Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary
by Walter Stahr.
Simon & Schuster, 2017.
Hardcover, 768 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Kyle Sammin

The Civil War is often remembered from the point of view of the soldiers. Their stories of strategic genius and individual heroism on both sides are debated to this day and form the core of the nation’s collective memory of those turbulent years. But behind that tale is another, less-often recounted story of the men who organized the war effort and made available the funds and tools for Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and others to defeat the rebel armies.

Foremost among the men behind the generals was Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War. Serving for almost the entire war, Stanton worked tirelessly to fund and equip the federal armies. After the war, he stayed on to ensure the triumph of the Union was not frittered away when Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, reverted to his Democratic roots and turned against Congressional Republicans’ vision of Reconstruction. In Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary, Walter Stahr tells the story of one of the indispensable men of the Civil War in an engaging and well-researched biography.

Stanton’s story begins, like Grant’s and Sherman’s, in Ohio. His father, a small-town doctor, died when Stanton was thirteen, but left enough of an estate to allow his son to attend Kenyon College for a few years before leaving school to study law at a lawyer’s office in Columbus. He soon married and started a family, as well as a law practice in Cadiz, Ohio.

The young attorney distinguished himself as a hard worker with a quick mind. Pursuit of bigger cases and richer clients took him to Pittsburgh by 1847, where he succeeded in that rising city of the industrial revolution. Stahr’s own background as an attorney is useful here as he fluidly explains the commercial litigation that drove the rise of Stanton’s fortune and reputation in the 1850s.

His success also drew the attention of Democratic Party leaders in Pennsylvania. When one of them, James Buchanan, was elected President in 1856, some of the federal government’s legal work flowed to Stanton. He spent nearly a year in California sorting out fraudulent Mexican land grants, then returned home to a busy practice that included arguments before the Supreme Court. As Southern cabinet members departed in 1860 to join their seceding states, Buchanan appointed Stanton as Attorney General for the last three months of his administration.

Stanton’s exact views on the slavery question during this time are difficult to ascertain for a reason as common to politicos then as now: he told people what they wanted to hear. Although he was probably himself opposed to slavery from an early age, Stanton rarely made such views public. Associates such as Salmon Chase, an early abolitionist who would serve as Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary, thought Stanton to be his ally; Buchanan, on the other hand, believed him to be as moderate on the question as he was. Stahr attempts to sort out the truth of Stanton’s views, but it is likely an answer he took to his grave.

Whatever the case, Stanton was consistently identified with the pro-Union element and found himself drifting toward the incoming Lincoln administration. When Lincoln’s first War Secretary, Simon Cameron, was found lacking in the skills to meet the emergency (and widely suspected of corruption,) the President appointed Stanton to replace him. Despite his association with the previous administration, the Republican Senate confirmed him two days later.

The department was in desperate need of him. Facing a never-before-seen challenge and an army swollen to levels far beyond anything the nation had even contemplated, Cameron’s department was flying by the seat of its pants, imposing ad hoc procedures to cover gaps in the bureaucracy. Added to that was the feeling of panic after the initial military reverses of 1861 and the lack of movement by general-in-chief George McClellan. Stanton created systems and reimposed order on the chain of command. Although he came to loathe the term “organizing victory,” which McClellan used to describe his endless preparations for battle, the phrase neatly encapsulates Stanton’s influence on the once-unwieldy War Department.

In bringing order out of chaos, he gave the generals the men and materiel they needed to win. That led to frustration between him and those generals—McClellan foremost among them—who nevertheless refused to advance against the enemy. Stanton served as Lincoln’s right hand in the years-long search for a general who could finally deliver victory. When they finally settled on Grant, Stanton went west to meet him and take his measure before Lincoln accepted that this was the man who would defeat Robert E. Lee.

Stanton’s actions as Secretary of War were not without controversy. As federal war powers expanded in the unprecedented situation Stanton, even more than Lincoln, was the face behind the acts. Repeal of habeas corpus, censorship of newspapers, and the military draft all provoked outrage from a sizable segment of Northern population and earned Stanton many enemies as a result. This led to many scurrilous and bizarre rumors about him that came to be repeated after his death, even by respectable historians.

Stahr spends much of this work separating fact from fiction; for example, he points out that there is no evidence whatsoever that Stanton encouraged secession while in Buchanan’s cabinet, though many ofhis enemies repeated this tale after his death. Stahr also casts doubt on a more positive story about Stanton: that as Lincoln breathed his last after being shot at Ford’s Theater, Stanton was the first to speak, saying “He now belongs to the ages.” According to Stahr’s research, no one mentioned anything about Stanton saying those words until 1890.

Stanton did take charge of the investigation into Lincoln’s murder and remained in the cabinet after the succession of Vice President Andrew Johnson. At first, Stanton hoped to assist the new President. It soon became clear that his real role would be opposition from within. By now a Radical Republican, Stanton became Congress’s watchdog over a Reconstruction process that Johnson hoped to cut short.

Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act to prevent Johnson from firing any official who—like Stanton—had been confirmed by the Senate. Johnson believed the law unconstitutional and fired Stanton anyway, leading to his impeachment. Although he escaped conviction by a single vote, Congress dominated Johnson’s remaining time in office. When Johnson was replaced in 1869 by the more reliably Republican Grant, Stanton at last retired.

Stanton hoped to return to a private law practice that had once been lucrative for him, but increasing heart troubles limited his work. Grant appointed his former superior to the Supreme Court in 1869 and the Senate confirmed him, but Stanton died three days later, never having taken his seat. His early death harmed his reputation, as he was not around to refute the rumors and lies that his wartime enemies now touted as fact. Stahr’s informative biography does much to restore Stanton’s honor and holds him out as the incorruptible, efficient, and irreplaceable cabinet member who helped win the Civil War.  

Kyle Sammin is a lawyer and writer from Pennsylvania.