by Bill Kiefer

So our Steubenville – Pittsburgh- Washington D.C. super-lawyer, briefly served as Attorney General of the United States under Democrat President James Buchanan, frequently rated the worst or perhaps least effective of our first forty-four Presidents. Thereafter he becomes Secretary of War under the Republican President Abraham Lincoln, frequently rated the best of our first forty-four Presidents. Quite a shift of the tides.

When Stanton went to the War Department, (today it is the Department of Defense), he succeeded Simon Cameron, under whose leadership the Department was frequently referred to as “the lunatic asylum.” Its directives were frequently disregarded and Generals of the various armies proceeded to act on their own accord rather than obey the directives emanating from the Secretary.

Stanton took over on January 20, 1862. In all of 1861 there were few battles of consequence between the loss of Fort Sumter and year end. In fact not much of consequence had happened. There were few significant battles except for First Manassas or Bull Run at which 4,700 of the approximate 8,000 of the year’s casualties at significant engagements were suffered. Merely an appetizer for the feast of carnage which was yet to come over the next forty months. However the pace of the war was soon to pick-up.

In 1861 the War Department was run largely on political favors and patronage. First he appointed John Tucker a railroad executive and Peter Watson a like-minded trial lawyer as his assistant secretaries. He met with Congressional Committees to heal an apparent split between Congress and the Department. While dismissing several employees claimed by a Congressional Committee to have southern sympathies, he also stopped 1,400 proposed officer promotions until he could review them for merit and recommend them to Congress. He next cancelled all orders with foreign governments for war materiel and equipment, reason being that placing the orders domestically gave the government more control over specifications, production schedules and delivery. All of this was done in the first few days of his appointment.

1862 was a stormy year that began with all of the Union Armies under the command of General George McClellan. Lincoln constantly urged the General to attack, yet he was slow to do so. Lincoln stripped McClellan of command of all armies but the large Union Army of the Potomac and clearly made McClellan subordinate to Stanton. Finally in Mid-March of 1862 McClellan began his complicated Peninsula Campaign with a landing near Yorktown about forty-five miles from Richmond. Instead of attacking the town he laid siege for several months. By the end of May the Union forces had pushed on to a few miles of Richmond. On June 1, 1862, following the wounding of General Joseph Johnson, General Robert E. Lee was placed in command of the forces defending the Peninsula. Throughout the month Lee launched a series of attacks against McClellan’sforce driving them away from Richmond and back to a point where they could be evacuated from the area. For the rest of 1862, while Union forces had victories at places like Shiloh, Forts Donaldson and Henry, with the exception of Antietam all of their contests in the east ended in Confederate victories. Still changes were made. Realizing that running the war effort and commanding the Armies was too much for them Lincoln and Stanton brought General Henry Halleck to Washington to work with them as the nominal head of all of the armies. Additionally, the competence at running railroads and controlling communications through telegraph lines enabled the North to better control its forces, its supplies and its release of news. Although 1862 ended with the Confederate near destruction of a Union force at Fredericksburg Virginia, and the first significant action in the east of 1863 brought the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville. The entire tide of the war turned permanently in July of 1863. The first four days of the month brought Meade’s victory over Lee at Gettysburg, and, as well, Grants taking of Vicksburg following a series of battles and a siege.

Despite the battlefield successes of late 1863 and much of 1864, Lincoln’s chances of re-election in the fall of1864 seemed dim. His opponent on the Democratic ticket was none other than the former General McClellan who campaigned on the basis of surrender, and many in the war-weary north were tired of the war. Still Stanton came up with a plan of permitting soldiers to return home on furlough to vote. Many credit this vote with swinging the election in Lincoln’s favor. The Soldiers voted overwhelmingly Republican, largely on the basis that they knew what they had accomplished, and were on the verge of finishing and did not want to see their efforts wasted. They sometimes also convinced their male relatives to vote for Lincoln on this basis. 

One other instance in which Stanton was decisive occurred after the 1864 election and during the siege of Petersburg Virginia. Asouthern delegation came to see General Grant to seek Peace. Lincoln’s initial intent was to tell Grant to obtain Peace by whatever means necessary. Stanton convinced Lincoln that Grant’s role was to defeat Lee’s army and accept its surrender. In Stanton’s view it was the role of the President to handle the political process of making peace and that to delegate this to Grant would make the President nothing more than a figurehead. Grant happily accepted the decision and got on about what he had proven to be good at: defeating enemy forces in combat. 

We all know that the war ended in April, 1865, and that Lincoln was assassinated a few days later. When Lincoln was pronounced dead in a bedroom of the Petersen House across the street from Ford’s Theater it was Stanton who uttered the famous phrase: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

From the swearing-in of Andrew Johnson as President and the final capitulation of the remaining confederate forces, Stanton continued to serve and first had to return the army to civilian status by demobilizing it as a fighting force. He organized it with a training and ceremonial component, a second component to engage the Native American Nations of the west, and finally a third for the military occupation of the south. The new President was considered extremely soft in regards to giving former southern soldiers the right to vote and hold office; opposed the voting of former slaves; and as well the military occupation and governance of former confederate states. Stanton was entirely opposite the President on these issues. As a result, on August 12, 1867 President Johnson dismissed Stanton. Both houses of Congress passed legislation to reinstate him. The President gave in and did so. However, the President could not let the matter rest and continuously led to attempts to replace Stanton. Ultimately this led to the impeachment by the President by the House of Representatives. At the Senate trial Johnson was saved by one vote. The acquittal led to Stanton’s resignation.

In the election of 1868, Stanton actively campaigned in Ohio for Grant for President and for other Republican candidates while also trying to re-establish his law practice. His doctors advised him against this as his lifelong asthmatic condition was worsening. In the latter half of 1869 a position of Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court came open. Grant nominated Stanton on December 19, 1869 and he was approved by the Senate immediately thereafter. He died from his Asthma on December 24, 1869, never having the chance to sit on the Supreme Court.