerners that the Union was winning, that the Confederacy would lose, and, with the victories, Lincoln believed voters would accept emancipation along with re-union. But, the fact was that Lincoln himself was never certain he could win another term.

However, for now, Lincoln had to do some damage control and issued a statement that, “If there was anybody or any delegation at Niagara Falls, or anywhere else, authorized to represent the Southern Confederacy and to treat for peace, they had free conduct and safety to Washington and return.” Lincoln later said, “Instead of Mr. Greeley doing it that way, he went there as an ambassador, and with an array of reporters established himself on the American side and opened negotiations with these two alleged envoys across the bridge. I had reason to believe that these envoys were without authority, because President Davis had said to this friend of mine and of his that he would treat (meaning to negotiate) on no terms whatever but on absolute recognition of the independence of the Southern Confederacy.” The friend to whom Lincoln was referring was James Gilmore, who had met with Jefferson Davis and was told by Davis that, “The war must go on until the last man of this generation falls in his tracks, unless you acknowledge our right to self -governance.”  

Not any wiggle room there either!

Lincoln later said, “Of course, they never came, because their mission was a subterfuge. But they made Greeley believe in them, and the result is that he is still attacking me for needlessly prolonging the war for purposes of my own.” Greeley did finally support Lincoln for re-election, but only after the Union had established the likely-hood of victory when Atlanta fell in September 1864. Greeley liked to back winners and Lincoln won that election.

It has been said that, “No attempt at peace in time of war is wasted.” While the Niagara meetings did not plant a seed for real peace, the episode did provide Abraham Lincoln with the opportunity to, again, declare his position that he would never accept the continuation of the Confederate States, but, instead, only full restoration of the Union.

And, the Civil War would continue until that outcome was finally reached.

Sherman’s Andersonville Dilemma (Article 73)

In April, 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman had been given a mission by his superior officers; to take his over 60,000 Union troops out of Tennessee, into Georgia. Once there, he was to conquer Atlanta, move southeast through Macon (a strategic rail center) and then march to the sea to take Savannah. The strategy behind the Georgia campaign was not to just capture important Southern cities, but to split the diminishing Confederate forces and to demoralize the population so that they would seek an earlier end to the Civil War. An ancillary mission was to, hopefully, weaken the Confederate resistance against General Grant’s forces in Virginia by Robert E. Lee’s army; as Sherman moved his troops further south and around those battlefields.

General Sherman completed his mission, but under a historical cloud. The Georgia campaign is forever marked in history for the burning of Atlanta and for the widespread (and some say unnecessary) destruction of homes and farms during his army’s “March to the Sea” toward Savannah.

But, during that same time-period, there was another immense human tragedy taking place in Georgia, near a town called Andersonville, in a prison named Camp Sumter. The Union soldiers, held there as prisoners-of-war, suffered under inhumane conditions; a situation, at least in part, known to many Northern civilian and military officials. By the time Sherman was preparing to leave Tennessee for Georgia, he was aware of the existence of Camp Sumter, if not of the full scope of the unfolding tragedy. In spite of that knowledge, Sherman’s Georgia campaign strategy did not include the liberation of the lightly defended prison complex; and some critics suggest that it should have.

The prison had been started in December 1863, with a plan to house 10,000 Union prisoners, but was still unfinished when the first prisoners began to arrive in February 1864. In only a few months the prison population swelled to over 33,000 and conditions deteriorated rapidly. Sherman was at least somewhat aware of the deplorable conditions within the prison since a few men had escaped and told of the many prisoners who had died, and were dying, of starvation and disease. His large army would be within about 140 miles of Andersonville during his two-month siege of Atlanta (from early July-September 3rd), and even closer, about 50 miles, as the army marched through Macon, Georgia; on the way to Savannah. However, Sherman decided to not veer the army off course to liberate the thousands of Union prisoners suffering at Camp Sumter. By most estimates, at least 13,000 prisoners died there with many succumbing from the time Sherman entered Georgia in April 1864 until their liberation in April 1865.

Why did Sherman not prioritize the liberation of the Andersonville prisoners? Certainly, many more would have survived if they had been rescued anytime during Sherman’s nine-month campaign in Georgia.

