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Chapter XI

Grant, Stanton, and Johnson.

during the spring and summer of 1866 both Grant and Stanton were opposing their common superior, for both believed that superior was opposing the declared will of the people, to whom Presidents are responsible. Stanton remained in the Cabinet for the express purpose of preventing Johnson from carrying out his opposition to the law. His course was approved by the mass of those who had been friendly to the Government during the war. It was approved by Grant, with whom the fact that the people had spoken was paramount. Even had he disapproved the law he would have felt it his duty to enforce it, and he was shocked as well as pained at the spectacle of the President and nearly all his Cabinet devoting their energies and arts to plotting the obstruction and evasion of the law.

If he had felt some twinges of annoyance at Stanton's brusque demeanor, he put away the remembrance now, and throughout this entire crisis the two were heartily in accord. They concerted constantly how best to execute the intent of Congress in spite of him whom Stanton at least deemed a guilty conspirator. Stanton, indeed, being in the Cabinet, probably knew even more than Grant of the designs and machinations of the President. He had never relented from his original austerity toward rebellion, and Grant, once so lenient, had been gradually brought to a frame of mind in which he was able to stand by the side of the Secretary.

The situation was unprecedented in the history of the [85] country. A Cabinet Minister and the General of the Army were doing their utmost to thwart the President; the two men of all then living who had been foremost in the struggle against rebellion were opposing the successor of Abraham Lincoln. The President himself, and all but one of his legal advisers, were engaged in the effort to subvert or pervert the declared will of the people, and those who in ordinary times should and would have been his most faithful supporters, now deemed it their highest duty to watch him, to check him, to detect his plans, to disclose to each other his movements, to unmask his designs, to circumvent and restrain and baffle his schemes. For they regarded the man who should have been the first servant of the State as at this moment its most dangerous enemy. They thought he was undoing all that they had achieved, bringing back the rule they had overturned, defying the decision of the faithful North, installing sedition in the place of loyalty. On the 7th of June Grant wrote to Sheridan as follows:

I was absent from here on my way to West Point when the correspondence commenced between you and the Secretary of War which culminated in the removal of Governor Wells. I knew nothing of it, except what was published in the papers, until my return here yesterday. The Secretary's dispatch was in obedience to an order from the President written on Saturday before starting South, but not delivered to the Secretary until Monday after I left my office. I know Mr. Stanton is disposed to support you, not only in this last measure, but in every official act of yours thus far. He cannot say so because it is in Cabinet he has to do this, and there is no telling when he may not be overruled; and it is not in keeping with his position to announce beforehand that he intends to differ with his associate advisers.

In fact both Grant and Stanton were frequently compelled to issue orders the purpose of which they abhorred; orders which, though clearly designed to conflict with the intention of the law, were skillfully framed so as to be technically [86] within its terms. . They then more than once discussed the means by which they too could apparently obey the directions of a superior and yet neutralize his intent and purpose.

This very letter to Sheridan was written under peculiar circumstances, and to explain away the apparent disapproval of the Secretary. Grant had gone to West Point, whither I accompanied him, but his visit was suddenly terminated, and he returned to Washington because of a telegram from the Assistant Adjutant-General at his own headquarters, containing only these words: ‘You are needed here.’ This was in consequence of an agreement he had made with Stanton that he should be summoned in this way, if necessary. Thus the telegram from a captain was in reality a message from the Secretary of War. It meant, and Grant so understood it, that the President of the United States was plotting mischief, and that the General of the Army was required to help frustrate the design. Grant at once gave up his engagements and hurried back to Washington.

In considering the behavior of both Grant and Stanton at this period it must be borne in mind that this was no ordinary political crisis. It was not a struggle for office, or a contest about a tariff or a bankrupt law in which they were engaged, but a dispute that followed hard on a terrible civil war. It was the reconstruction of the Union that was at issue. The question was whether the States that had seceded and the population that had rebelled should be re-admitted to their former place with or without the stipulations and restrictions which the victors had decided to demand. More than this, the hopes held out by Johnson of easier terms had revived the ambition and disturbed the quiet of the South. Naturally, after a great and disastrous convulsion there were many perturbed spirits, some perhaps ready to seize any opportunity to recover what they had lost; there was a population of millions recently set free, living among their former [87] masters; there were the Unionists of the South in the midst of the unsuccessful Confederates; there was every cause for anxiety, every passion and sentiment to be appeased and allayed and controlled.

