Lincoln’s War Secretary
Simon & Schuster
743 pages; $35
During his second tour of America, in 1867, Charles Dickens dined in Washington with the secretary of war, Edwin McMasters Stanton.
The evening was something of a dream come true for Stanton: Dickens was his favourite author, a writer he read nearly every night. For the novelist, a maestro of deathbeds, it was a chance to learn of Lincoln’s final hours from the man who had supervised them two years earlier. With his champion whiskers and voluble temper, Stanton
could resemble Spottletoe in Martin Chuzzlewit
, but in many ways he more closely resembled Dickens himself: a difficult, self-made, emotional workaholic of prodigious achievement.
Over most of the last century the sine curve of Stanton
biography has exhibited the same mood swings as the man himself: Otto Eisenschiml’s Why Was Lincoln Murdered?
(1937) did the war secretary preposterous and lasting damage by putting forth the notion that he was complicit in Lincoln’s assassination; decades later Benjamin Thomas and Harold M Hyman, as well as Doris Kearns Goodwin, treated Stanton
with regard and understanding; then, two years ago, William Marvel offered a severe cutting down to size. In this latest effort, Walter Stahr, a biographer of John Jay and William Seward, presents a judiciously sympathetic treatment that tries to calm a still-uncalmable subject.
Death suffused Stanton’s life: He lost his first wife, an infant daughter, a brother (to suicide), a young son. His grief, while often histrionic, was always real. It also fell to him to prosecute a war that would claim the lives of more than 600,000 Americans. Work was his master and his mental salvation, from his Ohio boyhood on. He could afford little more than a year at Kenyon College, and studied law with an attorney in his native Steubenville. An interest in politics (Ohio was a swing state even then) had him aligning with the Democratic heirs to Andrew Jackson, opposing Henry Clay, the political idol of another young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln.
During the “secession winter” of 1861, he rejected South Carolina’s bid for sovereignty, opposed the plan to abandon Charleston harbour and prevented the shipment of armaments manufactured in Pittsburgh to states in the process of leaving the Union. He may even, to his face, have compared President Buchanan to Benedict Arnold. The case for his zeal in all of this rests partly on what Stahr admits are “somewhat suspect” latter-day accounts composed by the subject himself.
Because of Stanton’s administrative skills and widely known probity, Lincoln installed the Democrat as a successor to his corrupt secretary of war, Simon Cameron, in 1862. For the next three years the two men, unlikely partners, made the bloody, fitful slog to Appomattox. The president exasperated Stanton, whom he called “Mars,” with his humourous parables and digressions, but aides in the War Department’s telegraph office would remember a camaraderie between the men, and Lincoln’s young secretary John Hay assured Stanton, after the president’s death, that their boss had “loved . . . and trusted” him.
helped to raise and deploy an astonishingly large army. He got the troops fed, and when politically necessary he got them home to vote. Just as he had used photography to expose forged deeds in the Mexican land cases, he harnessed and micromanaged the still-new marvels of telegraphy and rail travel to become the Union’s “Organizer of Victory.”
Stanton’s zeal against slavery was even longer aborning than Lincoln’s, but he made strenuous efforts to recruit freedmen to the Union Army and came to favour black suffrage more quickly than some of his cabinet colleagues. Early in 1865 he infuriated William Tecumseh Sherman by asking him to step out of the room so that the black leaders they were meeting with could give the secretary of war their candid opinions of the general.
Stahr’s biography opens on the night of April 14, 1865, when Stanton
ran the United States government from a tiny parlor feet away from the bedroom where Lincoln lay dying. Stahr quickly absolves him of the conspiracy innuendo that has dogged him from Eisenschiml to Bill O’Reilly, and on the vexed matter of whether he said that Lincoln now belonged to the “ages” or the “angels,” Stahr suggests that Stanton
most likely said nothing at all.
The account of Stanton’s last few unhappy years can be a bit rushed. He was blamed for not having prevented Confederate atrocities against Union POWs at Andersonville; criticised for the secrecy surrounding the military trial of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators; and mocked for trying to steer a course between the radical Republicans and the increasingly reactionary Andrew Johnson. Stahr again takes a middle position, arguing that both self-interest and principle (“he viewed himself as a critical check on Johnson”) played a part in Stanton’s hanging on to his office until the president tried to dismiss him and helped to trigger the impeachment crisis. Stanton
finally left his post when Johnson was acquitted in May 1868. Late the following year, just before his death at 55, he was too sick to take up the Supreme Court seat to which President Grant named him.
Stahr admits that his subject was “duplicitous and even deceitful,” but argues that he was “a great man” if not a good one. He was almost certainly indispensable in the preservation of a system that has since allowed us to be freely led by a long succession of good and great and awful and, finally, absurd men.
©2017 The New York Times News Service