Now he belongs to the ages.”
Yes, that was what Secretary of War Edwin Stanton would say to the waiting crowd of reporters when he announced the death of President Abraham Lincoln. It had dignity and gravitas; it would do nicely. Stanton repeated it in his mind as he tried to drift off to sleep for a few moments at his home on K Street, just blocks from the Executive Mansion. His wife, Ellen, was already asleep, breathing in a soft, easy rhythm.
For the first time in more than two years, Stanton was able to relax. But sleep was harder. He sighed, thinking back to his decision to place Lincoln under guard in the Executive Mansion basement in September 1862. After a summer of disastrous defeats for the Union army, Stanton concluded that the fate of the country had to be wrested from the bumbling fool who sat in the president’s office. Under Stanton’s firm leadership—through the guise of the Lincoln double he had placed upstairs—the war would be over by Christmas.
However, Christmas came and went, and yet the war still waged on. Soon Stanton found himself going to the basement to ask Lincoln’s advice on which general to appoint to lead the Army of the Potomac and what strategies to pursue. It was humiliating. Stanton found himself under stress. The war shook his once mighty self-confidence. He had created a terrible quagmire because of his arrogance, and he did not know how to get out of it. The end of the war finally, inexorably came, and Stanton faced the impossible question of what to do with Lincoln now.
Things had a way of working themselves out, he told himself as he nestled down into his pillow. All Stanton had to do was exert pressure on the soldier who had murdered the butler and the young man capitulated, agreeing to find assassins to kill Lincoln, Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Stanton’s bagman Baker killed the impersonators and the soldier. The mob would take care of the assassins. It was a plan; it was clean; and it was coming to fruition.
Once the duplicate Lincolns and the Vice-President were dispatched, U.S. Rep. Schuyler Colfax, speaker of the House, would be sworn in as president. Colfax was a simpleton, Stanton reasoned, and Stanton could easily manipulate him as he had the Lincoln imposter. His entire misbegotten attempt to control the outcome of the Civil War would remain a secret throughout the ages. Of this he could be sure. Stanton sighed.
Stanton had never felt in control of his life. Asthma gripped his body as a child and would not let go. His parents, devout Methodists, prayed over him, and he miraculously survived. Stanton was painfully aware that some dark, outside force made all the decisions. Death hovered over him. Because so many people in his life died, Stanton had a roiling anger in the pit of his stomach. The list was relentlessly personal—his father, his first sweetheart, his first wife, his two children and any dreams of being respected as a leader of his country.
Perhaps now he could be in charge of his destiny, he thought, as his eyelids began to feel heavy. A sudden rap at the downstairs door jarred him back to consciousness. From downstairs, Stanton heard faint mumblings at the door. His butler was talking to someone who was urgent in his message. He would soon be climbing the stairs with dreadful news of assassination.
“What’s going on, dear?” his wife, Ellen, asked, not bothering to roll over.
“I don’t know,” he lied. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
“Very well,” she said, and she drifted back off to sleep.
Stanton got out of bed, put on his slippers and reached for his robe. After he put it on, he brushed his hair back with his hands, reached for his pebble glasses, and placed them on his pocked nose. His first instinct was to go for the door, but he decided it would be more prudent to wait for the butler to come for him. Stanton sat in a nearby padded chair and listened for footsteps up the stairs. A light rap at his bedroom door made a smile come to his cupid’s bow lips.
“Yes, what is it?”
“A young man downstairs, sir. Most disturbing news. Needs your immediate attention, sir.”
Slowly rising, Stanton went to the door. “Disturbing news? What is it?”
“I think he should tell you,” the butler said. “Dreadful, dreadful news.”
“Oh, dear.” Stanton went to the front door where a young man in civilian clothing, stood, shivering from the night rain. He recognized him as a family acquaintance, Joe Sterling. “Mr. Sterling, what news do you bring?”
“The President was shot while at the theater. I’m afraid he’s dead, sir,” Sterling said.
“Do you know who shot him?”
“Yes,” the young man replied. “They said it was a man named Booth. He sprang to the stage from the President’s box with a large knife and escaped in the melee.” After a pause Sterling added, “As we were coming to your house, a man informed us that Secretary Seward also has been assassinated, but that may be street rumor and untrue.”
“Oh, that can’t be so. That can’t be so,” Stanton replied, shaking his head solemnly and sympathetically.
Immediately another man appeared on the doorstep. Maj. Norton Chipman from the Bureau of Military Justice said, “Are you all right, sir? Secretary Seward has been attacked.”
