Sunday, January 13, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Saturday, Jan. 11, 1862

Something wicked this way came

Perhaps you shouldn’t call Simon Cameron a bad man, but it did seem as if badness followed him around.

The vapors of a career politician rose from the man’s very pores. Which is not to deny that Cameron was talented man. Orphaned at nine, he worked and studied hard and at age 25 was able to purchase a newspaper in the Pennsylvania state capital of Harrisburg. He won appointment as state printer the next year, was appointed state adjutant general the year after that, and soon was buying railroad lines and making his fortune.

Simon Cameron was one of those strivers who always seemed a little too lucky, a little too early, a little too successful for mere luck and hard work to explain. Simon Cameron was a politician. He knew how to arrange things, and as politicians always do, he had a wide network of those who owed him—and those he owed.

No doubt about it: Cameron had a finely tuned sense of where opportunity lay. In his portraits (one of which is shown here), his sleek face and hard, agate-like eyeballs suggest a cat studying his next mouse.

First elected to the U.S. Senate in 1884, Cameron eventually switched parties from the Democratic to the newly forming Republican Party. After making a deal with Lincoln’s managers (without Lincoln’s knowledge), he threw his support to Lincoln at the 1860 Republican National Convention, bringing Pennsylvania delegates with him. As reward, he wanted a Cabinet position in the Lincoln administration, so Lincoln reluctantly appointed him secretary of war.

And that’s when the trouble began. Surprisingly, Cameron was not a team player in the Lincoln administration. A Radical Republican, he charted his own course, issuing anti-slavery dictates that embarrassed Lincoln. In the early months of the war, Lincoln could not afford to alienate slave owners in the border states and had to walk a fine line on the ticklish slavery Cameron was a loose cannon.

It gets worse. All those hangers-on that Cameron had accumulated began claiming their dues, so War Department contracts were given to political favorites and military appointment handed out to friends. It was even worse than that: not only was the War Department corrupt, it was inefficient and ineffective. Something had to be done.

Lincoln was able to ease Cameron out by offering him the post of minister to Russia, which would get the Pennsylvanian as far away from the war as possible. On this Saturday in January, Cameron makes public his resignation from the war department.

Within 48 hours, Lincoln will announce his choice to replace Cameron. It will be a surprising, even shocking, choice, but one that will turn out to be one of his best decisions of the war. It involve an Ohioan.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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