Colonel Anson Stager is not exactly a household name, even to many students of the Civil War.
If your reading has taken you into the arcana of military codes, or if you are a fan of late 19th Century industrialization, you probably have heard of him: he was an instrumental figure in both arenas. He not only invented the primary cipher adopted by the Federal armies during the War; he was also the first Superintendent of Western Union, and at various times, president of the Western Electric corporation, Chicago Telephone, and the Western Edison Company. He died in 1885.
For me, however, his name first popped up in the context of an important interview between James A. Garfield and Union Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, a meeting which occurred on October 20, 1863.
Stanton was seeking details – some might say dirt – concerning the actions and behavior of Garfield’s boss, Major General William S. Rosecrans, during and immediately after the battle of Chickamauga. Rosecrans, you see, was driven from the field before the battle’s close, and rode back to Chattanooga, 12 miles distant; leaving George H. Thomas to continue the fight alone.
Garfield (along with fellow general James B. Steadman) met with Stanton at Louisville, Garfield having left the Army of the Cumberland to take up a seat in Congress. In the wake of the Chickamauga crisis, Stanton rushed west from Washington to secretly confer with Ulysses S. Grant. Stanton offered Grant command of the entire Western Theater, which position Grant accepted.
Though the Grant-Stanton meeting had already occurred, and the order relieving Rosecrans already publicly announced, in time Rosecrans and his supporters would come to believe that Garfield’s testimony now decided his commander’s fate. Garfield, it was whispered, betrayed his old commander, suggesting that Rosecrans lost control of his emotions, and was unfit to retain his command. This testimony supposedly went far towards cementing Stanton’s opinion that Rosecrans had to go.
That last was certainly true: Immediately after the Garfield meeting Stanton wired as much to President Lincoln. Garfield’s “representations,” asserted Stanton “more than confirm the worst that has reached us as to the conduct of the commanding general. . .”
Garfield would go to his grave insisting otherwise. Far from betraying Rosecrans, he instead did he best to defend his commander against Stanton’s hostile accusations. In 1880, Garfield protested to Rosecrans that when Stanton “denounced you . . . I rebuked him and earnestly defended you against his assaults.”
How could that be? Who was right? Garfield would tell his friend and fellow Ohioan, Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox, that Stanton – a veteran courtroom lawyer and prosecutor – “not only had dispatches full of information from General [Montgomery C.] Meigs, who now also met with him at Louisville, [but also] . . . [Assistant Secretary of War Charles A.] Dana’s . . . series of cipher dispatches giving a vivid interior view of affairs and of men.” As a result, Stanton demonstrated “such knowledge of the battle . . . that it would be impossible for Garfield to avoid mention of [those] incidents which bore unfavorably upon Rosecrans.”
In short, Stanton was not merely fact-finding. He cross-examined Garfield – and like any good trial attorney, asked no question to which he did not already know the answer. The question remains, however: was Garfield a hostile witness, or a friendly one?
Three other men were present at this meeting. Steadman; Military Governor of Tennessee Andrew Johnson, and the aforementioned Colonel Stager. Neither Steadman nor Johnson left accounts of this meeting.
But what of Stager? In 1881, one of those Rosecrans supporters, Colonel Francis A. Darr (formerly a staff officer for George Thomas) claimed to have met Stager the previous year at West Point’s annual military exercises, where, as Darr related privately to Rosecrans, Stager claimed that “Garfield . . . denounced Rosecrans as incompetent, unworthy of his position, as having lost the confidence of his army, and should be removed.” Darr’s quotation would seem to settle the matter pretty conclusively.
Legally speaking, Darr’s statement is hearsay, second-hand information. But we sit in the court of history, not of law. Darr’s statement has been used extensively by historians – most notably, Rosecrans’s biographer, William Lamers – as clear-cut proof of Garfield’s duplicity.
Even that much might not have come to light if not for the fact that in 1880, James A. Garfield became the quintessential dark-horse candidate for President, winning the election, only to be struck down by an assassin the next year, dying shortly thereafter. Election pressures in 1880 made the controversy between Garfield (the Republican nominee) and Rosecrans (running as a Democrat for congress) into headline news. As the rhetoric heated up, Rosecrans took to repeating Darr’s assertions in his public comments. Garfield’s subsequent death only gave the controversy greater legs. Well into 1882, newspapers were reprinting stories about Garfield, Rosecrans, Stanton, and, inevitably, Stager.
By then, Garfield was dead, and beyond any hope of refutation. Stager was anything but. A respected businessman and public figure in his own right, Stager was living in Chicago. Naturally, the press turned to him for comment. In the June 15, 1882 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune, when asked about Rosecrans’s statements, Col. Stager replied “that it is not in fact true that he [Stager] told Gen. Rosecrans or anyone else that what occurred at the Louisville meeting with Stanton was the reverse of what was stated by Gen. Garfield.” Stager further asserted that he never even met Rosecrans at West Point.
When it was clarified that Rosecrans was not claiming to have met Stager personally, but instead quoting Francis Darr, Stager appeared in the June 17 edition of the Tribune; giving an even more emphatic denial. “‘I never made any such statement,’ said Gen. Stager . . . ‘to Gen. Darr or anybody else. It wasn’t a fact – Gen. Garfield did not denounce his superior officer – and I couldn’t therefore have said he did. I met Gen. Darr at West Point; but if he says I made such a statement he misapprehended me.'” Stager’s comments spread, via the wire services, to a few other papers – as far away as Sacramento, for example. But though they seemed to get widespread play for a while, as the controversy faded, so too, did Stager’s rebuttals.
For decades, Darr’s version of events has been widely cited as corroborating Garfield’s duplicity. Stager’s denials are very strong evidence that in fact, Garfield was right all along: Far from denouncing Rosecrans, Garfield defended him.
Was Darr confused, mistaken, or being duplicitous? How about Stager? Did Stager say one thing in private and another in print, for public consumption? At this remove, who can be sure? But at the very least Stager’s public statements cast much greater doubt on the question of Garfield’s supposed treason.
William Lamers’s outstanding biography of William S. Rosecrans was first published in 1961. Lamers mined the voluminous Rosecrans Papers extensively, which is where he found the Darr letter. He plumbed a wealth of other sources as well; the Chicago Tribune among them. What he lacked, of course, were the tools of a more modern age – the combination of search engines and digitized, online newspaper databanks that place millions of articles at our fingertips.
With these tools and the right search parameters, researchers can now reduce the endless hours once required to comb newspaper (and other) archives to mere minutes. That ability leads to some fascinating discoveries.
I suspect that there are a great many more such interesting items waiting to come to light.