(December 19, 1814–December 24, 1869)
Jon L. Wakelyn
Asthmatic, overweight, introspective, yet overbearing and abrasive, the Union Secretary of War seemed the very antithesis of the man needed to guide the fortunes of the machinery of fighting. He had never had any prewar experience with military affairs. In addition, he was a Democrat and former corporate lawyer who had never been elected to national office. Yet Edwin McMaster Stanton had to serve in the Union government alongside Republican políticos who had spent their lives in public service. Could he possibly have been a match for William H. Seward (q.v.) of New York or Samuel P. Chase (q.v.) of Ohio, those two stalwart leaders committed to victory and unwilling to allow amateurs to run their war? Stanton also labored under a folksy commander in chief, a master at politics, who seemed unwilling to give his war leader any governance guidance or battle plans other than platitudes. To make matters worse, his wartime accomplishments have become entangled in “the dark and bloody” legal shenanigans of postwar presidential removal maneuvers. Stories of the War Secretary bolted behind his office door unwilling to give way to President Andrew Johnson (q.v.) made Stanton look foolish. In short, his true merits in that office, whatever they were, have been obscured by the actions of political geniuses, military heroes, and the rise and fall of Johnson’s reputation.
The secretary thus appears in history as subservient to those giants. In addition, his wartime activities have been studied mostly by military history analysts. Many of those writers have depicted him as the “soft” civilian competing with the likes of competent anticivilian General Henry W. Halleck (q.v.) and the genius of hard-line officers like U. S. Grant (q.v.) and William T. Sherman (q.v.) who delivered the military victories. Even political historians have found little good to say about Stanton’s wartime public career. Why would history need to remember support staff when great warriors and brilliant políticos were the stuff of success or failure? How could a mere civilian function well among such paragons?