Simon Cameron
Simon Cameron
Secretary of War, USA (March 5, 1861 to January 17, 1862)
Minister to Russia (January 17, 1862 to September 18, 1862)

1860 to 1870
Source: Library of Congress

At the age of 61, Simon Cameron was aiming for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860. Born & raised in Pennsylvania in 1799, Cameron had been involved in politics since 1844 when he was elected to replace Jame Buchanan, who had just been chosen by then President Polk to be Secretary of State. Once a member of the Whig party, Cameron made his switch to the Democratic party right before the Senate election and served out his term until 1849. In 1855 he switched to the Know-Nothing Party; a year later he made his final party move, declaring himself a Republican before the 1856 elections.

An orphan at the age of nine, Cameron was put in the position where he had to be ambitious. He served as an apprentice to a printer and eventually made his way into journalism. In 1822 he moved to Washington City to work for a printing firm, Gales and Seaton. Because these two firm members were known for their extensive chronicling of political movements in Washington, Cameron not only gained valuable insight but also was introduced to a world he would eventually be a part of.

By 1824, Cameron married Margaret Brua and moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where they had three children and he started his own paper, the “Republican.” He eventually entered into business ventures such as banking & railroads, and soon found himself a wealthy man before entering politics.

Though Cameron had ambitions to occupy the highest political seat in the country, his perceived manipulation of political parties in the past for his own gain, along with stories that he had cheated Winnebago Indians in the late 1830’s while serving as a Commissioner to their settle claims, made it impossible for him to win the Republican nomination. His home state of Pennsylvania, however, held a lot of power and influence given its population and electoral votes. When viable candidates such as William Seward, Abraham Lincoln and Salmon Chase had their representatives working for delegate votes at the Republican convention in Chicago, a deal was struck with Pennsylvania delegates that Cameron would be offered a Cabinet position if Lincoln was elected. Though Lincoln had instructed his men not to make any promises – and that he would not be held to such promises – the deal was struck and Lincoln was pressured to follow through.

Lincoln was initially going to offer Cameron the Secretary of the Treasury position. But on January 2, 1861, Alexander McClure, a prominent Pennsylvania Republican, paid a visit to Lincoln in Springfield, pleading his case that Cameron should not be offered the position as he felt he did not have the qualifications needed. On January 3, Lincoln wrote Cameron a letter saying that he felt he could no longer offer him the position based on new information provided. He was willing to pretend that an offer was made so that Cameron could then publicly refuse it, simply to shield Cameron from any embarrassment over the situation. The situation was not easily resolved, and it took Lincoln two meetings with Cameron once he reached Washington City to eventually offer him the Secretary of War position. Cameron was officially appointed on March 5, 1861.

Given the situation with secession in the South, Cameron’s position would hold enormous responsibility in the course of the Civil War. He was not chosen for his expertise in this area, but Lincoln was also not convinced at this time that the current conflict would lead to a full blown war. Eventually it became obvious that the war was going to last a lot longer than anyone realized, and the Union government couldn’t afford to have a weak military administrative leader. Cameron was blamed for issues in recruiting and supplying troops and for Union incompetence in the field. Worst of all, there were allegations of corruption in his dealings with military suppliers.

By the end of 1861, Cameron knew his position was in trouble. He made an effort to save his job by trying to win favor of powerful members in Congress; with the support of men like Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, it would be difficult for Lincoln to remove him from his post. Cameron was required to submit a year-end report to Congress on December 1, 1861. In this report he recommended the creation of a slave army, which was opposed by Lincoln at the time. Cameron had a strong hatred of slavery and believed that the creation of such an army would help end the war. Without consulting Lincoln, he not only sent the report to Congress, but also a copy to the New York Tribune.

Lincoln was furious and had the recommendation stricken from the report and the original copies recalled in an effort to limit political damage. Cameron’s attempt to secure support from Congress failed and he knew the Commander-in-Chief had lost faith in him. He submitted his resignation in early January 1862, and it was accepted by Lincoln on January 11. Lincoln sent two responses; one which Cameron perceived to be short and cold, and a second that was more warm and complimentary. But the message was the same; Lincoln accepted his resignation and offered to nominate him for Minister to Russia. Lincoln also asked for Cameron’s recommendation on who was best to fill his cabinet position, to which Cameron replied “Edwin Stanton”, who was also a Pennsylvanian. Cameron was officially replaced on January 24, 1862 by Stanton, and he was approved as Minister to Russia. He had no interest in experiencing a Moscow winter, so he didn’t leave for Russia until May 1862.


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