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John J. Cisco (1806-1884)

John J. Cisco
As the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in New York, John J. Cisco had won the confidence of New York bankers while working under two Democratic presidents. He continued to serve, according to presidential aides John Hay and John G. Nicolay “with remarkable ability and efficiency” under Republican President Lincoln.1 “Honest and capable, Cisco had been a boon to the Treasury in appeasing New York financiers when the Philadelphian Jay Cooke stole into the financial world,” wrote Thomas Graham Belden and Marva Robins Belden who chronicled the family of Salmon P. Chase.2
“As soon as the new Administration was organized, Mr. Cisco sent to Mr. Chase his resignation as Fiscal Agent of the Government in New York, with the request that he would immediately present it to the President, and secure the appointment of his successor at an early day,” wrote Maunsell B. Field, who served as a Treasury Department official in the Lincoln Administration. “Some time passed and he heard nothing in reply. Having opposed Mr. Lincoln’s election, he was surprised at this delay. Besides the condition of his health was such that he was anxious to be promptly relieved from the responsibilities of his office, which had great in the past, and promised to become overwhelming in the future”3
“The assistant treasurer of New York was the connecting link between the moneyed interests of the nation and the Treasury Department, a function that demanded personal tact, financial knowledge and skill, and unselfish devotion to the cause,” wrote historian Burton J. Hendrick. ” Mr. Cisco had possessed these qualities in high degree. In an era of extreme office-jobbing, his experience stood out as a shining exception. Appointed by Franklin Pierce in 1853, Mr. Cisco had made himself so indispensable to the Treasury that, though a Democrat, a supporter of [James] Buchanan in 1856 and of [Stephen A.] Douglas in 1860, he escaped the general proscription of 1861, and was kept in office. His record justified this clemency.”4
Maunsell Field wrote that “no less than three gentlemen, eminent in the Republican party, and friends of Mr. Chase called upon Mr. Cisco at different times, for the purpose of obtaining detailed information upon the subject of the finances. They all admitted that they came in behalf of the Secretary. Mr. Cisco resented this action as a slight to himself, and informed them that, if the Secretary desired the information in question, the proper course would be for him to ask it directly from his own Fiscal Agent.” Chase then apologized and assured Cisco “that he had satisfied himself as to his thorough loyalty, his fidelity, and his eminent ability.”5
Chase wasn’t alone in trying to meddle with Cisco. Secretary of State William H. Seward sought to dictate a replacement, leading Chase to complain to President Lincoln: “Mr. Seward ought not to ask you to overrule my deliberative judgment as to what is best for the department and your administration.”6
Historian Hendrick wrote: “Mr. Cisco served the Lincoln administration with the utmost loyalty, and was undoubtedly the largest single contributor to the success its financial measures achieved. When Secretary Chase visited New York, Mr. Cisco brought him into personal relations with the city’s great men of money; his magnetic influence smoothed their differences, brought them together on essential questions, and really made the banking resources of the nation’s financial capital available for the purposes of war. Obviously, good sense and good politics demanded a man of the same type as his successor. It seemed difficult to find one.”7
Cisco served capably if rather uneventfully for the next three years until he decided in the spring of 1864 — in the middle of the renomination of President Lincoln and in the middle of a patronage tug of war in New York — to abandon his post for reasons of health. He informed Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase of his decision to resign in May 1864. Historian David Donald wrote: “At this harried moment, Chase heard of the resignation of John J. Cisco, Assistant Treasurer of the United States at New York. Cisco’s position was one of the richest patronage plums in the Federal government, and Chase did not intend to have it fall to his party opponents.”8 His resignation set in motion a tug of war between Chase and his New York enemies. As John Hay and John G. Nicolay noted: “It was a post of great importance in a financial point of view, and not insignificant in the way of political influence. Up to this time Mr. Chase had made all the important appointments in New York from his own wing of the supporters of the Union — the men who had formerly been connected with the Democratic party, and who now belonged to what was called the radical wing of the Republican” Party.9
“In naming Cisco’s successor, Lincoln desired someone unobjectionable to the pro-Weed faction and therefore consulted United States Senator Edwin D. Morgan, who for eight years had served as chairman of the Republican National Committee. This was also in keeping with Lincoln’s policy of consulting with Republican members of the United States Senate on major appointments for their respective states,” wrote historians Harry J. Carman and Reinhard H. Luthin. “As soon as Cisco’s resignation was known there was a scramble of potential aspirants. Weed of course, began pushing hard and enlisted former governor, now Senator E. D. Morgan, to challenge any appointment Chase and the radicals might make,” wrote Chase biographer John Niven.10
