- The Washington Times - Friday, October 21, 2005

The assassination of President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth and the attempted murder of Secretary of State William H. Seward at his home by Booth conspirator Lewis Powell overshadowed every other event on the night of April 14, 1865.

Even so, Vice President Andrew Johnson also was on Booth’s list, although conspirator George Atzerodt got cold feet and left Johnson alone. In addition, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had been invited to Ford’s by the president and presumably also would have been attacked by Booth, but Grant decided not to go.

Then there was Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton. …

Almost all accounts of that ghastly night mention no attempt on Stanton’s life. Yet the man was such a major figure in the Lincoln administration that it might have been more surprising if he had not been a target.

Stanton had become secretary of war in January 1862, replacing the corrupt and unpopular Simon Cameron. Stanton soon gained a reputation as a blunt, no-nonsense sort, doing his job with brusque efficiency. He became the most powerful member of Lincoln’s Cabinet, with the possible exception of Seward.

There are, in fact, two long-forgotten accounts, some 40 years apart, suggesting that Stanton may have been a target after all.

The first report came during the Lincoln conspiracy trial just a few weeks after the assassination. On May 15, Stanton’s son David testified he had seen Michael O’Laughlin at the Stanton home at 14th and K streets NW on the night of April 13. The house, across from Franklin Park, is no longer standing.

O’Laughlin had been a childhood friend of Booth’s. During the last months of the war, Booth had recruited him and several other acquaintances for a plot to kidnap the president and hold him for prisoner-of-war exchanges. Having become rather dubious about the whole idea, O’Laughlin had left Washington and taken a job in Baltimore, apparently well before Booth’s talk turned to assassination.

On April 13, O’Laughlin was back in the nation’s capital with a few friends to observe the citywide celebration of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender four days earlier.

At the trial, young David Stanton looked over to where the prisoners were sitting and identified O’Laughlin asthe unexpected visitor who had arrived at the family household the night before Lincoln was shot. It was about 10:30, with a crowd outside.A band was serenading Stanton and Grant, who was visiting.

The secretary was on the front step, while Grant was in the parlor. Somehow or other, O’Laughlin had gotten past the front door and was about 10 feet down the front hallway when David spoke to him.

According to David’s testimony, O’Laughlin asked where the secretary and Grant were. The young man unwisely told the visitor where his father was and then wisely ordered him to leave. The testimony concluded with David adding that he also had seen O’Laughlin during the latter’s earlier imprisonment aboard the ironclad Montauk.

That was all. David’s testimony added up to fewer than 300 words, reported in Washington’s Evening Star newspaper. The government did not seem inclined to follow it up. Still, if David’s story can be considered reliable, what was O’Laughlin doing there? Was he checking out the place for a possible future attack? Or was he there to warn the family, but did he back down at the last moment?

The second account of a possible attempt on Edwin Stanton’s life comes from Chapter 20 of “The Reminiscences of William M. Stewart,” published in 1908. In the 1860s, Stewart was a senator from the brand-new state of Nevada. His autobiography is seldom read today, except by Mark Twain fans, who read Chapter 23, describing how Stewart took on his old friend as an assistant in 1867, with mixed results.

As Stewart told the story, on the night of April 14, he was visiting his friend Sen. John Conness of California at the latter’s home on 13th Street between E and F streets. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts soon joined them. After another 15 or 20 minutes, a servant dashed in, saying that Seward had just been murdered.

The three of them hurried the short distance to Seward’s house (no longer standing) on the east side of Lafayette Square and learned that Seward was still alive, although seriously injured. They immediately ran across Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House and there learned that Lincoln had been shot. Conness said, “This is a conspiracy to murder the entire Cabinet.”

Two soldiers were on guard duty at the White House, and Conness ordered them, “Go immediately to Secretary Stanton’s house, and prevent his assassination, if possible.” Then, Stewart wrote, “As the soldiers approached his house they saw a man on his steps, who had just rung the bell. Seeing them he took fright and ran away and was never afterward heard of. When the soldiers ran up the steps, Stanton himself came to the door in response to the ring.”

Meanwhile, the three senators headed to Ford’s Theatre. There they learned that the mortally wounded president had been taken across the street to Petersen’s boardinghouse and laid in a bed in a small back room. Conness left the scene, Sumner spent the night at Lincoln’s side, and Stewart aimlessly walked the streets, “caring very little where I went.”

Stanton soon arrived at the Petersen house, where he spent the night taking testimony and issuing orders for the capture of the conspirators. Plenty of soldiers were about, so Stanton probably was safe enough by then. When Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m., Stanton uttered the memorable line, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Was the visitor O’Laughlin again or someone else? Conspirator or innocent visitor? There seems little chance of finding out unless some long-lost cache of papers should resurface in someone’s attic.

Stanton, at least, took no chances. His home was placed under guard for some time thereafter. A sarcastic snippet in the Nov. 21, 1865, Waukesha Plain Dealer in Wisconsin expressed surprise that Stanton was keeping a military guard at his house months after the war had ended.

There was a soldier out front, pacing back and forth, and another in the alley at the rear of the house. The newspaper sneered, “Our war minister seems to be the only man in the country who can afford to keep a private battery on the premises.”

A couple of years later, another piece about Stanton appeared, in the Oct. 31, 1867, issue of the Daily Memphis Avalanche, a newspaper whose name summarized its editorial style. (Mark Twain even mentioned it by name in a short story, “Journalism in Tennessee.”) The newspaper mentioned how Stanton finally had dismissed his guards, and then it swiped at Grant for still having guards at the War Department and for his 9-year-old son, and even at Seward for still keeping guards at his home.

Let Stewart have the last word on what could have happened: “Had the soldiers arrived a few minutes later I have no doubt that Stanton would also have been one of the victims of the plot.”

John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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