Lincoln and Stanton

Two men could not have been more different than Abraham Lincoln and Edwin Stanton. Lincoln had a broad vision, a humane disposition and a folksy way of expressing himself. He could be flexible, was not terribly good at particulars, and could ignore a personal insult if it advanced his cause. Stanton, OTOH was a master of detail and capable of a prodigious amount of work, but was ruthless, overbearing, and quick to take offense. Lincoln had run afoul of Stanton several years before in a legal case, where Stanton had frozen him out and said some very uncomplimentary things about him. When Lincoln went into political eclipse after losing to Douglas in 1858, Stanton became Buchanan’s attorney general. Although an abolitionist Democrat and opposed to secession, he supported Breckinridge in 1860 but later accepted a position as legal counsel to Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s first Secretary of War. Cameron proved not only corrupt but inefficient, and Lincoln replaced him with Stanton in January, 1862, although he was warned that Stanton might “run away with the whole concern.” Lincoln needed the support of the War Democrats, especially someone like Stanton who had held a prominent position in the previous administration, this even though Stanton had been free with criticism and cutting epithets about the new president.

The surprise was that the two men got along and worked well together. For all his personal flaws Stanton was incorruptible and a patriot who put the good of the country above wealth and personal ambition, even if he often used questionable methods to do it. Yet there was never any doubt about who was in charge, and Stanton’s pit bull personality allowed Lincoln to play good cop to his secretary of war’s bad cop. As historian William Lee Miller observed: “The continual stream of notes that went back and forth between them came to include that implicit reciprocity about punishment and leniency for soldierly derelictions that most of the biographies comment on and illustrate: Lincoln letting Stanton deny what Lincoln could not deny, Stanton sending to Lincoln for permissions that Stanton should not permit—a tacit arrangement that bespeaks an unusual degree of mutual understanding.” Lincoln often spent much of his day at the War Department, and even went so far as to say “So great is my confidence in Stanton’s judgment and patriotism that I never wish to take an important step without first consulting him.”

Lincoln was thus able to play the father figure, the dispenser of justice and mercy, while letting Stanton be the bad guy. Yet the President did not hesitate to intervene when he thought it necessary, and the excellent web site Abraham Lincoln and Friends, from which I have drawn several of these quotes (and is well worth investigating), cites an example of presidential prerogative:

Journalist William H. Smith recalled a story told him by Indiana Governor Morton who wanted Indiana soldiers moved from the inadequate hospitals at the western war front back to Indiana which would “Provide for their care and treatment or private homes. Governor Morton took the matter to the President who called in Secretary Stanton: “The matter was fully discussed and Stanton abruptly refused to grant the permission, saying it was against all regulations, would subvert discipline and disintegrate the army. Mr. Morton said he became angry and blurted out that he would appeal to the people, fill the newspapers with the story that rather than break a fool army regulation they would leave brave soldiers to die like rats. He said he told them that the President need not call on Indiana for more troops, as he would not send another Indianian to risk his life under such regulations,” recalled Smith. The President said: “Mr. Stanton, you will have to issue that permit.” Stanton replied: “I will not do it.” Mr. Lincoln said firmly: “Yes, you will, Mr. Secretary….Wire General Grant today to furlough in care of Governor Morton every Indiana sick or wounded soldier now with his army. Or send the adjutant general to me and I will issue the order in my own name as commander in chief of the army.” The President prevailed.

Stanton carried out vendettas against army officers he did not like, conducted political purges in the military, arbitrarily imprisoned civilians thought to be “disloyal,” and once boasted to a British visitor that he could have anyone in the country arrested by simply ringing the bell on his desk. Yet Lincoln knew that he could override his secretary at any time simply, as in the above anecdote, by issuing an order in his own name as commander in chief, which he occasionally found it necessary to do.

Arbitrary arrests led to a constant steam of irate visitors to the War Department and the White House, with mixed results. It was one thing to arrest people on the flimsiest of suspicions in Secessia, but the practice, along with trial by military commissions, was common in loyal states as well. When Iowa congressman John Kasson got thrown out of Stanton’s office after complaining about arrests, he went to the floor of the House, where he “let loose my denunciations of his [Stanton’s] willful and arbitrary action, for which I denied the responsibility of President Lincoln; and in support of the President, related an instance, in my personal experience, of his disobedience to his chief.” Lincoln evidently liked what he said, because “the next time I saw Mr. Lincoln, I remember well his change of manner to me. He showed his gratification in his peculiar and familiar manner, by his twinkling eyes, and by his slapping me on the thigh, as I thought quite unnecessarily.” Yet the arrests and tribunals continued until the end of the war. Either we must conclude that Lincoln had no control over his secretary of war violating his countrymen’s civil rights, or—which I think more likely—he approved because he thought it necessary. In this case Kasson (a strong Lincoln supporter) did exactly as Lincoln would have liked—blaming Stanton but absolving his boss, just as modern historians have generally done.

One can see the same pattern with the various implementations of the harsh war policy—Lincoln tries to publicly distance himself from the unpleasant realities as much as possible, but allows them to proceed. He promotes generals like Grant and Sherman who conducted a harsh war while demoting or sidelining those like McClellan, Buell, and (to some extent) Halleck, who advocated reconciliation.

What are we to make of Lincoln? To read both his biographies and military histories, there seem to be two men—one the distant, somewhat distracted humanitarian who was unaware of much of what went on, constantly resisting the harsh demands of his generals (if only Mr. Lincoln knew!); the other the savvy, hands-on politician intimately concerned with the running of the war. I think the second more likely, and I will have more to say about this when I finally review some of the new books on guerilla war.

Overall, Lincoln did not leave much of a paper trail on his policies of harsh war, making war on the civilian population of the South, suppression of the press or the widespread suspension of civil liberties. In fact, one often gets the impression from today’s histories that the generals pretty much made policy and Lincoln only stepped in when they got too far out of line, which I find hard to credit.

Overall, as far as the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid was concerned, it seems highly unlikely that, given his close working relationship, Stanton would have authorized something like the assassination of Jeff Davis and his cabinet on his own, or that Lincoln would have simply accepted this gross usurpation of presidential prerogative. I have not done a close study of the relations of the two men in the February-March time frame, but there seems to have been no hint of a strained relationship between them then or later. In fact when Stanton tried to quit in 1865 for reasons of ill health, Lincoln persuaded him to stay. Nor has anyone mentioned anything similar that Stanton did on his own without consulting the president (if anyone can get me an example, please do).

David Homer Bates, who worked in the War Department telegraph office, observed that “during three and a quarter years of their close official relations the two men worked in almost entire harmony. There never appeared, to the writer’s observation, any real conflict between them. It suited both to treat the public each in his own characteristic way, and when in case the pinch came, each knew how far to yield to the other without sacrifice of prerogative.”

Conclusion—it’s much more likely that Lincoln approved or at least knew of the real purpose of the operation than it is that Stanton did it on his own without telling the president.

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One response to “Lincoln and Stanton”

  1. […] I looked the relationship between Lincoln and his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton. Was Lincoln simply a weak president who was unaware of a rogue operation by his secretary of war? […]

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