Historian John Niven observed: “At first it seemed that all would be well. Morgan, stout, self-assured, rich in personal wealth and political experience, was ushered into Chase’s office at the Treasury Department. After some initial sparring both men agreed to offer the appointment to Denning Duer, a New York banker who was acceptable to the commercial and banking fraternity and who was not directly connected with Weed. Should Duer decline, Chase was to offer the post to another banker, John A. Stewart of the U.S. Trust Company, whom he deemed capable and neutral regarding the two leading Union factions in the city. Duer declined and so did Stewart.”11
Historian Philip S. Paludan noted: “Chase threw this gauntlet down at the wrong time. Lincoln was an incumbent president just renominated by his party and facing a difficult election. Chase’s gambit to get the nomination had floundered; it was no time to challenge his party’s leader.”12 On June 28, Chase wrote in his diary: “At the Department received a note from the President, saying that Senator Morgan strongly opposed the nomination of Mr. Field in place of Mr. Cisco — replied asking an interview, but received no answer. He may not wish one or what is more probably allows himself to forget the request. He asks the nomination of R.S. Blatchford or Dudley S. Gregory, neither of whom, I fear, is the proper man to take charge of the office at this critical juncture; though either would be entirely acceptable to me personally. I fear Senator Morgan desires to make a political engine of the office, and loses sight in this desire of the necessities of the service.” He added: “Telegraphed Mr. Cisco urging him to withdraw resignation and serve at least another quarter; and wrote to President what I had done and why I could not honestly in duty to him or the country, recommend at this time either of the names he had suggested.”13
In addition to picking the wrong fight, Chase picked the wrong man to fight over. Chase chroniclers Thomas Graham Belden and Marva Robins Belden wrote: “Mr. [Maunsell] Field was a man whose ignorance of finance was so smooth and well mannered that he had charmed Chase into thinking him indispensable to the Treasury.”14 According to historian Burton J. Hendrick, “Field had become a kind of social mentor to Chase on his visits to New York, and had charmed that susceptible official so completely that he was finally taken to Washington and installed in the Treasury Department. His associates there, perhaps from envy, spoke and wrote of him in disrespectful terms. According to Lucius E. Chittenden, register of the Department, Field had wormed himself into Chase’s admiration by gross adulation. ‘Secretary Chase,’ wrote Chittenden, ‘was fond of those who recognized his eminence and were ready to serve him as their acknowledged superior.'”15 Hendrick wrote that “Field’s attractions were flamboyantly social; he was endowed with the kind of talents that made him a favorite master of ceremonies and head of reception committees.”16 Among his deficiencies, according to Lucius Chittenden, were frequent unexplained absences from the Department.17
The conflict over Cisco’s replacement had widened to include a conflict over Cisco’s subordinates, noted historian Hendrick: “Most of these employees, on the advent of the Lincoln administration, were Democrats — something hardly surprising in that day, since most of them had been selected under Democratic Presidents Pierce and Buchanan, Mr. Cisco retained these men on the same enlightened principle of fitness and necessity that had led the Lincoln administration to retain himself. Such partiality naturally did not please the several factions then engaging in a cutthroat struggle for power in the Republican stronghold. The demand now arose that the assistant treasurer’s office be ‘reformed.’ The reformation in question contemplated the immolation of all Democrats and their supercession by gentlemen who professed the true faith. One day at the height of the Cisco crisis, Senator Edwin D. Morgan of New York appeared in Chase’s office with a formidable paper in his hand. This turned out to be a censored list of all the employees in the treasurer’s New York office, and against most of the names had been inscribed the incriminating letter ‘D.’ This graphic exhibit, Mr. Morgan informed Chase, displayed the extent to which the hated Democratic enemy had obtained control of valuable patronage, and the need of a successor to Mr. Cisco, who would administer the appropriate remedy. Mr. Morgan, himself a successful financier and businessman, several times a millionaire, and ex-governor of the state, was speaking not only for himself, but for the Seward-Weed faction of New York Republicanism to which he belonged.” 18
