History Thread: The Saturday Morning Massacre

Part One here.

As 1868 dawned, Andrew Johnson grew bolder and his adversaries, increasingly frustrated. Washington life fell into a dismal pattern, observed French journalist Georges Clemenceau, that yielded only deadlock and chaos:

At each session [Congress] add a shackle to [Johnson’s] bonds, tighten the bit in a different place, file a claw or draw a tooth, and then when he is well bound up, fastened, and caught in an inextricable net of laws and decrees, more or less contradicting each other, they tie him to the stake of the Constitution and take a good look at him, feeling quite sure he cannot move this time. But then . . . Samson summons all his strength, and bursts his cords and bonds with a mighty effort, and the Philistines (I mean the radicals) flee in disorder to the Capitol to set to work making new laws stronger than the old, which will break in their turn at the first test.

The President’s defeats – Republican victories in the midterm elections, Congress’s habitual overrides of his vetoes – only fed his stubbornness. His resolve was steeled by letters from supporters, one of whom assured Johnson that the “very existence of the Republic now depends on your being firm, with an army at Washington to sustain not only yourself, but the Constitution, against the…desperate efforts of Congress to sustain themselves, for despotic power, over the will of the people.” Another told the President to prepare for a “trial of arms,” urging him to depose Congress with military force. The New York Herald asserted bluntly that Johnson ought to implement “the Bonaparte method” and install “a dictatorship.”

Such imprecations weren’t limited to private citizens. Former New Jersey Senator James Wall, who’d once encouraged General McClellan to march on Washington and overthrow Lincoln, admonished Johnson to meet Republicans “at the threshold of their traitorous revolutionary attempt with all the powers with which the Constitution of the country has invested him.” James Brooks, Congressman from New York, warned that in a clash between President and Congress, the military would “follow the Democratic instinct and stand by the Constitution and laws of his country.” Navy Secretary Gideon Welles darkly echoed these warnings if Congress “resorted to revolutionary measures.”

Not that Johnson needed encouragement. He inflated the real activities of his enemies into dark, labyrinthine conspiracies. He worried that Thaddeus Stevens would abolish his home state of Tennessee from existence; he charged that the race riots in Memphis and New Orleans were “substantially planned…in the radical Congress.” He envisioned the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Union veterans organization, as a Republican praetorian guard designed to overthrow him. Not that he was frightened, Johnson later boasted, for “I might have made myself Dictator any day…if I chose.”

John Logan

Republicans, too, spread conspiracy theories. Rumors emerged that ex-Confederates were drilling in southern states, encouraged by pro-Southern officials like Winfield Scott Hancock, who replaced Philip Sheridan in Louisiana. (Groups like the Ku Klux Klan, of course, gave these rumors substance if not reality.) Republican readers devoured John S. Dye’s History of the Plots and  Crimes of the Great Conspiracy to Overthrow Liberty in America, which claimed that not only Lincoln but William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor were murdered by the “Slave Power.” As if justifying Johnson’s paranoia, John A. Logan, an Illinois general-turned-congressman, mobilized hundreds of Union veterans to patrol Washington in civilian dress, spying on the White House, the War Department and other government buildings to forestall a potential coup.

Certainly, with the Civil War just three years over, fresh hostilities seemed possible, and checks on the President unclear. There was Congress, of course, who passed a remarkable array of civil rights legislation over the President’s vetoes. But Johnson still possessed immense power to block the implementation of Congress’s will, as shown in his firings of Generals Sheridan and Sickles from their duties in the South. Impeachment no longer seemed viable after James Ashley’s absurd attempt flopped the previous year. The best scenario, it appeared, was to let Johnson run out his term and replace him with a Republican in November.

But Radicals considered the stakes too high to wait. While Washington dithered, black men and women died in the South, while unreconstructed rebels became more powerful. Congress grew furious that they couldn’t find hold Johnson accountable for this state of affairs. If the President “had forged a check, he could have been indicted, prosecuted, condemned, sentenced and punished,” journalist Theodore Tilton observed. “But the evidence shows that he only oppressed the Negro; that he only conspired with the rebel…that he only attempted to overthrow the Republic.” Fortunately, Johnson soon handed his enemies a sword with which to destroy him.

