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'Stanton' brings Lincoln's secretary of war out of the historical shadows

Stanton served in two key cabinets posts for two of America's worst presidents (James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson), as well as for Abraham Lincoln, whom he helped to win the Civil War.

Stanton: Lincoln's War Secretary by Walter Stahr Simon & Schuster 768 pp.
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  • David Holahan

A biography of a no-nonsense lawyer/bureaucrat has inherent challenges. But Edwin Stanton was no ordinary paper-pusher – he was a force to be reckoned with. Capable of being rude, duplicitous, and mercurial, he most often was able, patriotic, and obsessively hard-working.

Stanton served in two key cabinets posts for three presidents: among America’s worst in James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, as well as for Abraham Lincoln, whom he helped to win the Civil War. His nine years of service to his country almost certainly hastened his death. 

Stanton’s name is not well known today despite a handful of previous biographies, but as Lincoln’s secretary of war, he was instrumental to the outcome of the Civil War. He grasped immediately the importance of railroads, which he insisted on nationalizing, and the telegraph, to modern warfare. Never one to stay within bureaucratic boundaries, he appropriated the task of being war publicist, disseminating battle reports to the nation’s newspapers – information he edited to put the best face on things. Union casualty estimates might be omitted, for example. 

In Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary, Walter Stahr, who wrote a biography of Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, brings Edwin Stanton out of the historical shadows and presents him as arguably the third-most-important figure in the outcome of the Civil War, after General Ulysses S. Grant and Lincoln.

In doing so, Stahr does not stint on the details: For example, an account of Stanton’s brief vacation on Nantucket after the war is included as well as his feuds, consequential and otherwise, with various rivals and critics. This is a weighty book, both figuratively and literally, and Civil War buffs will gobble it up like a multi-course gourmet meal. Others may experience, in spots, mild TMI indigestion. 

But make no mistake, this is an important book about perhaps the most consequential decade in American history. The elections of 1860, 1864, and 1868 could easily have gone the other way (fewer than 2 in 5 Americans voted for Lincoln in 1860), and as late as July 1864, rebel troops were prowling the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Stanton played a critical role in Lincoln’s reelection by granting leave to soldiers from key states to go home and vote (the men in blue overwhelmingly supported the incumbent and absentee voting was not permitted in some states). 

In addition to getting soldiers to the polls and ably supplying General Ulysses Grant et al, Stanton weighed in on larger policy issues as well. A lifelong Democrat who opposed Lincoln initially, he became the most radical Republican in the war cabinet, advocating for the Emancipation Proclamation and the Freedmen’s Bureau as well as arming former slaves and paying them the same as white solders. Some 179,00 African-Americans, one tenth of the Union army, battled the Confederacy, and nearly 40,000 died in the struggle. 

When Confederate president Jefferson Davis announced in 1863 that captured black soldiers and their white officers would be tried under the laws of southern states for, of all things, "insurrection" – a likely death sentence – Stanton urged a tit-for-tat policy toward rebel captives. In reality, surrendering or captured black soldiers often were executed on the spot. Nonetheless, Stanton did not win this argument. 

And when many questioned whether African-Americans could make capable combatants and should be recruited to fight for their country, Stanton pointed to the battles of Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend: “[T]hey have proved themselves among the bravest of the brave in fighting for the Union, performing deeds of daring and shedding their blood with a heroism unsurpassed by soldiers of any other race.”  

The author presents his subject in his all his many-splendored complexity – flaws and all, of which he had many. After largely agreeing with a contemporary of Stanton’s who termed him “arbitrary, capricious, tyrannical, vindictive, hateful, and cruel,” Stahr weighs in with his own conclusion: “Yet Stanton was a great man and a great secretary of war.” 

One wishes Stahr had waxed more analytical throughout. He is better at the “what, where and when” of history than the “why,” and there are places where a bit more context would be welcome.

For example, when Lincoln is assassinated, the frenetic Stanton immediately fills the power vacuum, making himself, in effect, the acting president. He questioned witnesses to the shooting, oversaw the investigation, and sent directives to government departments. The unaddressed question here is where was vice-president Andrew Johnson and what did he make of his irrelevance.

This is no small omission since Stanton served in Johnson’s cabinet and the two were often at loggerheads – indeed, the issue of whether Stanton should stay or go led to Johnson’s impeachment. 

Johnson, of course, had been blithering drunk a month earlier at his own swearing-in, and as president he would declare the leaders of Congress from northern states who opposed his policies (and who would eventually impeach him) equivalent to the treasonous leaders of the Confederacy. Extreme presidential rhetoric, however unwise, is nothing new.

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