All these seething elements of disorder were stirred up by Johnson's obstinacy. The Southerners would have submitted to the inevitable, but he encouraged and incited them to hold out still. If the decision of the North was accepted by the South, there would be an end of the trouble, but by the stimulating conduct of the President, by his incessant public and private provocations and persuasions and exhortations, he prolonged the struggle and made worse things probable. It was the apprehension of still further confusion and re-awakened strife that made the situation so critical, and justified Grant and Stanton to themselves in their anomalous and extraordinary course. They believed that by steadily carrying out the will of Congress and of the people in spite of the President they would put an end to the chaos, and bring back peace and the Union on the only terms which the victorious North would tolerate.

This feeling of his subordinates was of course known to the President, and it was no secret that he wished to rid himself of his War Secretary. But the friends of Congress, Grant among them, counseled Stanton not to resign. It was feared, however, that Johnson would peremptorily dismiss the Cabinet Minister, who was no longer in his confidence, and Congress took extraordinary means to prevent this action. The well-known Tenure of Office bill was devised in order to make it impossible for Johnson to remove subordinates who were not in harmony with his views. The President naturally desired to have only his own supporters in office at such a crisis, while Congress was determined that those whom Lincoln had appointed should not be displaced by the successor who had certainly betrayed his party, and who they thought was ready to betray his country. So [88] the law was passed, against the protestations and over the veto of the President, prohibiting him, without the approval of the Senate, from removing officers whose confirmation required the Senate's approval. The rule was extended, with certain restrictions, to members of the Cabinet; and the President was not allowed to dismiss a Minister until the end of his term. He was at liberty, however, during the recess of Congress, to suspend any officer for cause, but must report the case to the Senate when it re-assembled. If, then, the Senate concurred, the officer was dismissed; if not, he was restored. This law, it was matter of notoriety, had especial reference to the Secretary of War. It was passed in March, and Congress adjourned on the 20th of July.

Eleven days afterward, Mr. Johnson sent for Grant and informed him that he intended to suspend Stanton, and at the same time remove Sheridan from New Orleans. He also stated that he meant to appoint Grant himself Secretary of War ad interim. There could be no possible doubt of the purpose of this move. It was intended to nullify as far as possible the action of Congress, to punish men for striving to execute the law, to hinder the Reconstruction policy. Johnson could hardly have hoped to accomplish much by putting Grant in Stanton's place. Still the soldier was less unbending in manner than the Secretary, less uncompromising in the appearance of hostility; and his military habit of subordination may even yet have misled the President. He certainly was less skilled in the arts of political chicanery, and Johnson may have thought it possible still to inveigle or overreach him. But the especial object doubtless was, not so much to manage Grant as to affect the people, to produce the impression on the country that Grant was in accord with the Administration, and that by entering the Cabinet at this crisis he was offering proof of his sympathy with the President. [89]

There was also doubtless a personal reason why Johnson wished to foster this idea. It was plain by this time that Grant's popularity was likely to make him a Presidential candidate, and the belief that he sustained Johnson would destroy his hold upon the Republicans. Grant had indeed so successfully concealed his opposition to the President from the public knowledge that the mass of the people could easily be led to suppose he was Johnson's adherent. This would naturally antagonize the Republicans, while, with the President's party, the President himself of course was chief. Johnson probably feared no rival but Grant. He flattered himself he could defeat any other candidate of the Republicans, so that by making Grant impossible he would secure his own success. Thus the Administration undoubtedly hoped to enjoy the benefit of Grant's popularity at the very moment they were seeking to undermine it; a bit of craft worthy of Machiavelli, or of Seward.

But Grant protested earnestly against the entire proposition. He not only did this promptly in conversation, when Johnson announced the design, but on his return to his own headquarters he wrote the famous letter marked ‘Private,’ which has already been given to the world. I quote the portion referring to Stanton:


headquarters armies of the United States, Washington, D. C., August 1, 1867.
His Excellency, A. Johnson, President of the United States:
Sir,—I take the liberty of addressing you privately on the subject of the conversation we had this morning, feeling as I do the great danger to the welfare of the country should you carry out the designs then expressed.

