Civil War Personalities – Simon Cameron

Cameron LOC

Simon Cameron (Source: Library of Congress)

One of the more colorful politicians of the Civil War era was Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, once accused of being so corrupt that the only thing he would not steal was a red hot stove.

Another politician, Edwin Stanton, served as Lincoln’s Secretary of War during most of the Civil War, but before assuming that position in February, 1862, he served as legal adviser to his predecessor, Simon Cameron.

When Lincoln’s political managers worked for his nomination at the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago, they made many promises, some overt and others subtle, to secure the delegates needed for the nomination. They desperately needed Pennsylvania’s delegates, and no one questioned U.S. Senator Cameron’s ability to deliver them, with the understanding that Pennsylvania would cast its votes for favorite-son Cameron on the first ballot and for Lincoln on subsequent ballots.

Stanton Library of Congress

Edwin Stanton (Source: Library of Congress)

The leading contender, Senator William Seward, thought he had secured Cameron’s support in a visit to the Pennsylvanian’s home in the spring of 1860, trusting the quote often attributed to Cameron that “an honest politician is one who, when he is bought, stays bought.” [Goodwin, Team of Rivals, p. 217]. But when the Republicans convened in May, many Pennsylvania delegates thought Seward was not electable.

While Seward waited at his Auburn, New York estate for word of his nomination, the anti-Seward forces were hard at work in Chicago. In exchange for Pennsylvania’s support, Cameron wanted Lincoln to give him the Treasury post and sole control of all political patronage in Pennsylvania. [Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury, pp. 60-61 (1961) (2009 edition).] Cameron was known as the “Winnebago chief” for purportedly swindling the Winnebago tribe in a supply contract [McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 260 (1988)], and any suggestion that Lincoln would agree to give a reputed crook control of the government’s purse strings is disingenuous. But Lincoln’s men at least gave a wink and a nod of some sort assuring Cameron of a position in the Cabinet. Pennsylvania delivered its support and Seward would have to be satisfied with the State Department rather than the White House.

Interestingly, during the first year of the war, many military contracts went to manufacturers in Cameron’s home state of Pennsylvania. In addition, military supplies traveled inordinate distances on Pennsylvania railroads. There were also many complaints about the quality of materials furnished to the troops. The war added new words to the vernacular, including “shoddy,” charges of pressed scraps of wool used to make uniforms that fell apart after a few weeks’ wear. [McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, p. 183 (Third Edition, 2001)]

Because he received intense criticism for his poor management of the War Department, Cameron sought to secure his fragile position by kowtowing to the Radical Republicans in Congress. In the War Department’s December 1861 annual report, he advocated freeing and arming slaves who escaped into Union army lines. [Ordeal by Fire, p. 291] This early in the war, Lincoln was struggling to keep the slaveholding border states in the Union. Cameron’s report did not help.

In January, 1862, Lincoln let Cameron know his services in Washington were no longer needed. The President ultimately accepted Cameron’s letter of resignation and appointed him as Minister to Russia, thereby sending him where he could do no further harm to the war effort. [Team of Rivals, pp. 410-412]

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Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, Elections, history, Lincoln, Presidential elections, Presidents, slavery

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