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History's Tribunal

By: Claude R. Marx
August 30, 2017

incoln’s presidency and Cabinet have been well covered by historians, political philosophers, novelists, and biographers, but in Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary, Walter Stahr offers a thorough, engaging biography of Edwin Stanton that still manages to deliver something new. Stanton, Lincoln’s second and most important war secretary, emerges as a smart, strategic, dour, manipulative, yet effective Civil War civilian leader—the right man for the times.

According to Stahr, an attorney who has become a biographer (previous subjects include John Jay and William Seward), Stanton didn’t care much about others’ feelings or basic constitutional protections. Rather, his genius was in his bureaucratic management skills, his effectiveness at lobbying Congress for war funds, and his skill at managing the ego-driven generals who constantly second-guessed his strategy and tactics. “The energy and diligence that enabled him to work so long and hard were matched by the haste and impatience that led him to commit errors,’’ Stahr argues. And he concludes that Stanton was “not a good man, but a great man.”

A prominent lawyer in his home states of Ohio and Pennsylvania before entering public service, Stanton was an odd choice for Lincoln’s Cabinet. He was a life-long Democrat who had been James Buchanan’s attorney general. The ineffective Buchanan’s mishandling of the slavery question was a significant factor that led to the Civil War. Stanton, an expert self-promoter, claimed that his influence had stiffened Buchanan’s spine, making him better than he would have been.

Stahr concludes that Stanton’s influence on Buchanan was mixed, though he did persuade the 15th president to send troops to South Carolina to defend it from attacks in early 1861, a few months prior to Lincoln’s inauguration. But he quotes Buchanan as saying that Stanton “never took much part in cabinet councils” but “was always at my side, and flattered me ad nauseum.’’

Stanton often called for the abolition of slavery in private but took a more cautious view in public. Stahr concludes that contrary to some opponents’ claims, Stanton never sympathized with the secessionists.

A great storyteller, Stahr deftly chronicles these events. His exhaustive research makes this an appealing book both to experts and general readers, whose appetites for anything involving Lincoln and his Cabinet were whetted by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2005).

Stanton and Lincoln’s relationship, from start to finish, was complicated. They first met when both were country lawyers, working on a patent case in Cincinnati. The trial’s records note that Stanton wondered aloud to fellow lawyers why Lincoln, that “long-armed ape” who didn’t know enough to contribute anything of value to the proceedings, was included on the team. While Stahr discredits those accounts, given their decades-later addition to the record, he concludes that it “does seem likely that Stanton was rude to Lincoln in Cincinnati, for Stanton was often rude.” Stahr attributes the ape quote to an 1887 letter from Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon, and contends that it “sounds suspiciously like George McClellan’s memoir,’’ in which the general claimed that Stanton called Lincoln a “gorilla.”

Despite their early tension, Lincoln turned to Stanton in late 1861, after his first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, proved politically maladroit. Lincoln and Stanton’s relationship was fruitful and trusting, even though they never socialized or discussed subjects apart from governance. Part of the cause was that the austere, intense Stanton lacked the humor and geniality that could put others at ease.

Fortunately, Stanton offset his deficits in warmth and charm with tireless work and the ability to see the big picture. He continued as war secretary throughout most of Andrew Johnson’s presidency, though his clash with Johnson over Reconstruction factored into Congress’s attempt to impeach Johnson.

While in office, Stanton did not prove to be a great visionary, but was effective at key personnel decisions and at making things run smoothly. Stahr concludes:

Perhaps his greatest contribution was his ability to create and operate systems: a central systematic telegraph office, a single national railroad system using both private and public tracks and engineers, a code of military law and a military justice system that were far better than anything that preceded them.

Against some of his generals’ opposition, he fought to allow blacks to enlist in the military, and favored a conciliatory approach to reintegrating the Confederate states into the union.

But Stanton’s mistakes were not small. He never felt limited by the writ of habeas corpus, often actively working to suspend it. Shortly after becoming war secretary, he ordered Gen. Charles Stone’s arrest based on hearsay reports of collaboration with southern military leaders. Stone spent six months in prison without charges ever being filed. After he was released, Stanton refused to let him resume his military career.

Stanton also regularly ordered the jailing of reporters and editors whose coverage, in his view, gave too little support to the North’s war efforts. In August 1862 Stanton ignored the First Amendment by issuing an order saying that anyone “engaged, by act, speech, or writing, in discouraging volunteer enlistments, or in any way giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or in any other disloyal practice against the United States” was subject to arrest and trial “before a military commission.”

Stanton’s use of military tribunals was frequent and unhesitant. He intended, for example, to try John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators via a secret military tribunal, before heavy public criticism forced him to open the proceedings to the press. Though Stahr is willing to overlook Stanton’s constitutionally dubious actions, given the Civil War’s chaos, Stanton was nonetheless the agent for the Lincoln administration’s worst excesses.

His actions in the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination were better received; Stahr’s discussion of that period is one of the book’s best. Stanton was present when Lincoln died, set up some of the initial investigations, informed the country of the president’s death, and played a major role in arranging the funeral.

Stahr quotes Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana’s recollection that it “seemed as if Mr. Stanton thought of everything, and there was a great deal to be thought of that night.” Dana added that the “coolness and clear headedness of Mr. Stanton under these circumstances were most remarkable.”

Even in the midst of the post-assassination chaos, Stanton’s critics interpreted his leadership as a power-hungry, spotlight-stealing ploy to upstage Johnson. Revisionist historians have even accused him of conspiring with Booth to kill Lincoln—a belief held, Stahr notes, by “no serious scholar.”

This will no doubt be the definitive biography of Stanton for at least a generation, although that would also have been the case if Stahr had made the book a bit shorter, especially in his coverage of Stanton’s early life.

Despite that flaw, in Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary, Stahr shows that great storytelling need not come at the expense of first-rate scholarship.