Chase overstepped himself when he presented the nomination of Maunsell Field despite the opposition of key New York Republicans. Although Senator Ira Harris was to be consulted, clearly the decision man was Senator Edwin D. Morgan, a wealthy and influential businessman as well as a former governor. Morgan complained: “It is in my judgment discreet to appoint a Republican at this time.”19 The President wrote Chase: “I can not without much embarrassment make this appointment, principally because of Senator Morgan’s very firm opposition to it….Governor Morgan tells me he has mentioned the three names to you, to wit: R. M. Blatchford, Dudley S. Gregory, and Thomas Hillhouse. It will really oblige me if you will make choice among these three, or any other man that Senators Morgan and Harris will be satisfied with, and send me a nomination for him.”20 Hay and Nicolay observed: “There have been few ministers who would have refused so reasonable and considerate a request as this, but it did not for a moment shake Mr. Chase’s determination to have his own way in the matter.”21
The next day, Chase wrote: “Last evening I received Mr. Cisco’s reply to my telegram consenting to withdraw his resignation. This morning I received the Presidents reply to my note. He says he did not accede to personal interview because useless — complaints of the difficulties occasioned by his retention of Mr. Barney and the appointment of Judge [John T.] Hogeboom, both considered as of the radical side and says he cannot go further in that direction by the appointment of Mr. Field[;] desires appt. made acceptable to Gov Morgan and those who think as he does. Will await Mr. Cisco’s action. I replied that I made no general distinction in appointments except friends and opponents of his administration and among the former none except degrees of fitness—that Mr. Cisco’s reply relieved the present difficulty; but as I could not help feeling that my position here was not agreeable to him and there was nothing in my office making me wish to retain it. I enclosed my resignation and should feel really relieved by its acceptance. I added that I would give my successor all the aid I could for his entrance upon the duties of the office. With this note I enclosed my resignation.” 22
Presidential Aide John Hay got President Lincoln’s version of events on June 30, 1864 and recorded them in his diary: “In the afternoon I talked over the matter with the President. He said Chase was perfectly unyielding in this whole matter of Field’s appointment: that Morgan objected so earnestly to Field that he could not appoint him without embarrassment & so told the secretary, requesting him to agree to the appointment of Gregory[,] Blatchford or Hillhouse or some other good man that would not be obnoxious to the Senators: the Secretary still insisted, but added that possibly Mr Cisco would withdraw his resignation: the President answered that he could not appoint Mr Field but wd wait Mr Cisco’s action. Yesterday evening a letter came from the Secretary announcing first the intelligence that Mr. Cisco had withdrawn his resignation. This was most welcome news to the President. He thought the whole matter was happily disposed of. Without waiting to read further he put the letters in his pocket & went at his other work. Several hours later, wishing to write a congratulatory word to the Secretary, he took the papers from his pocket, and found to his bitter disappointment the resignation of the Secretary. He made up his mind to accept it. It meant, ‘You have been acting very badly. Unless you say you are sorry, & ask me to stay & agree that I shall be absolute and that you shall have nothing, no matter how you beg for it, I will go.'” The President thought one or the other must resign. Mr Chase elected to do so.”23 The deteriorating relationship was reflected by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles in his diary on June 25:
“I am daily more dissatisfied with the Treasury management. Everything is growing worse. Chase, though a man of mark, has not the sagacity, knowledge, taste, or ability of a financier. Has expedients, and will break down the government. There is no one to check him. The President has surrendered the finances to his management entirely. Other members of the Cabinet are not consulted. Any dissent from, or doubts even, of his measures is considered as a declaration of hostility and an embarrassment of his administration. I believe I am the only one who has expressed opinions that questioned his policy, and that expression was mild and kindly uttered. [Montgomery] Blair said about as much and both [he and I] were lectured by Chase. But he knew not then, nor does he know now, the elementary principles of finance and currency. Congress surrenders to his capricious and superficial qualities as pliantly as the President and the Cabinet. If they do not legalize his projects, the Treasury is to be closed, and under a threat, or something approaching a threat, his schemes are sanctioned, and laws are made to carry them into effect; but woe awaits the country in consequence.”24
Four days later, Gideon Welles wrote in his diary: “Congress is getting restive and discontented with the financial management. The papers speak of the appointment of Field, Assistant Secretary, to be Assistant Treasurer at New York, in the place of Cisco. I doubt if any one but Chase would think of him for the place, and Chase, as usual, does not know the reason. But Field has talents and Chase takes him from association. Morgan prefers Hillhouse, and Seward wants Blatchford.”25 .
