Pittsburg Puzzle

On December 25, 1860, the New York Tribune reported that there was “intense excitement” in Pittsburgh the prior day because of reports of the imminent “shipment from the Allegheny Arsenal of seventy-eight guns to Newport, near Galveston Island, Texas, and forty-six more to Ship Island, near Balize, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, the apparent object being to strip the Allegheny Arsenal and place the guns where the Secessionists could get them.”

One can readily imagine the excitement:  South Carolina had just seceded from the United States, other states seemed likely to follow, and these southern states were seizing the federal arms at hand.

The Tribune continued:  “General Moorhead, our member of Congress, immediately telegraphed Mr. Stanton, Chairman of the House Committee on Military Affairs, for information in regard to the matter.  Leading Democrats telegraphed to Washington to have the order countermanded, saying that the people would not allow the guns to be removed.  A call is in circulation addressed to the Mayor, to convene a meeting of the citizens to take action in the matter.  The call is signed by prominent men of all parties.  The feeling against allowing a gun to be removed South is almost unanimous.  The meeting of citizens will be held at the Duquesne depot on Wednesday.”

The “Stanton” referred to by the Tribune was Benjamin Stanton, member of Congress from Ohio, chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee.  It was NOT Edwin Stanton, also in Washington at this time, about to start work as the United States Attorney General.  Edwin Stanton, as a former resident of Pittsburgh, and close reader of the newspapers, surely learned about the Pittsburgh excitement.  The question, the puzzle, is whether Stanton DID anything about the cannon.

Several authors assert that Edwin Stanton helped to keep the cannon in Pittsburgh.  Frank Flower, in his 1905 biography of Stanton, wrote:

“Being advised of what was transpiring at Pittsburg, Stanton inquired of the Secretary of War [Floyd] concerning it and was met with the statement that there was ‘no information on file touching the matter.’  From the War Office he proceeded to Buchanan, ‘who evinced neither surprise nor concern,’ merely saying that he had given no ‘official’ sanction to such an order. . . . On Thursday, January 3, 1861, Stanton telegraphed to the mayor, George Wilson, that the order had been officially rescinded by Secretary Holt, who had just succeeded Floyd, and received a vote of thanks on the following evening from the Pittsburgh city council.”

Flower provides no footnote for these statements, other than one which quotes a former Pittsburgh law clerk, saying that he sent a telegram from Stanton’s former Pittsburgh law partner, Shaler, to Stanton.  But the Pittsburgh law clerk could not know about the conversations between Stanton, Floyd, and Buchanan in Washington.

One part of Flower’s story does seem to have a basis:  that there was a telegram from Stanton to Mayor Wilson on January 3, reporting that the order to transfer the arms had been rescinded.   Frederick Graves, in his careful dissertation on Stanton, states that “Mayor George Wilson received Stanton’s telegram of January 3, 1861, stating that Joseph Holt, the new Secretary of War, had rescinded the order.”  Graves cites the Pittsburgh Gazette for January 4 and although I have not seen the article I am prepared to believe Graves on this point.  The Cleveland Morning Leader reported on January 4 that “the news of the rescinding of the order for the removal of the cannon from the Allegheny Arsenal by the War Department was received to-day with the liveliest satisfaction.”  No mention of Stanton.

Even if Stanton sent a telegram to Wilson, however, that does not tell us that Stanton played any role in persuading the President or the War Department to keep the cannon in Pittsburg.  Stanton’s telegram may have just been an informal confirmation of the official message, a way for the Buchanan administration to “calm the crowd” in Pittsburg.

So what to do with this?  Should I mention the Pittsburg cannon in the book and explain that Stanton may or may not have helped prevent them from leaving Pittsburg?  Or leave the cannon story out because Stanton’s contribution, if any, was minor, and the facts confused?  I am inclined, at present, to leave the issue out, although I am also inclined to do some further digging at the National Archives.