Inside Stanton’s Secret Service
During the Civil War, the Union’s secret services were known as the National Detective Police (NDP) and headquartered in the basement of the Treasury Department, but directed through the office of the Secretary of State. After a railroad detective thwarted an assassination attempt on his life, President Abraham Lincoln elevated the supremely competent Allan Pinkerton (left) to head the NDP.
But on Valentine’s Day 1862, Lincoln transferred all control of the secret police to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who apparently was awarded control because many innocents were languishing uncharged in Carroll Prison. Lincoln was hoping Stanton’s organizational skills might manifest a more speedy resolution for these unfortunates. This may have happened, but more important, Stanton demoted Pinkerton as NDP commander, and replaced him with the brutal and obviously-corrupt Layfayette C. Baker, who began a reign of terror in Washington, closing bordellos, raiding gambling houses, confiscating smuggled goods, closing grog shops, running multiple kick-back schemes. How much booty was put in Baker’s pocket and how much shared with Stanton will never be known.
Although precise statistics on civilian imprisonment were not recorded, it’s estimated 14,000 were imprisoned by the North during the Civil War. On September 24, 1862, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, installing martial law so civilians were subject to military tribunals in which officers acted as judge and jury while suspects were not allowed to testify in their own defense. Stanton became an expert at stage-managing the trials of those officers he felt were not sufficiently loyal, which left him with a iron grip on ones that remained, lest they incur his mighty wrath. Pretty soon, it became obvious General George B. McClellan was on Stanton’s shit list. McClellan’s sabotage was necessary because Stanton feared McClellan might win the Presidency during the next election, a post Stanton wanted to keep for a Radical Republican (if not Lincoln then Salmon Chase), but McClellan seemed too damned popular to beat and needed to be removed from power. Although commanding general of the Union army, McClellan was also a peace candidate who favored legal solutions rather than a national blood bath. And like many commanders McClellan was reluctant to mount suicidal frontal assaults, something Ulysses S. Grant was not adverse to. In one of Grant’s more bloody battles 7,000 Union soldiers perished in the first hour.
Lincoln had a soft heart and could not turn down a mother’s request to save her son from a firing squad because he’d run like a jack rabbit during his first encounter with the terrible ceremonies of death. But Stanton always tore up those pardons, claiming they’d destroy the army’s morale. So Lincoln usually relented and let those boys be hung or shot by firing squad, although those deaths weighed heaviest on his soul.
Right after the assassination, Stanton seized all power and had 2,000 suspects thrown into prison, including the staff and owners of Ford’s Theater. He seized the theater and converted it into his own warehouse, but not before ordering a private command performance of Our American Cousin, on grounds the play might hold some clue to the assassination. I’m sure a few actors were a bit worried because they knew any of them could also be declared a suspect without warning as they all knew Booth.
Considering how heartless Stanton was, it’s difficult to understand why not a single person who aided Booth past Dr. Samuel Mudd’s house was ever charged or arrested (and there were many). Or why the President’s only guard who’d abandoned his post was never charged with negligence. Or why the leader of that patrol that brought Booth back dead was awarded $15,000 after his patrol killed the key witness to solving the crime. Or why the three key witnesses who were later convicted of perjury before Congress were never charged for similar lies told at the conspiracy trial. The only way any of this makes sense is if Stanton was covering up something.
Keep in mind, no one was allowed to see the cipher messages telegraphed from the front lines except Major Thomas T. Eckert and Stanton. If they were working together on war profiteering scams, they were in a unique and powerful position to control the flow of all information.