Here’s a photo of young Robert in 1865, when he was courting John Wilkes Booth’s secret fiance and serving as captain on Ulysses S. Grant’s staff, an appointment his mother had gone to enormous lengths to prevent but ultimately failed.
My feelings for Robert are very complex, as he came from a poor background yet rose to the heights of the oligarchy and could easily have become president many times, but rebuffed all attempts to recruit him for that position. In fact, he had a great fear of presidential meetings, having been associated with three presidential assassinations over his lifetime, starting with his father’s.
His mother was emotionally frail and quickly lost her mind after her husband’s assassination. Robert committed her. He’d already lost the bulk of his immediate family to death and disease, so it was just one more blow for the post-traumatic stress disorder.
Robert graduated from the elite Phillip Exeter Academy, and went on to Harvard, where he was quickly inducted into the Hasty Pudding Society, but like many Midwesterners, did not fit well amidst the young Brahmins of Boston, and finished his studies in Chicago.
The one major post he accepted in his lifetime was Secretary of War, an interesting choice, but keep in mind, Robert was a warrior first and foremost, and taking control of the military was a job that captured his full attention.
But it was a little like JFK, Jr. taking over the CIA a decade after his father’s assassination. Robert got full access to all the forbidden files on his father’s murder.
Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler told an interesting story in his memoirs, written after Robert’s death. He claimed that a friend had visited Robert’s estate in Vermont and witnessed the burning of much documentation. When asked what was going up in flames, Robert reportedly replied it was incriminating evidence involving a member of his father’s cabinet.
Apparently, Robert had culled all the most damaging information about Stanton, a man who doted on him as a young man, and whose son had played with his own little brother, and decided rather than share the truth with the American public, it was better in the interest of public order and respect for authority that this ugly reality be kept hidden away forever.
I can’t really blame poor Robert for what must have been an agonizing decision, but really wish he’d stood up for the truth. Maybe this shows that the conspiracy didn’t stretch past Stanton and his closest allies and deeper into the oligarchy. Or maybe that’s what Robert was protecting.