It is a murder mystery—or an essential part of one: the nagging questions about Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War. Why did he refuse the escort the President asked for when he called at the War Department the day of his assassination? The reason Stanton gave for not letting Maj. Thomas Eckert go with Lincoln was urgent business at the telegraph office, which the major supervised. When the President went into that office and repeated his request, Eckert, in virtual insubordination, gave the same excuse. The record proves that no dispatches were sent from the office that night; indeed, neither Stanton nor Eckert showed up there. In the event, the substitute bodyguard proved criminally neglectful.
After the tragedy Stanton went out of his way to tell a congressional committee, which was asking a different question, that Lincoln’s last visit to the department took place two days before the fatal night, and soon he contradicted himself, putting the time one day later. From Stanton also came a description of that final meeting: rejoicing in common over approaching victory; expressions of mutual affection and admiration. Nobody confirmed this touching encounter, though it was not described as occurring in private. It appears, too, that Stanton had dissuaded General Grant from accepting the President’s invitation to join the party at Ford’s Theatre. Why? What a distressing list of unanswered questions!