Edwin Stanton was, perhaps, the only man in Washington as controversial as Johnson. Before the war he’d been an attorney, best-known for securing the acquittal of Daniel Sickles (the same Sickles recently sacked by Johnson) for murdering his wife’s lover on grounds of “temporary insanity.” He joined James Buchanan’s cabinet during the twilight of his Administration; Buchanan’s aides suspected that Stanton funneled information to the incoming president. Which may have been true, though Stanton had no regard for Abe Lincoln, whom he dubbed “the Original Gorilla” (an epithet adopted by George McClellan, during that general’s rivalry with Lincoln).

As Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Stanton proved a brilliant administrator and ruthless enforcer of the national will. He fronted for Lincoln’s most repressive policies, encouraging crackdowns on dissent and harsh penalties for desertion, leading a biographer to dub him “Lincoln’s Autocrat”; another historian characterizes Stanton as “rude, explosive, dogmatic and obstinate.” Stanton’s humorless personality, bickering with subordinates and fragile health (he suffered from chronic asthma) won him few friends in Washington, nor did the changeability of his politics. During the war, Stanton transformed from conservative Democrat to the most radical of Republicans, encouraging Lincoln to arm black soldiers, abolish slavery and harshly punish the South.

Edwin Stanton

This change was, in fact, largely due to Abraham Lincoln. Stanton’s dislike of the President soon turned into a remarkably intimate friendship. The two often sparred in cabinet meetings and private conferences, but no one questioned the mutual affection between them. “Folks…tell me there are a great many men who have all Stanton’s excellent qualities without his defects,” Lincoln remarked when asked to fire Stanton. “All I can say is, I haven’t met ’em; I don’t know ’em.” Stanton attended Lincoln’s bedside after his assassination, clasping his hand while fighting back tears, and pronounced, “Now he belongs to the ages.” He viewed his work as an extension of Lincoln’s policies, and Johnson as a usurper.

Why Johnson retained Stanton for so long remains a mystery. Certainly it wasn’t from any regard for the man’s advice; Stanton broke with the President’s lenient Reconstruction plans almost immediately, used his position to shield generals and administrators from removal and consorted with Republican congressmen. Here, it seemed, was a figure who embodied the dark conspiracies that Johnson imagined swirling around him. But it wasn’t until August 1867, several months after the Tenure of Office Act, that Johnson “suspended” the Secretary of War, an ambiguous order that forced a showdown.

Initially, Stanton obeyed the President’s order. He turned the War Department over to General Grant and headed to New England with his family for a much-needed vacation. The trip invigorated him; Ann Smith, wife of a Vermont Republican, recalled how Stanton, apparently relieved of his asthma, “ran across the garden like a boy, exclaiming ‘how delightful the air is! I can breathe!’” The beleaguered Secretary showed a warm, intimate side that few witnessed: he “joked and laughed with the children, rode often with [their] young daughter in a single carriage, walked alone in the grove and garden.”

Stanton with his son, Edwin Jr.

This cheerful interlude couldn’t last; Stanton returned to Washington in November, soon after the fall elections, to consort with Grant and other Republicans. One newspaper captured Stanton’s ambivalence, reporting that he “had no desire whatever to resume his position in the War Department, but he thought that Congress should take some action in the matter, and make his case a test one under the Tenure-of-Office bill, with a view to rebuke Mr. Johnson for his unwarrantable assumption of power.” In early December, Stanton learned that his beloved nephew David died of tuberculosis, further souring his mood. Perhaps this tragedy steeled his mood, defying Johnson’s repeated insistence that he resign.

1868 began and President Johnson lost all patience. “The President is the responsible head of the Administration,” Johnson thundered, “and when the opinions of a head of Department are irreconcilably opposed to those of the President in grave matters of policy and administration, there is but one result which can solve the difficulty, and that is a severance of the official relation.” Johnson’s point had its merits; few presidents would tolerate an openly insubordinate cabinet member. Still, he’d waited too long to remove Stanton, tying his own hands through a vexing mixture of indecision and impulsiveness. Now, he could do nothing unless Stanton willingly departed.

