In letters mailed in 1861 to in-laws in Pittsburgh, Stanton talks of civil war
The letter from Edwin M. Stanton to his brother-in-law, dated April 15, 1861: "It is now certain that we are about to be engaged in a general civil war between the Northern & Southern states. Every one will regret this as a great calamity to the human race," Stanton wrote.
Stanton, who became Abraham Lincoln's secretary of war, and Ellen Hutchison, from a prominent Pittsburgh family, married in 1856. This is one in an occassional series on the Civil War.
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While lawyers are encouraged to anticipate the worst thing that can happen, U.S. Attorney General Edwin M. Stanton in January 1861 was optimistic about a peaceful resolution of differences between Northern and Southern states.
"I have never doubted that we should in the end pass safely through the present troubles," he wrote to his brother-in-law, James Adam Hutchison Jr., in a letter dated Jan. 15, 1861. Stanton's letter to Hutchison, a Pittsburgh lawyer, is in a collection of family correspondence and photographs in the archives at the Heinz History Center.
That correspondence offers a glimpse into the life and thinking of a man who would become a member of Abraham Lincoln's Cabinet and one of his closest advisers during the Civil War. The conflict began 150 years ago today with the Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter.
Stanton, who grew up in Steubenville, attended Kenyon College, studied law and began his professional career in his native Ohio.
In 1847 he relocated to the booming industrial city of Pittsburgh. His first wife, Mary, had died in 1841 while he was still building his Ohio law practice. Following a two-year courtship, he married Ellen Hutchison in 1856. Sixteen years younger than her new husband, she came from a wealthy and socially prominent Pittsburgh family.
After Stanton and his family moved to Washington, D.C., he maintained close ties to his wife's Pittsburgh relatives, keeping in touch via letters to various family members.
The material dealing with Stanton and the Hutchison family was donated to the history center in 2001 by Terry H. Wells, of Evanston, Ill., a descendant of the Hutchison family. While James Adam Hutchison moved to Chicago after the Civil War, family members maintained their links to Allegheny County, according to David Grinnell, chief archivist at the history center. Many are buried in Pittsburgh's Homewood Cemetery.
The Hutchison materials include several photographs of Stanton, some made in the studio of photographer Mathew Brady, who became famous for his Civil War pictures. Another image is of a marble bust of Stanton that Mr. Grinnell said was created for a planned monument to him in Steubenville that appears never to have been built.
The 19 Stanton letters represent what Mr. Grinnell called "just a sliver" of the archive's holdings on Pittsburgh's prominent, and intermarried, Hutchison, Dallas, Wells and Wilkins families.
The history center, Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and the Capt. Thomas Espy Post No. 153 at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie are among the local repositories of Civil War-era letters, documents and memorabilia.
Stanton usually wrote in a firm hand, using dark ink on fine paper that has deteriorated little in the past century and a half. It is, nevertheless, occasionally difficult to make out some of his words. Mr. Grinnell, chief librarian Art Louderback and archivist Susan Melnick all gathered around to help transcribe one of Stanton's letters last week.
An anti-slavery Democrat, Stanton became U.S. attorney general during the final months of the disastrous administration of President James Buchanan. While sympathetic to the "South" and its "Peculiar Institution," as slavery was sometimes called, Buchanan believed that secession was illegal. Unfortunately, he also believed there was nothing he could do as president to stop states from breaking up the union.
Historians credit Stanton with stiffening Buchanan's spine during the period between the election of Lincoln in November 1860 and his inauguration the following March.
As Stanton joined Buchanan's cabinet in December 1860, Southern Democrats were leaving it, as were members of the House and Senate from states preparing to secede. Those departing included Secretary of War John Floyd, a Virginian. Just before Christmas he had ordered the shipment of artillery from the Allegheny Arsenal, in Lawrenceville, to forts south of the Mason-Dixon line.
The Pittsburgh Gazette, the city's strongly Republican newspaper at that time, reported that local political leaders were outraged, believing the guns would soon fall into the hands of Southern secessionists.
Residents organized protest meetings, the newspaper said. With the help of bitterly cold weather, which disrupted river traffic, they delayed the shipment for a few critical days. After Floyd resigned on Dec. 29, Buchanan countermanded his order to transport the weapons.
By Jan. 15, when Stanton wrote from Washington to his brother-in-law, four Southern states had left the union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama. Still, he remained hopeful that the worst was over and that secession fever would break.
"In respect to political affairs, there has been no material change for the last two or three days," he wrote to Hutchison. "The Separatists are all out of the cabinet now and we are united, I think, in resolution to do all in our power to uphold the government.
"The government cannot be overthrown except by treason and even that could only succeed for a short time," he wrote, underlining the word "cannot."
"I think the Southern riots will soon exhaust themselves, and that before the 4th of March peace will be restored and business re-established with more activity than ever," he concluded. March 4 was the date of Lincoln's inaugural.
On Feb. 11, Lincoln left Springfield, Ill., on a circuitous pre-inaugural train trip that would take him to Washington. His stops included Pittsburgh, where he avoided discussing the issue of slavery, saying only that he expected cooler heads would prevail.
They did not. Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as Confederate president on Feb. 18, two weeks before Lincoln took the oath of office. Three more states -- Georgia, Louisiana and Texas -- had voted to leave the union by the time Lincoln was sworn in.
After he became president, Lincoln reiterated his promise not to interfere with slavery where it existed. But he also expressed his determination to maintain federal control over Southern military installations, including Fort Sumter, located at the entrance to the harbor at Charleston, S.C.
Shortly after Lincoln informed South Carolina's secessionist governor that he planned to resupply the garrison, Confederate artillery fired on the fort. It was the early morning of April 12. Its outgunned commander, Robert Anderson, surrendered the next day to the rebels.
Stanton, out of government following the Republican takeover of the White House, had no more illusions about what would follow.
"It is now certain that we are about to be engaged in a general civil war between the Northern & Southern states," Stanton wrote to Hutchison on April 15, 1861. "Every one will regret this as a great calamity to the human race."
With Virginia and "probably" Maryland likely to join the Confederate states, Washington, sharing borders with both, was vulnerable to Southern occupation, he wrote. "The government will of course strive to protect it but whether successfully or not is perhaps doubtful," he admitted.
"Many persons are preparing to remove from here," he told Hutchison. "I shall remain, and take the chances, feeling a firm faith in the final result ... and willing to encounter its risks."
A practical man, Stanton advised his brother-in-law that war, especially conflict in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, was likely to be good for local business. "The manufacturing interests of Pittsburgh will I think receive a strong impulse," he predicted.
He was right. During the next four years, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County provided heavy arms and ammunition, as well as thousands of volunteers, for Union forces.
Although a longtime Democrat, Stanton became an adviser to Lincoln and then in 1862 his secretary of war. He was present when Lincoln died on April 15, 1865, the morning after he was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater. "Now he belongs to the ages," a tearful Stanton said.
Len Barcousky's "Eyewitness" column on Sunday will take a look at how Pittsburgh's newspapers covered the opening days of the Civil War. Previous Post-Gazette stories about the topic can be viewed at www.post-gazette.com/civilwar/.
First Published April 12, 2011 12:00 am