by Al Benson Jr.
The War of Northern Aggression and the transformation of the United States from a confederation of sovereign states into a socialist democracy brought to the fore many "interesting" characters.
One of the most "interesting" specimens ever to slither out from under the collectivist Yankee rock was Lafayette C. Baker. Steward Sifakis in "Who Was Who in the Civil War" described Baker as "A thoroughly unsavory character..." And Sifakis continued in that vein, noting, of Baker that he "remained that way for the duration and after." Not exactly a glowing tribute to Mr. Baker's integrity! But, then, Baker seems to have been another of those typical Yankees for whom anything goes if it gets him what he wants. For Baker, mental Marxist that he was, the end truly justified the means. He seems to have had some connections with both Secretary of War Seward and Secretary of War Stanton, which might just lead one to wonder about their integrity also. Baker ended up becoming a special agent of the Provost's branch of the War Department, charged with rooting out corruption anywhere he found it in the Union war effort. Sifakis noted that, of the corruption he was charged with rooting out "he was not of strong enough character to refrain from engaging in it himself."
In order for him to have enough authority to root out all that corruption (while engaging in it himself) he was given a military rank, first as a colonel, and later as a brigadier general, though he rarely commanded any troops. During the war years he was chief of the military Secret Service.
Nathaniel Weyl in "The Battle Against Disloyalty" had described the U. S. War Department thusly: "In the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, the United States War Department bore some traces of resemblance to the Soviet Secret Police. Its leaders were zealots who believed that if the ends didn't justify the means, nothing else could. Wherever possible, the operated in secrecy, through military rather than civilian courts. Guilt by association became a fundamental axiom; perjury was richly rewarded;..." Thus was the situation under the command of Edwin McMasters Stanton, who many have believed over the years, had a hand in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Baker had a rather checkered past. As head of the military Secret Service, he had, in the past, been a vigilante in California in the 1850s. Weyl has noted that in early days he was an itinerent mechanic. Sifakis has added to that: " Born in New York, he appears to have lived in Michigan, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco during his prewar years. Some of his occupations included claim jumping and vigilantism." Interesting that, as a vigilante, he would have gone after some of the people that made their living as he had made his, claim jumping. But then that may be a pretty good way to get rid of the competition.
During his tenure in Washington during and after the war, he used the same methods he had used successfully in California. Weyl noted of him that: "In Washingon he used the same methods that had proved so successful in his vigilante days, disregarding due process of law, habeas corpus, or any of the other constitutional frills that normally prevent the imprisonment of Americans at the whim of the military. For the next three years, Baker led a life of frenzied activity, pouncing on spies, bounty jumpers, conspirators, counterfeiters, and speculators, making arrests personally where possible and in the process accumulating a small fortune." Weyl's comments support those of Sifakis, who noted that Mr. Baker just couldn't seem to keep his hands out of the cookie jar while he sliced off the hands of others doing the same thing. Weyl has described him, again, agreeing with Sifakis, as: "An enormously vain and unscrupulous person, Baker was also a congenital liar, intriguer, and twister." Just the right sort of person for Mr. Stanton's War Department, as Stanton, himself, had somewhat of a reputation along those lines.
Weyl also noted that: "Baker was part of the powerful personal machine that War Secretary Edwin M. Stanton had created. As soon as Booth's bullet struck down Lincoln, Stanton became the controlling power of government." And that's what the assassination was really all about--who was to wield the power in Washington--Lincoln, the king of political patronage, or Stanton and the radical abolitionist Republicans. Baker was the perfect foil for Stanton--and if both Baker and Stanton were not openly Marxists, then they were philosophical "kissin' cousins."
In his penchant for self-promotion, Baker, at one point, wrote a book "History of the United States Secret Service." Sifakis has noted that the work is interesting for the portrait it paints of Baker's personality, but otherwise, is just isn't all that reliable. Baker passed from this life in 1868. There are those that say he was murdered to keep him quiet.
There are also those that say that Baker's men did not kill the real John Wilkes Booth after Lincoln's assassination, but that the man they really killed was a Booth look-alike, Captain James William Boyd, a former Confederate agent who worked for the War Department and, although he was older, bore quite a resemblance to Booth. But, then, I guess that is another story.