First, on the subject of the displacement of the Secretary of War. His removal cannot be effected against his will without the consent of the Senate. It is but a short time since the United States Senate was in session and why not then have asked for [90] this removal if it was desired? It certainly was the intention of the Legislative branch of the Government to place Cabinet Ministers beyond the power of Executive removal, and it is pretty well understood that, so far as Cabinet Ministers are affected by the Tenure of Office bill, it was intended specially to protect the Secretary of War, whom the country felt great confidence in. The meaning of the law may be explained away by an astute lawyer but common sense and the views of loyal people will give to it the effect intended by its framers. . . .

In conclusion, allow me to say as a friend, desiring peace and quiet, the welfare of the whole country North and South, that it is in my opinion more than the loyal people of this country (I mean those who supported the Government during the great Rebellion) will quietly submit to, to see the very men of all others who they have expressed confidence in, removed.

I would not have taken the liberty of addressing the Executive of the United States thus, but for the conversation on the subject alluded to in this letter, and from a sense of duty, feeling that I know I am right in this matter.

With great respect, your ob't serv't,

U. S. Grant, General.

There were several interviews within the next few days at which the subordinate strove to change the determination of his superior, but Johnson remained immovable. Grant had at once made known the President's purpose to Stanton and Sheridan, as well as to others in his confidence. These last were few, for Congress was not in session, and the principal people whom he might have consulted were absent. He discussed, however, with Stanton the course he should pursue in case the President persisted. It was agreed that Grant's duty in that event was to accept the position proffered, and as far as possible prevent further mischief. He could take up Stanton's course when Stanton was no longer in the Cabinet, and thus mitigate some of the evils of his removal.

The protests of Grant delayed Johnson's action just five [91] days. Then, on the 5th of August, in a formal letter, the President requested Stanton's resignation. The same day Stanton answered, also in writing, that ‘public considerations of a high character constrained him from resigning before the next meeting of Congress.’ Again Johnson hesitated for a week; but on the 12th of August he issued an order in strict accordance with the provisions of the Tenure of Office act, suspending Stanton and appointing Grant Secretary of War ad interim.

Grant thereupon addressed the following letter to Stanton, of which I preserved the original draft, with the lines struck out by Grant's own hand:

headquarters armies of the United States, Washington, D. C., August 12, 1867.
Sir,—Enclosed herewith I have the honor to transmit to you a copy of a letter just received from the President of the United States, notifying me of my assignment as Acting Secretary of War, and directing me to assume those duties at once.

In notifying you of my acceptance, I cannot let the opportunity pass without expressing to you my appreciation of the zeal, patriotism, firmness, and ability with which you have ever discharged the duties of Secretary of War.

With great respect, your ob't serv't,

U. S. Grant, General. To Hon. Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War.

To this Stanton replied as follows:

War Department, Washington City, August 12, 1867.
General,—Your note of this date, accompanied by a copy of a letter addressed to you, August 12th, by the President, appointing you Secretary of War ad interim, and informing me of your acceptance of the appointment, has been received.

Under a sense of public duty I am compelled to deny the President's right, under the Constitution and laws of the United [92]




[94] States, to suspend me from office as Secretary of War, or to authorize any other person to enter upon the discharge of the duties of that office, or to require me to transfer to you or any other person the records, books, papers, and other property in my official custody and charge as Secretary of War.

But inasmuch as the President has assumed to suspend me from the office as Secretary of War, and you have notified me of your acceptance of the appointment of Secretary of War ad interim, I have no alternative but to submit, under protest, to the superior force of the President.

You will please accept my acknowledgment of the kind terms in which you have notified me of your acceptance of the President's appointment, and my cordial reciprocation of the sentiments expressed.

I am, with sincere regard, truly yours,

Grant was not quite pleased with this letter, which seemed to imply that he was in accord with the President, or at least that he should not have accepted the post, but Stanton could hardly have been in an amiable mood when he was dispossessed, even toward the unwilling instrument of his removal.

But the annoyance that Grant felt made no difference in his action. The crisis was too momentous for any personal feeling to be allowed to interfere. He had been thoroughly loyal to Stanton and to the country, and he became Secretary of War with the intention to do his utmost to carry out the policy which Stanton was removed for persisting to execute.

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