The one thing that people know about Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is that, right after President Abraham Lincoln died on the morning of April 15, 1865, Stanton said “now he belongs to the ages.” David Herbert Donald closed his great Lincoln biography, still my favorite, with “now he belongs to the ages.” Adam Gopnik, in his lovely New Yorker essay, “Angels and Ages,” called this quote the “most famous epitaph in American history.”
Gopnik also points out that there are other people who know, with equal certainty, that what Stanton really said was “now he belongs to the angels.” James Swanson, for example, in his gripping book Manhunt, uses the “angels” quote rather than “ages.” This is also the version used by Jay Winik in his fabulous book about April 1865.
I am one of those who believes that Stanton did not say anything quotable immediately after Lincoln’s death. Since this is a minority view, let me explain.
Several papers published detailed accounts of Lincoln’s death in the days immediately thereafter. These accounts, it seems, were based on conversations with those in the room at the time. The New York Herald reported that “even the stoical Stanton, whose coolness and self-possession were remarkable, could not keep back the silent monitors of inward sorrow which rolled out from his eyes upon his cheeks.” The Washington Evening Star reported that “immediately on its being ascertained that life was extinct” Lincoln’s pastor, Reverend Phineas Gurley “knelt at the bedside and offered an impressive prayer which was responded to by all present.” The New York Times published a long account by Maunsell Field, an assistant secretary of the Treasury, among those present in the room, saying that those in the room were “profoundly affected” by Gurley’s prayer.
In addition to these published accounts, there were private accounts of Lincoln’s death. James Tanner, a War Department clerk, who was taking notes, wrote to a friend that just after Lincoln’s death Gurley “offered up a very impressive prayer. I grasped for my pencil which was in my pocket, as I wished to secure his words, but was very much disappointed to find that my pencil was broken in my pocket.” Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, wrote a few days later in his diary that after the president’s death, there was a prayer from Gurley, and then the cabinet members present assembled in the back parlor.
None of these accounts, nor any other account published before 1890, claimed that Stanton said anything in the moments just after Lincoln’s death. It was in that year that John Hay and John Nicolay, former private secretaries to Lincoln, published an article in their series about Lincoln, eventually part of their best-selling life of Lincoln. “At twenty-two minutes after seven he died,” they wrote. “Stanton broke the silence by saying ‘Now he belongs to the ages.’” Charles Taft, one of the doctors present that night, more or less agreed with Hay in an article published in 1893, writing that “Stanton said in solemn tones, ‘He now belongs to the Ages.’” Tanner now recalled what he had not recalled in his 1865 letter, writing in 1905 that after Gurley’s fervent prayer Stanton said of his “beloved chief” that “He belongs to the ages now.” These are not really independent sources, however; Taft and Tanner almost certainly read the article by Hay and Nicolay.
In light of the twenty-five year lapse between Lincoln’s death and the publication of the Hay/Nicholas article, in light of the absence of any such remarks in any of the more immediate accounts of the deathbed scene, it seems quite unlikely that Stanton said anything about ages or angels in the minutes after Lincoln died.
What he must have done, quite quickly, was dictate out a telegram to New York, to alert the New York papers, and through them the nation, that Lincoln had died. Those words, in the handwriting of Thomas Eckert, one of Stanton’s telegraph clerks, read “Abraham Lincoln died this morning at 22 minutes after seven.” Extra editions of papers bearing these words were being sold in New York City in about two hours, meaning that Stanton must have sent them almost as soon as they were written.