“I heard he was dead.”
“No, brutally stabbed, but he still lives,” Chipman said.
“Oh.” Stanton paused. “That is good news.” He cleared his throat. “Have you heard about the President?”
“No, sir,” Chipman replied.
Stanton turned sharply to Sterling. “Who told you this news about the president?”
“A policeman, I—I don’t know his name,” the young man said, stammering.
“Hmm.” Stanton thought about where he should make his first appearance. “This rumor about the President is probably just an exaggeration of an altercation at the theater. I think I shall go to Mr. Seward’s house first with Maj. Chipman.”
“But Mr. Stanton,” Sterling insisted.
“That is all,” Stanton dismissed Sterling abruptly. He turned to the major. “Hold the carriage for me. I’ll be dressed in a moment.”
In the carriage ride over to Seward’s home, Stanton thought about how much he hated the man, remembering the first cabinet meeting in which the Lincoln double conducted the meeting. Stanton wanted Gen. Ambrose Burnsides to become the next general over the Army of the Potomac. Unexpectedly Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase put forth the name of Gen. Joseph Hooker. Attorney Gen. Caleb Smith suggested Gen. John C. Fremont. Seward, with silky insinuation, persuaded the befuddled Lincoln impersonator to stay with Gen. George McClellan instead.
Stanton never knew if Seward knew the man in the White House was an imposter or not. He was not a man who could be easily deciphered. That was why Stanton hated him. The carriage pulled up in front of Seward’s home bordering Lafayette Park across from the White House. Soldiers surrounded the building. Darting through the rain, Stanton made it to the door and entered a madhouse. Soldiers milled everywhere. Blood stained the banister leading to the upper floors. One man lay on the floor in a pool of blood with a doctor kneeling over him.
“What happened to him?” Stanton asked.
“He’s been slashed the entire length of his back,” the doctor said. “From the looks of it, perhaps two inches deep.”
Seward’s sixteen-year-old daughter Fanny wiped tears from her eyes as she descended the stairs and staggered to Stanton, falling into his arms.
“It’s my fault,” the girl said. “It’s all my fault.”
“What do you mean?” Stanton asked impatiently, holding her quivering shoulders at arms length.
“If I hadn’t opened the door to papa’s bedroom, the man wouldn’t have gotten in.”
“What man? What are you talking about?” Stanton forced his eyes to widen in shock. “What did this man do?”
“The man who stabbed papa,” Fanny replied, still blubbering.
“Get hold of yourself, child,” Stanton ordered.
“What kind of insensitive fiend are you?” bellowed a tall man with white hair who had just walked up.
Stanton looked over to see Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, another cabinet member whom he loathed.
“Fanny just witnessed the stabbing of not only her father but also her brothers and two other men. Of course, she’s crying,” Welles said as he stood next to Stanton, towering over him.
“I’m just trying to learn the facts of this case,” Stanton replied in a huff. When taller men stood close, he always felt inferior which made him livid. In addition, when his emotions took over his asthma erupted. Stanton stifled a wheezing cough before returning his attention to Fanny. He tried to soften his tone. “Please tell me what happened.”
Fanny Seward breathed in deeply as though to compose her thoughts. “There was this loud knocking at the door. Billy answered it—“
“Who’s Billy?” Stanton interrupted.
“Billy Bell, our Negro doorman, he answered the door, and this huge man said something about having medicine—“
“What do you know about this doorman?” Stanton interrupted again. “Has he been in the household long?”
“For God’s sake, let the girl finish,” Welles said with exasperation.
“He said he was from Dr. Verdi,” Fanny continued meekly. “But Dr. Verdi had said nothing to us about more medicine. So Billy tried to tell him to go away but he wouldn’t. Freddie—“
“Who’s Freddie?” Stanton asked. He then remembered Seward’s son Frederick. He had attended the afternoon cabinet meeting to represent his father. “Yes, I know, your brother. Go ahead.”
“Freddie heard the commotion and came out of papa’s room to find this man grappling with Billy and forcing his way upstairs.” Fanny paused to put her handkerchief to her wet eyes and look at Welles.
Welles put his large arms around her shoulders. “There, there. You’re doing just fine.”
“The man insisted on seeing papa in person, but Freddie said he was asleep. Then I came out of the room, not knowing what was going on, and said papa was awake and wanted to see Freddie.”
Stanton could not control his asthma any longer. He emitted a long and loud cough. As he wiped his mouth he mumbled, “Well, go on, go on.”