Sherman gave various reasons for his decision.  After he completed his march to the sea in December 1864 he said he had been given a mission that was never altered. Then, just after the war, he said that he could not justify dividing his forces since he could not be sure of the size and capabilities of Confederate General John Bell Hood’s forces which were in the area. Later, he said that, while it would have been a humanitarian mission to relieve the suffering of the prisoners, if he had divided his forces to essentially begin a second and separate campaign, it would have put the remaining soldiers under his command at greater risk in battle against the enemy. He also explained that he could not have cared for the prisoners without halting his campaign; which was probably a fact, since he had organized his force to travel quickly, (read lightly), from Atlanta and obtained most of his food supplies by foraging off the land. Therefore, Sherman believed that he could not have fed and cared for another 30,000 sick soldiers.

What is often lost is that he did permit a voluntary, but limited, attempt at liberating Andersonville in July 1864 when he agreed that General George Stoneman could undertake a rescue mission after his 2,200 men destroyed railroad tracks near Atlanta and otherwise disrupted General Hood’s supply lines. General Stoneman had requested that Sherman grant permission for the liberation effort after completing his primary mission; and General Sherman agreed that Stoneman’s idea might work. In his memoirs, Sherman wrote, “There was something most captivating in the idea, and the execution was within the bounds of probable success.” Sherman recalled that, in his orders to Stoneman, he wrote, “If you can bring back to the army any or all of those prisoners of war, it will be an achievement that will entitle you, and your command, to the love and admiration of the whole country.”

But, it was not to be!

The attempt ended in a disaster for the Union Army when Stoneman was caught in a pincer action between two Confederate forces. Stoneman decided that he and 700 of his troops would remain in place to provide withering cover fire for 1,500 of his men who would attempt an escape through enemy lines. The larger group did break out; however, soon afterward, Stoneman and the 700 remaining troops ran out of ammunition, were captured, and became prisoners themselves. Fortunately for Stoneman and his men, they were not taken to Andersonville, and were exchanged a few months later for a like number of Confederate soldiers in Union hands.

A few weeks after Stoneman’s failed attempt at liberation of Andersonville, on September 1, 1864, Confederate forces under General John Bell Hood pulled out of Atlanta and the city was surrendered the next day. Sherman sent a famous message to Abraham Lincoln writing, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” During the siege, the Union Army had fired thousands of artillery shells into the city, some of which caused fires. Then when Confederate General Hood abandoned the city, he ordered the destruction of military facilities, equipment, and supplies which he could not carry; some by setting more fires. Because Hood’s army remained in the area, Sherman chose to extend his stay in Atlanta to defend the city, and did not leave for Macon and then Savannah until mid-November. But then, before he set off on his famous “March to the Sea” on November 15, Sherman had his forces set fire, or otherwise destroy, any remaining facilities that might be of future use to Confederate troops, including warehouses, factories, and railroad facilities.

When those later fires became uncontrollable, the result was the infamous “Burning of Atlanta.”

Sherman left the devasted city in the hands of a small defensive unit, and took his remaining 60,000 troops toward Savannah, Georgia, about 250 miles to the southeast.  As he passed within about fifty miles of Andersonville, we do not know if he considered a second attempt to liberate the prisoners held at Camp Sumter; we only know that no attempt was made.

Moving generally in front of Sherman’s advance, Confederate troops foraged their way across Georgia taking food, horses, mules and equipment from local farmers, many of whom, but not all, willingly shared what little they had with the Southern soldiers. Sherman’s troops followed the Confederate troops through the countryside, also foraging, but in their case, they often stole any remaining food and livestock they found, leaving the families destitute; and often burned the houses and barns of the farmers who resisted.

When Sherman arrived in Savannah on December 21, 1864, Confederate troops had already abandoned the city, and the citizens quickly surrendered. Therefore, unlike Atlanta, their town was spared. Sherman remained near Savannah for a few weeks to rebuild his supplies and rest his army.  With Bell’s Confederate troops scattered, some critics of Sherman argue that he could have then sent a contingent from Savannah back to liberate the Andersonville prisoners because his primary “mission” was complete; but, by that time Sherman had other plans. In January 1865, ten months after he entered Georgia, he turned his troops northward towards the Carolinas; where he would engage Confederate troops and forage off the small farms on his way back to established Union lines.

