Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln's Secretary of War

By Benjamin P. Thomas; Harold M. Hyman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
SECRETARY OF A WAR

FROM HIS WORK as special counsel during Cameron's tenure as War Secretary, Stanton knew that the commission he accepted on January 20, 1862, had thus far represented a source of weakness more than of strength in the nation's military effort. In the development of the government's institutions before 1861, the war office had been either an insignificant clerical convenience for army officers to employ or else an annoying obstacle for them to circumvent or overcome. The few prewar Secretaries who had tried to improve on this pattern had been evaded or merely outwaited by the military galaxy. No one knew what the authority of that office was.

This ambiguity could mean opportunity to a Secretary who seized the chance and expanded his powers, but the corruption and confusion that developed in Cameron's lax regime had lessened the power and prestige of an office that had none to spare. Under him, the heads of the Army's bureaucracy plodded along in accustomed paths, binding up the growing regiments in rigid tentacles of bookkeepers' techniques, while spoilsmen fattened on the great profits available from the nation's emergency needs.

Far worse was the fact that the field commanders remained virtually independent of the civilian Secretary and the President. Generals such as Frémont and McClellan, enjoying strong political backing from their states and from congressional cliques, were taking matters of policy into their own hands. In default of action by Cameron, Lincoln interceded in the most outrageous cases. But this involvement forced Lincoln to defy some of the leaders of his own party, and thereby the chances of Confederate victory were improved.

For the South needed to win no battles in order to gain its goal of

-143-

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