Now Ulysses Grant, still the Acting Secretary of War, reluctantly took center stage. Eyeing the presidency, he found accommodating his ambition, beliefs and military duties a delicate balance. In this spirit, Grant encouraged Johnson to appoint Jacob D. Cox, the Governor of Ohio, in Stanton’s stead, arguing that the Senate would confirm Cox’s appointment, however grudgingly (the Governor was a Republican with a creditable war record), and that Stanton would accept the result. But Johnson ignored Grant’s suggestion; when Grant sent General Sherman to vouch for Cox’s character, Johnson received that general coldly and took no action. Another compromise fell through, due to the President’s intransigence.

Ulysses Grant

In a closed session on January 14th, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to reinstate Stanton. Grant returned the War Department to Stanton and sent Johnson a letter notifying him that he would follow the Senate’s decision. Johnson summoned Grant to the White House and subjected the General to a furious dressing-down, attacking his “insubordinate attitude” and branding him a “traitor.” Gideon Welles afterwards gloated that Grant “slunk away” from the White House, evidently chastened by Johnson’s harangue. In fact, Grant emerged “as angry as any Hotspur in the land,” determined to resist a man he now considered his enemy.

After Grant’s departure, Johnson asked William Tecumseh Sherman to replace Stanton. Sherman shared the President’s sympathies towards the South, his distrust of Republicans and his racism. During the war, Sherman opposed arming black troops, calling the conflict “a white man’s war” and saying “I wouldn’t trust n*****s to fight”; asked if a Negro couldn’t stop a bullet as well as a white man, the General riposted that “a sandbag is better.” Despite his early support for Reconstruction (his Field Order No. 15 famously promised “Forty Acres and a Mule” to Carolina freedmen), Sherman complained that as occupation of the South continued, the Army was “left in the breach to catch all the kicks and cuffs of a war of races, without the privilege of…being consulted beforehand.”

But Sherman refused. Though his brother, John Sherman, was a powerful Senator, William detested politics, calling Washington a “pest house” and fearing Johnson would “make use of me to beget violence.” And the President’s insults against Grant, Sherman’s closest friend, rankled. “I have been with General Grant in the midst of death and slaughter…and yet I never saw him more troubled since he has been in Washington, and been compelled to read himself a sneak  and deceiver,” Sherman wrote the President. “If this political atmosphere can disturb the equanimity of one so guarded…what will be the result with me, so careless, so outspoken as I am?”

William T. Sherman

Johnson, again, didn’t heed the warning. Instead, he ordered his generals “not to obey any order from the War Department…unless such order is known, by the General, to have been authorized by the Executive.” He insulted Grant in an interview with the New York World by relating their cabinet confrontation, leading the General to challenge “the correctness of the President’s statement of our conversations.” Throughout January, the two exchanged public insults, which didn’t reflect well on either man but hurt Johnson more. The feud became, the New York Tribune opined, “a question of veracity between a soldier whose honor is as unvarnished as the sun, and a President who has betrayed every friend, and broken every promise.”

Meanwhile, Stanton resumed his post. Throughout January and February he reported daily to the War Department’s headquarters on Seventeenth Street, doing what work he could under the circumstances. Grant assured him that military commanders would ignore Johnson and follow Stanton’s orders, while Stanton recognized that the Tenure of Office Act still shielded him from dismissal. He became “a coiled reptile among the papers of the War Department,” the New York World hissed, “stealthily watching the swelling caused by his fangs.”

Stanton wasn’t happy to be placed in this position: he hadn’t supported the Tenure of Office Act, and had been willing to step aside should Johnson name a suitable replacement. But he recognized that the stakes involved had outgrown both him and the President. “I had put over a million of men into the field” during the war, Stanton proclaimed, and he was now

Charles Sumner

unwilling to abandon the victory they had won, or to see the ‘Lost Cause’ restored over the graves of nearly four hundred thousand loyal soldiers, or to witness four million of freedmen subjected, for want of legal protection, to outrages upon their lives, persons, and property, and their race in danger of being returned to some newly invented bondage. For these reasons I have resolved to bear all and suffer all while contending against such results.