As time went on, General Sherman continued to reflect on his decision to not make further attempts to liberate Andersonville. After Stoneman’s capture, Sherman wrote, “Nothing but natural and intense desire to accomplish an end so inviting to one’s feelings would have drawn me to commit a military mistake at such a crisis, as that of dividing and risking my cavalry so necessary to the success of my campaign.” It appears Sherman’s only regret was that he divided his forces (no matter how small the contingent) to allow Stoneman’s liberation attempt. After the Stoneman debacle, Sherman wrote to his wife, “I have already lost Stoneman & near 2,000 Cavalry in attempting to rescue the Prisoners at Macon (Andersonville). I get one hundred letters a day to effect the exchange or release of these Prisoners.” But Sherman would not yield to those hundreds of appeals. In his memoirs, Sherman wrote, “(There were)…more than twenty-five thousand prisoners confined in a stockade designed for only ten thousand; debarred of the privilege of gathering wood out of which to make huts; deprived of sufficient healthy food, and the little stream that ran though their prison-pen poisoned and polluted by the offal from their cooking and butchering houses above.”

Some historians blame much of the suffering at Andersonville on the Union decision, in early 1864, to stop permitting most prisoner exchanges, which had been a common practice until that time. Union leaders including Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, and General Ulysses S. Grant, did not support additional prisoner exchanges with the Confederacy because they did not want to help re-enforce the diminishing Southern armies. There was some logic to the decision as it was common for released Confederates to be pressed back into service, while the Union army did not necessarily need the additional troops gained from any exchange. General Grant wrote in a letter “It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man (Confederate soldier) released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once, either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated.”

General Sherman had to live with his decisions to never again attempt to liberate Andersonville and to cause such destruction throughout Georgia. But his mission was to conquer Atlanta and destroy the city’s ability to provide supplies to the Confederate armies, to then drive across Georgia to cut the Confederacy in half, and to take Savannah. He accomplished his mission, and, for most Generals, despite other collateral suffering, that is their sufficient reward; it evidently was for General William Tecumseh Sherman. To him, he did his job!

The prisoners at Andersonville just had to wait.

Simon Cameron – Scandal in the Cabinet (Article 72)

“I have the ability to make money, I do not need to steal it.”  – Simon Cameron

Newly elected President Abraham Lincoln asked Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens about the honesty of Simon Cameron, also from Pennsylvania, who was seeking the Cabinet position of either Secretary of War or Secretary of Treasury. Stevens, well known for his acerbic wit, supposedly replied, “I do not believe he would steal a red-hot stove.” After his comments were leaked to Cameron who protested, Stevens then said, “On second thought, he would steal the hot stove.”

One contemporary of Cameron’s attempted to explain his combination of a gregarious personality and selfish interests by saying, “I always knew I would be fleeced, but I did enjoy the fleecing.” Cameron’s early years are difficult to explain because Cameron offered various versions over time; for example, early in his business career he claimed to be an orphan, but he was not. He became an apprentice with a printer and, at 21, started his own newspaper. He became a successful business man and a Pennsylvania political leader who was known to provide patronage to his friends and to withhold it from others. He was adept at raising money to finance rail lines, manufacturing facilities and a bank. Much of his own cash flow came from his appointment as the Pennsylvania state printer. He served as a U.S. Senator from his state both before and then after the Civil War. He often signed documents and letters as “General” but had never served in the military. When asked, he said that it derived from his position as Adjutant General of Pennsylvania (a largely administrative position) early in his career. He was derisively referred to in some newspapers as “The Great Winnebago Chief” for his self-rewarding efforts in settling a Native American dispute, and by others as “The Czar of Pennsylvania” for his control over much of the state’s political machinery.

Cameron’s quote that he did not “need to steal” was probably accurate because “Czar” Cameron was a master at patronage, the politician’s currency; simply stated as, “do something for me or mine, and I’ll do something for you or yours.” He understood the power of patronage and wielded it in local and state politics for years.

However, by 1860, Cameron had higher ambitions and hoped he might become the Republican Presidential nominee at that year’s convention; but, when he realized several others had more committed delegates, he set his sights on being named Treasury Secretary. The ultimate Republican nominee, Abraham Lincoln, wanted his Cabinet to be geographically (and politically) diverse and he sought Cabinet members with their region as one qualifier; which gave Cameron a chance despite his record of cronyism. Although Lincoln had warned his floor managers at the Chicago Republican convention to not bind him to any federal appointments in return for delegate votes, Cameron may have received such assurances and Lincoln felt obligated to consider him for some post. Since he had a better qualified candidate for Treasury Secretary, in Salmon Chase, Lincoln finally asked Cameron to be the Secretary of War. Both were important Cabinet posts in an administration which faced, at best, the break-up of the United States and, at worst, the prospect of Civil War; and Cameron accepted Lincoln’s offer.