“Then this man pushed passed us all and rushed into papa’s room. It was awful.”
“Both Seward boys, Frederick and Augustus, were stabbed as was a male army nurse and the State Department messenger here on the floor,” Welles filled in as Fanny broke down weeping.
“If I hadn’t opened the door right at that moment the man would have never gotten in. It was all my fault.”
“My dear, this man was insane,” Welles said soothingly. “From what all the servants told me, he was a monster with the strength of ten men. Nothing could have stopped him from his foul deed.” Welles glanced at the Secretary of War. “Tell her, Mr. Stanton. It wasn’t her fault.”
Stanton grunted, but he was not interested in Fanny or her story any longer. His attention went to the third floor. Stanton walked up, at first putting his hand on the banister but removing it quickly when his fingers felt a moist tackiness. His nostrils flared with the acrid smell of blood. Stanton looked down to see the banister smeared with blood, now turning a dark brown. When he reached the third floor, he saw Frederick Seward sitting on the floor in a daze, blood flowing from his head. His brother Augustus stood by his side nursing three gashes in his arm. Stanton ignored them and march into Seward’s bedroom. The male nurse, who had bandages on his neck and head, attended the doctor who bent over the bed. At first, Stanton thought they were just looking at a bundle of bloody sheets until he saw Seward’s head, framed by a leather brace. As Stanton focused on the face, he noticed Seward’s teeth and jawbone exposed through the sagging, slashed bloodied cheek.
When Stanton leaned over the bed, Seward’s eyes focused his eyes on him. “What have you done?” he whispered.
“Did you recognize the man who attacked you?” Stanton asked, ignoring Seward’s question.
“What have you done?”
“Did he say anything to you?” Stanton said, in a louder voice.
The doctor brusquely pulled him away. “Do this questioning elsewhere, at another time,” he ordered. “We have people bleeding to death here!”
“Do you know who I am?” Stanton asked indignantly.
“I don’t give a damn who you are,” the doctor growled. “Get the hell out of here!”
Taking a step back, Stanton decided not to force a confrontation. Again, he felt humiliated, and his breathing became labored. With luck, Stanton told himself, Seward would be dead by dawn anyway. At the bottom of the stairs, he saw Welles talking to the other doctor attending to the State Department messenger on the floor.
“What does he have to do with this bloody business?” Stanton said.
“My God, man, don’t you have a heart?” Welles stared at him but when no answer was forthcoming, he sighed. “Poor man happened to arrive at the door with documents for Mr. Seward when the madman was escaping.”
“So he knows nothing,” Stanton stated nonchalantly.
“I suppose you heard about the President?” Welles asked.
“Yes, I did. I thought it was just a rumor.”
“It’s no damn rumor. The whole world has turned upside down.” Welles scrutinized Stanton’s face. “You look like you don’t give a damn.”
“That is an insult, sir,” Stanton snapped. “But I forgive you because of the emotional scene.” He paused. “I have a carriage outside. Do you want to join me on the ride to Ford’s Theater?”
Welles shook his head as he let out a sardonic laugh. “I don’t understand you. First you say I insulted you, and then you offer me a ride in your carriage.”
“That’s because I am a gentleman, sir.” Actually, Stanton conceded to himself, he was trying to control the situation again. He did not want to leave Welles at the Seward house asking too many questions. He wanted him near him so he could filter any information he received throughout the night.
The two cabinet members sat in tense silence as they rode through the streets in the rain. Occasionally Stanton coughed. The rain only made his condition worse. He listened to Welles drumming his knuckles against the wall of the carriage. Between the rapping and the dripping of rain on the carriage top made Stanton feel ready to explode. He bent over in an asthmatic rage.
“You should be home in bed,” Welles said in a way that was a lecture as opposed to expressing concern.
“You would like that, wouldn’t you?” Stanton spat. “Then you could be in charge and not me.”
Welles just shook his large, parrot-like head and stared out the windows at the milling crowds. “All these people. The people who loved him.” Welles made the statement not to Stanton in particular but out the misty window.
Stanton, on the other hand, prayed that Lincoln would already be dead. The carriage pulled up in front of the theater. Stanton leaned out of the window and waved over a soldier.
“Where have they taken the President?”
The soldier pointed across the street to a three-story tenement. “There, sir.”
Both men stared at the huge crowd gathered under their umbrellas in the pouring rain.
“We may as well get out here,” Welles said. “No way will the driver be able to get the carriage any closer.”