The embattled Secretary could, at least, take solace in literature. On February 2nd, Charles Sumner invited Stanton to a dinner with Charles Dickens, then making his second American tour. Dickens praised Stanton as “a man of a very remarkable memory, and famous for his acquaintance with the minutest details of my books. Give him any passage anywhere, and he will instantly cap it and go on with the context.” Stanton further treated the Englishman to an account of Lincoln’s death, “sound[ing] like an Aeolian harp, now rising, now falling and almost dying.” While impressing his guest, Stanton reminded himself why he remained in office.

The President also drew literary inspiration. On February 16th, Johnson dined with one of his secretaries, Colonel William Moore. He informed Moore that he’d just reread Joseph Addison’s Cato, a 1713 play celebrating that incorruptible Roman statesman martyred by Julius Caesar. “Cato was a man,” he lectured, “who would not compromise with wrong but being right, died before he would yield.” Moore found the parallels obvious: Johnson considered himself a hero resisting corrupt enemies. And within a few days, he’d finally destroy the most intractable Caesar of all.

Lorenzo Thomas

The instrument for Johnson’s order was Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, destined to become the drama’s comic relief. Thomas had a grudge against Stanton, who’d sacked him early in 1862 and banished him to recruitment duties for the balance of the war. Thomas’s mission was simple: fire Stanton, arrest him if necessary, and assume control of the War Department. Incredibly, Johnson failed to notify his cabinet, advisers or congressional allies of his plans; only Colonel Moore and Thomas himself knew of Johnson’s plan. Perhaps because even his loyalists would recognize it as suicidal folly.

At noon on Friday, February 21st, Thomas reported to the War Department. He unceremoniously handed Stanton with two formal letters from the President, ordering his dismissal and appointing Thomas. Stanton, adopting the pettifogging slowness of a practiced lawyer, took several minutes to read both letters, then asked Thomas if he’d be allowed time to remove his personal affects from the office. Then Thomas, one historian writes, “committed the blunder of courtesy.” He told Stanton to “act your pleasure,” then assented when Stanton requested a copy of Johnson’s orders.

As Thomas left to obtain his copy, Stanton dispatched messages to his allies. When the General returned, he was stunned to find Stanton conferring with General Grant. Grant read the President’s orders impassively, then asked Thomas for a moment to confer with Stanton. The two conversed in front of the dumbfounded Adjutant General, before Stanton announced that he wouldn’t obey Johnson’s order. He further ordered Grant to place Thomas under arrest. Grant declined, though he advised Stanton he was in the right and hinted to Thomas that further attempts to force the issue might end differently.

Andrew Johnson

A flabbergasted Thomas departed, reporting the events to President Johnson. Johnson apparently anticipated Stanton’s defiance; he remained calm and simply responded, “Very well” before instructing Thomas to try again tomorrow. Thomas’s pride wounded, he left the White House and proceeded to get roaring drunk, while Johnson awaited the inevitable backlash. “The Rubicon is crossed,” he remarked to Colonel Moore, glad that he’d finally forced a confrontation.

It came quickly. Stanton received a flurry of telegrams from Republicans praising his stand; Charles Sumner’s message simply read, “Stick!” The Senate held an emergency session that evening, declaring Johnson’s action illegal and sending Stanton a telegram upholding his authority. Thaddeus Stevens, happy as Johnson that the Rubicon had been crossed, gathered his fellow congressmen to debate impeachment. “What good did your moderation do you?” Stevens chided more timid allies. “If you don’t kill the beast, it will kill you.” Now, they had the chance – if only Stanton could stick.

Thaddeus Stevens

All afternoon and evening, Stanton’s office thrummed with activity. Sumner and others visited Stanton to offer advice and plot strategy; General Grant ordered a company of soldiers to guard his office. Ever the legalist, Stanton summoned a judge to render a formal affidavit against General Thomas in case he returned. Senator John Thayer of Nebraska remained with Stanton all night, offering the Secretary advice and companionship until he fell asleep on a couch.

Stanton remained at his desk, working by candle light and nibbling at an Irish stew hastily cooked by an aide. Faced with a crisis potentially graver than the Civil War, Stanton could not sleep, expecting his arrest at any moment. At one point, he awoke Senator Thayer at the approach of soldiers, expecting that Johnson had summoned men to arrest or evict him. Fortunately, it turned out to be a fresh company dispatched by Grant to relieve the Secretary’s guard.