After his inauguration, on March 4,1861, Lincoln did not want the administration to appear on a war footing, as he still held some hope that no more than the initial seven states would attempt secession and that some peaceful resolution was possible rather than civil war. Cameron agreed with Lincoln’s cautious approach and, other than working with the aging and hobbled General Winfield Scott to re-build the Army manpower lost from defections and resignations by southerners, Cameron took little action to improve the status of the Army. Until April 15, 1861!

When the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Lincoln, his Cabinet, and the senior Generals still on duty, needed to quickly ramp up the Union army. In addition to more men, the U.S. Army would need more weapons, new facilities, uniforms, horses and mules, wagons, tents, and new roads and railroad tracks to move the men and equipment.  The War Department, led by Simon Cameron, devised an effective two-stage plan to rapidly build and equip the forces that would soon reach over 200,000 troops; an unprecedented scale! First, he looked to Northern state and local militias which already had trained and equipped units. He promised that the Federal government would fully repay the states and towns if they would send men and material from their militias to prepare for the defense of Washington DC and to defend critical railroad routes and telegraph lines.  At the federal level, Cameron coordinated with General-in-Chief, Winfield Scott, to expand the Army’s Quartermaster Corps and hired several hundred clerks at the War Department to process procurement orders. Almost all Quartermaster soldiers and civilian procurement clerks worked diligently and honorably to equip the new army. However, lurking in the background, were manufacturers, merchants, and traders who saw an opportunity and seized it. Some were aided by a few soldiers and government clerks who were in a position to steer lucrative contracts and did so for a bribe.

Soon, Cameron was being accused of offering contracts to those he knew, and he was an easy target for those charges. Cameron had called on other successful businessmen, capable of ramping up businesses to meet the Army’s various needs, to “pitch in for the good of the cause.” Reliance on acquaintances was not, in and of itself, unusual, as almost any leader expected to rapidly build something from nothing would put trust in those already known. But, Simon Cameron made, or allowed others to make, terrible procurement decisions; some of which were million-dollar mistakes. (When, as they say, a million dollars was real money!)

There are two truisms about war; some people will die and some people will get rich.

In the case of the Civil War, it did not take long for examples of corruption to become public. Some contract abuses were reported by competitors who did not win an army contract, some surfaced because an honest government clerk noticed an irregularity, and a few were discovered by reporters. But, by far, the most evidence of corruption came to light when the ultimate customer, those who served in the Army, received worthless products. Those included uniforms that fell apart, shoes with paper soles, old weapons marked as new, ammunition that did not match the weapons sent, spoiled food, and near-death horses and mules presented as healthy. Even products that met specifications were often outrageously overpriced.

Any large organization eventually reflects the moral code of its leader. The War Department needed structure and ethical boundaries; but Simon Cameron was incapable of providing either. He valued action over diligence, promptness over inspection, and loyalty over competence, especially when he was spending government money, or buying on government credit.  Critics pointed out, rightly so, that he did not amass his fortune by being so cavalier with his own money. And, Cameron did not satisfy anyone when he said, “I have the ability to make money, I do not need to steal it.” The fact is, he probably never did directly steal from the government, nor is there any evidence he personally accepted a bribe in return for steering contracts to acquaintances. But he often did fail to act decisively when an individual or company was caught over charging, (such as Colt Fire Arms), or providing less than that for which the government had paid, (such as J.P. Morgan’s Hall Carbines, which did not work, and Brooks Brothers, whose shoddy uniforms fell apart).

To some degree, Lincoln must share part of the blame. He had heard rumors of Cameron’s favoritism and poor management practices but chose to focus his own attention on actual war issues against the enemy and political issues in Washington, rather than the inefficiencies within the Army’s procurement processes. Lincoln may have rationalized that, in spite of the corruption, necessary supplies were being delivered at a record pace. But, by the end of 1861, congressional investigations into the mis-conduct within the War Department led Lincoln to consider replacing Cameron, before a public spectacle forced his hand.