Stanton went first, elbowing his way through the people. Inside, another soldier told them Lincoln was in a bedroom at the back of the stairs on the first floor. As they began to walk down the hall, Mary Lincoln appeared from the bedroom and screamed.
“How dare you!” she said at the top of her voice, pointing at Stanton. “How dare you show up here!”
“She’s overwrought,” Welles muttered.
“She’s insane,” Stanton replied.
She scurried down the hall and slapped Stanton full across the face. “It’s all his fault! I knew it was too good to be true! You would not let him live! You had to kill him!”
Welles tried to put his large hands on her shoulders but he could not control Mrs. Lincoln because of her flailing arms.
“You’re as stupid as all the rest of them!” She glared at the Secretary of the Navy. “Didn’t you know? Couldn’t you tell the difference?”
“Tell what difference?” Welles stopped trying to contain Mrs. Lincoln to look deep into her eyes.
Stanton motioned to a soldier. “This woman is hysterical. Take her to a parlor down the hall. Make sure she doesn’t leave until I say so.”
The soldier took her by the elbow and gently guided her away.
“A parlor this time? Not the basement? Why not the basement? Couldn’t you tell the difference?” she screamed.
“The basement?” Welles said incredulously. “And what did she mean? Tell the difference?”
“Like I said, the woman is mad.” With that, Stanton continued down the hall with Welles behind him. He barged into the tiny bedroom to find a young man in evening clothes bent over Lincoln who was naked.
“Who are you?” Stanton demanded.
The young man looked up and said, “Dr. Charles Leale, Mr. Secretary.”
“You don’t look old enough to be a doctor,” Stanton replied gruffly.
Leale smiled a little. “Well I wasn’t one until six weeks ago.”
“Hmph. So. What’s the situation?”
“The president received a bullet wound on the left back of his head,” Leale explained. “The bullet is lodged deep inside.”
“So this is a mortal wound?”
“Yes, sir, I believe so, sir.”
“Very well. Carry on.” Stanton looked around. “Is Eckert here? Is Major Eckert here?”
“Over here, sir,” a voice rang out from the hall.
Stanton looked up to see Eckert, who was the chief of the War Department’s Military Telegraph Bureau, walking briskly toward him. Stanton liked him because he took orders without question.
“I got here as soon as I could, Mr. Secretary.”
“I need a room to set up in,” Stanton said.
“I already secured the back parlor across the hall, sir.”
“Good. Set up a relay between here and the department’s telegraph office on Seventeenth Street.” Turning, Stanton left the room and went across the hall with Eckert close behind.
“You still haven’t told me what you think Mrs. Lincoln meant when she said, ‘Couldn’t you tell the difference.’” Welles stayed on Stanton’s heels.
Stanton turned to Eckert. “First thing, get Mr. Welles a room also. He needs to keep the Navy informed of every development.” He looked at Welles. “Don’t you agree, Mr. Secretary? The assassins might try to make their escape by sea. You don’t want them to slip through our fingers, do you?”
Welles sighed wearily. “No, we don’t.” He turned away and began asking for a naval officer.
“Where’s my desk?” Stanton asked Eckert.
“Right here, sir.” He led the secretary to a desk and oil lamp.
Stanton sat and reached for paper to begin writing notes. “Shut down the theater. Take everyone there in custody for questioning. Shut down all bridges leaving the city. Telegraph the New York City police. Tell them to send every detective they can spare. Telegraph General Grant. Tell him to return to the city immediately.”
“Yes, sir.” Eckert saluted and left.
Stanton knew exactly why he made each of his commands. He wanted to give the illusion he was doing everything possible to catch the conspirators. He was certain the owners of the theater were innocent but blame had to be cast everywhere except on him. New York City had more detectives than any other city in the nation. Every one of them had to be in the District, getting in the way of the district police who knew where to look and who to interrogate. And he had to keep General Grant under his supervision. Left to his own devices Grant might start asking too many questions.
Stanton was now in his element. He was in charge. At this point of history, he was the Commander In Chief, and he relished every moment of it.
“Sir,” Eckert said, coming back into the room and leaning over. “The District chief of police is here, sir. He demands that his forces be in charge of the investigation.”
“No,” Stanton snapped. “This is not a civilian affair. This will be a case for a military tribunal. No question about it. Tell him to keep the mob orderly. That’s his job.”
Stanton instinctively knew if he could keep the war department in charge of the investigation and trial, he could control the release of information. No one must ever know the truth about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.