California journalist Noah Brooks, a close friend of President Lincoln, reported on July 7, 1864: “The faults of Chase above mentioned are minor in character, and the overweening weakness in his character was that desire to control everything which finally brought on his retirement from the Cabinet. The only issue of any moment between Chase and the President was whether the President or the Secretary should appoint the successor of Assistant Treasurer Cisco; the former preferred Hillhouse, a man of unblemished integrity and great financial ability, urged for the place by Senator Morgan of New York. Chase, who has heretofore controlled every appointment, from that of the humblest tide-waiter to a New York Collector, made a sine qua non of his staying in the Cabinet of the appointment of M.B. Field, a gentleman of ability, perhaps, but against whom some popular prejudices have become fixed for the reason that he parts his hair in the middle, wears a white neck-tie and lemon-colored kids, and has not specially distinguished himself in the Treasury Department as yet further than to superintend the fitting up of Chase’s private offices with Axminster carpets, gilded ceilings, velvet furniture, and other luxurious surroundings which go to hedge about a Cabinet Minister with a dignity quite appalling to the unaccustomed outsider. If Chase had been less strong in his pride of self-opinion he would have been more practicable as a Cabinet Minister and would always have harmonized with the President…”26
Cisco stayed on until later in the Lincoln Administration when he was replaced by John A. Stewart. Cisco remained loyal to Chase and served on the committee that tried to help get him the 1868 Democratic presidential nomination. Cisco apparently, however, was not loyal to President Lincoln and supported Democrat George B. McClellan’s presidential campaign in 1864. Cisco continued to work in banking and helped finance a spur of the Texas Central railroad to a town that was appropriately named “Cisco.”


  1. John Hay and John G. Nicolay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume IX, p. 91.
  2. Thomas Graham Belden and Marva Robins Belden, So Fell the Angels, p. 123.
  3. Maunsell B. Field, Memories of Many Men and Some Women, p. 253.
  4. Burton J. Hendrick, Lincoln’s War Cabinet, p. 442.
  5. Maunsell B. Field, Memories of Many Men and Some Women, p. 253.
  6. John Niven, Salmon P. Chase: A Biography, p. 241 (Letter from Salmon P. Chase to Abraham Lincoln, April 18, 1861).
  7. Burton J. Hendrick, Lincoln’s War Cabinet, p. 442-443.
  8. David Donald, editor, Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase, p. 212.
  9. John Hay and John G. Nicolay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume IX, p. 91.
  10. John Niven, Salmon P. Chase: A Biography, p. 364-365.
  11. John Niven, Salmon P. Chase: A Biography, p. 364-365.
  12. Philip S. Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, p. 289.
  13. David Donald, editor, Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase, p. 217-218 (June 28, 1864).
  14. Thomas Graham Belden and Marva Robins Belden, So Fell the Angels, p. 123-124.
  15. Burton J. Hendrick, Lincoln’s War Cabinet, p. 445.
  16. Burton J. Hendrick, Lincoln’s War Cabinet, p. 445.
  17. Lucius E. Chittenden, Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration, .
  18. Burton J. Hendrick, Lincoln’s War Cabinet, p. 443.
  19. Philip S. Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, p. 286.
  20. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 414 (Letter to Salmon P. Chase, June 28, 1864).
  21. John Hay and John G. Nicolay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume IX, p. 93.
  22. David Donald, editor, Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase, p. 220-221 (June 29, 1864).
  23. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 213.
  24. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume II, p. 59 (June 25, 1864).
  25. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume II, p. 62 (June 29, 1864).
  26. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 125-126.