However, Cameron instead presented Lincoln with an unexpected gift; a different politically incendiary reason to push him out of the Cabinet. Cameron usurped Presidential authority!

Without consulting Lincoln, Cameron sent to Congress his annual report which included a proposal to arm escaped slaves and Black Freedmen and to form them into special fighting units for use against southern forces.  The militarization of former slaves had previously been proposed by abolitionists, but Lincoln rejected it (at the time) because he was concerned the Union might lose the support of the four border states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri) where slavery was still legal. Lincoln had previously stopped Union Generals from arming slaves and told his Cabinet the time was not right for such a radical step. While Cameron had now given Lincoln a better reason to remove him, Lincoln knew that he needed to appease Cameron’s Pennsylvania voters and legislators and the abolitionists who supported the arming former slaves. So, Lincoln did what Presidents have always done, he offered Cameron another job – the Ambassadorship to Russia! Lincoln’s initial private termination letter to Cameron was terse and uncomplimentary; and Cameron was said to be devastated. Then, as Lincoln often did, he issued a second, softer, public letter which graciously claimed that he had accepted Cameron’s resignation with regret and that the Country would benefit from Cameron’s service in Russia. Lincoln’s second letter, for which Cameron would always be grateful, served to blunt some of, but not all of, the future criticism of Cameron’s brief tenure as Secretary of War.

Lincoln then reached out to an old antagonist, Edwin Stanton, who was a Democrat, a Washington Lawyer, and an outspoken Unionist. Stanton had already counseled Cameron on several occasions about procurement contracts, so, he was well aware of the corruption scandals being investigated by Congress. Lincoln and Stanton had crossed paths before, when, as a prominent eastern business attorney, Stanton had refused to work with Lincoln (at the time a country lawyer), humiliating Lincoln in the process. However, in typical Lincoln fashion, that episode did not deter him from offering Stanton the position in his Cabinet. Stanton still viewed Lincoln as an incompetent President; but, Stanton accepted the assignment as the new Secretary of War because, he told others, “It was best for the Country.” And it was! Over the next three years, Stanton led the War Department honorably and effectively; and, over time he came to appreciate and admire Abraham Lincoln as President.

Some historians find a conspiracy theory in Lincoln’s appointment of Stanton to be Secretary of War. At the time Lincoln selected Stanton, he was unaware that it was actually Stanton, as counselor to Cameron, who had written Cameron’s message to Congress which supported the arming of Black Freedmen and run-away slaves; the very document that had cost Cameron his job! While those historians speculate whether Lincoln, with that knowledge in hand, might have made a different choice; most historians agree that Stanton was the right person, at the right time, to end the chaos in the War Department.

But what of Cameron?

Cameron’s appointment as Ambassador to Russia was narrowly confirmed by the Senate. Then, Ambassador Cameron took such a long (and expensive) journey throughout Europe on his way to St. Petersburg, that he spent little time there on his diplomatic responsibilities. And, within months of arriving in Russia, Cameron presented Lincoln with another gift; he asked to be relieved of his mission. Lincoln would finally be rid of this nemesis.

Cameron resumed his business enterprises and again became a political force in Pennsylvania, returning to the U.S. Senate in 1867. He served in the Senate until 1877, and typical of Cameron’s self-dealing, he only resigned in a deal that assured his son would be appointed to his seat. And, for the rest of his life, Cameron claimed that, under the circumstances of a necessary rapid build-up of an army, he was successful as Secretary of War; and, he said, that Lincoln’s kind public statement, and the subsequent Union victory, proved his point.

But most historians view his tenure less favorably. He was disorganized to the extreme and did not follow up on early signs of corruption. Then, often, when contractors were caught bilking the Army and/or those were identified who aided their efforts by accepting bribes or favors, Cameron failed to act quickly to punish the culprits. But, despite congressional hearings about the rampant corruption within and around the War Department, Cameron was never personally charged with malfeasance. None of the investigations uncovered any evidence that Cameron personally accepted a bribe or diverted funds for his own use. The fact was that Simon Cameron benefited by trading in favors and patronage, rather than outright theft or graft.

So, does Simon Cameron deserve his poor reputation as Secretary of War? While he did equip a large army, his management oversight was lacking, his mistakes were many and expensive, and he never established clear moral and ethical boundaries within the War Department.

On the other hand, he was never caught stealing a hot stove.