Edwin Stanton – Tyrant or Hero? Part 1

Surprisingly little in-depth work has been written about Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, during the post-war period.  Stanton, for those of you who don’t know about him, successfully ran the war effort from the Cabinet-level, working tirelessly day and night to help the military fight the war.  He was certainly not perfect, but it seems Edwin Stanton has gotten a bad reputation over the years, partly due to his handling of officers during the American Civil War and his status as the defender of the administration.

At times he worked tirelessly to root out those officers he felt were sympathetic to the Confederacy, which apparently made him no shortage of enemies.  Virtually all of his associates it seemed had referred to Stanton as a tyrant at some point in their lives, and it is true that his natural inclination was to control.

Edwin Stanton, however, may have been something other than a tyrant.  He may have been an American hero.

His endless source of energy that kept him working all night kept the wheels of the Union war effort going.  Edwin Stanton was a key player, along with General Ulysses S. Grant, in bringing the war to a successful conclusion for the North.

Stanton’s true heroic nature would emerge in the years following the end of the Civil War, especially in the hours after Lincoln’s assassination.  During that tumultuous night of terror and confusion, it was Edwin Stanton who held the United States together in the face of possible guerrilla fighting.  As Jay Winik in his excellent book April 1865 points out, at no point was it certain that the South would stay defeated.  There was always a lingering fear that officers like Nathan Bedford Forrest and other raiders would drag out the war.  And without a President to lead the United States, and Jefferson Davis still at large, there was no telling what could happen.

Edwin Stanton stood firm in the face of all of this.  On April 14th, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth.  Booth had originally planned to decapitate the entire U.S. government by taking out Secretary of State William Seward, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and yes, even Edwin Stanton.  Stanton was saved by a malfunctioning doorbell that hadn’t been fixed.  The conspirators’ failure to kill Stanton would doom their effort to destroy the Union leadership.

Edwin Stanton learned about Lincoln’s assassination while he was checking up on the injured Seward, and went immediately to the building where Lincoln was being placed across from Ford’s Theater.  Washington, D.C. was abuzz with rumors that the Confederates were regrouping, and Stanton relentlessly sent out a steady stream of memos and letters to Vice President Johnson, General Grant, and other officials.  In this moment, Stanton truly was a tyrant, and by acting so saved the Union.

Edwin Stanton

Edwin Stanton

Stanton ordered Ulysses S. Grant back to Washington and put the military on alert.  He paved the way for a smooth transition of power to Vice President Andrew Johnson, getting all the Cabinet members to agree to stay on or resign as Andrew Johnson saw fit.

Henry L. Dawes noted that “After Lincoln’s death the government had no other head than Stanton.”

Coming out of the assassination crisis, Edwin Stanton emerged as the strongest figure in American politics.  Stanton’s famed stubbornness and demanding nature would come back to haunt him as he would once again be called on to defend the nation in his battles against President Andrew Johnson and his Reconstruction policies.

One of the books I would highly recommend (despite its obvious bias) is Edwin McMasters Stanton: The Autocrat of Rebellion, Emancipation, and Reconstruction by Frank Abial Flower.  It was written in 1905 and actually is available FREE from Google Books, right here.

Recommended Reading:

  1. Flower, Frank Abial.   Edwin McMasters Stanton: The Autocrat of Rebellion, Emancipation, and                 Reconstruction. Akron, Ohio: Saalfield Publishing Company, 1905.
  2. Thomas, Benjamin P. and Harold M. Hyman. Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln’s Secretary of War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

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