As Stanton worked and fretted, Thomas drank and fumed. He turned up intoxicated at a fancy masquerade ball in full dress uniform, belching threats to anyone who’d listen. He assured one companion that “if Stanton attempted to bar his entry to the War Office, [I] would break down the doors.” His revelry was interrupted when a US Marshal served notice of Stanton’s affidavit; Thomas shrugged it off, staggering to Willard’s Hotel where he drank, swore and bloviated until his friends bundled him home. Even Johnson was appalled by Thomas’s behavior: “Jesus Christ,” he exclaimed to an aide, “a man of his years at a fancy ball!

The next morning (Saturday the 22nd), Thomas awoke to a knock on his door. Hungover and hungry, he found two marshals who placed Thomas under arrest and took him before Judge David Carter. Thomas posted bail, then reported to the White House. Johnson, who tactfully neglected to mention the General’s drunken antics, ordered Thomas to “take possession of the office, without stating how I was to do it.” Thomas considered summoning troops of his own to arrest Stanton, but quailed at the potential for bloodshed. Whatever else might be said about Thomas, he preferred to risk personal humiliation over civil war.

Stanton at work

Instead, Thomas mustered as much dignity as circumstances allowed, hurried through the cold, wintry streets and returned to Seventeenth Street alone. He brushed past Stanton’s military guard and found Stanton chatting with several congressmen and a covey of military officers. “I am Secretary of War…and am ordered by the President of the United States to take charge of this office,” Thomas stiffly announced.

Nonplussed, Stanton ordered Thomas to report to his office and resume his duties as Adjutant General. When Thomas refused, Stanton warned him: “Then you may stand there, if you please; but you will attempt to act as Secretary of War at your peril.”

“I will act as Secretary of War,” Thomas seethed.

Showdown on Seventeenth Street

The two men appeared ready to come to blows, before an incredulous audience of congressmen and military officers, when Stanton did a strange thing: he burst into laughter. Then the Secretary “put his hand around my neck,” Thomas incredulously recalled, “and ran his hand through my hair, and turned around to General [Edmund] Schriver [the Inspector General of the Army] and said, “Schriver, you have got a bottle here; bring it out.” The two men each drank a glass of whiskey, which Stanton proclaimed “neutral ground.”

Completely disarmed, Thomas grumbled to Stanton, “the next time you have me arrested, please do not do it before I get something to eat.” The two men chatted amiably about Thomas’s recent report on military cemeteries until Thomas left the War Department, relieved yet unable to process what happened. It was a bizarre performance, though one witness recognized in Stanton’s geniality “a lawyer’s ruse to make Thomas acknowledge Stanton’s authority.”

The confrontation ended in farce: Stanton hunkered in the War Office for the long haul, with aides bringing him blankets, supplies and food (Stanton’s wife Ellen was infuriated at her husband’s actions, forcing the Secretary to apologize in a heated exchange witnessed by reporters). But it reignited rumors of incipient revolution: New York police arrested Johnson supporters plotting to blow up the Capitol with nitroglycerin (likely a hoax), while Maryland Republicans claimed that secessionists were organizing “armed roughs” to march on DC. Congressman John Logan offered his private army of Union veterans to defend Stanton, who blanched at the prospect.

Jacob D. Cox

A coup wasn’t actually in the offing, despite screaming headlines of “War Department Burned! Sherman with the President!—Grant Declares Himself Dictator!” in irresponsible newspapers. The real consequence, President Johnson’s imminent impeachment, was dramatic enough. Jacob Cox, whom Grant wanted to replace Stanton at the War Department, raged at Johnson’s apparent stupidity. The President is “always worse than you expect,” he complained, “and the lowest impulses and most foolish thoughts he has, are the very ones that come uppermost and control him in the moment of action.”

Andrew Johnson didn’t care. As so often in his presidency, Johnson’s pride and stubbornness forced a confrontation that damaged him far more than his enemies. Or, in Georges Clemenceau’s picturesque phrase, “The President called upon the lightning and the lightning came.”

Sources and Further Reading

This article draws upon Walter Stahr, Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary (2017); David O. Stewart, Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy (2008) and Mark Wahlgren Summers, A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia and the Making of Reconstruction (2009), along with the books cited in last week’s thread.