Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton

Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton by William Marvel, The University of North Carolina Press, 2015 ISBN-10: 1469622491; ISBN-13: 9781469622491

William Marvel’s remarkable biography, Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton, reads like an exposé. Up ‘til now, Secretary of War Stanton has had a reputation for being extremely effective and devoted to his job, although notorious for being a curmudgeon and roughly treating army officers. But this long and riveting book offers a highly detailed and scathing indictment of an unprincipled and repellent individual. Even if the author’s many suggestions of the merely possible instances of wrong-doing are disregarded, Mr. Marvel has amply documented Edwin Stanton’s lifetime of unsavory, arbitrary, and unethical conduct, both personal and official.

Lincoln’s Autocrat lays bare Stanton’s duplicitous behavior as the Attorney General in President James Buchanan’s cabinet. Less than a year later, after the American Civil War had begun, Stanton took office as the Secretary of War under Abraham Lincoln. The book describes the political warfare waged against Generals Charles Stone and George McClellan, as well as against President Lincoln, which was carried on by Radical Republicans, especially those on the congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Stanton, whose principles were often difficult to pin down, joined them in their extreme partisanship. Often acting as more of a politician than as a government official, Stanton engaged in radical machinations that could have prolonged the war and might have helped turn President Andrew Johnson against a harsh (but just) reconstruction. Although usually deemed more than competent but not the equal of his irascible colleague, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles comes out looking better and better, in comparison with Secretary of War Stanton.

Page after page of Marvel’s text underscores the seamier side of Civil War history. Stanton operated with near-dictatorial authority, in opposition to the standards of the relatively new American democracy. He does receive due commendation for much of his work. Stanton’s convincing Lincoln to authorize Joseph Hooker’s expedited move to Chattanooga with elements of the Army of the Potomac to reinforce William Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland, after the defeat at Chickamauga, was perhaps his “greatest single contribution to ultimate victory.”

At one point in the book, Mr. Marvel notes how General Ulysses S. Grant arrested a quartermaster, Reuben Hatch, suspecting him of extensive graft early in the war, and that Hatch was saved by his personal connections to Abraham Lincoln. The close relationship between Stanton and Charles Dana evidently started with Stanton’s need for editorial support earlier in the war. But Marvel overlooks how Dana was on the President’s hand-picked committee which ended up exculpating Hatch. Grant’s political protection of Hatch (and Grant’s little-known personal involvement in the corruption at Cairo) likewise goes unremarked. A footnote does indicate Reuben Hatch’s connection with the sinking of the transport Sultana—and the tragic deaths of some eighteen hundred passengers, many of whom were newly released prisoners of war heading for their homes in the North. But Marvel doesn’t shy away from remarking on how Charles Dana grasped Grant’s coattails and covered up the general’s drinking. Army politics hampered the Union’s war effort throughout.

A few of the book’s characterizations hew a little too closely to the standard, but inaccurate, version of Civil War history, when a closer analysis might suggest a different inference. For example, Marvel correctly notes how John McClernand lost command of the 1862 expedition down the Mississippi to take Vicksburg, and remarks on how the Secretary’s actions “imply some guile on Stanton’s part.” But then the book has McClernand—who received authorization to lead it from Lincoln himself—“commandeer” his own expedition. And it repeated this implication by describing how “the self-important McClernand snatched his troops away from Sherman” and subsequently captured the Confederate stronghold of Arkansas Post. Actually, it was Henry Halleck, Ulysses Grant, and William Sherman who did the commandeering and snatching. Secretary Stanton was at least partially right, furthermore, in his attempt to blame the navy for David D. Porter’s failures during the first joint expedition against Wilmington, North Carolina,. Marvel and most other historians reserve the blame for Benjamin Butler, leader of the army component.

Although Stanton may have responded too harshly to William Sherman’s surrender terms with Confederate Joseph Johnston, Marvel is too easy regarding Sherman’s blundering and almost justifies his infamous, petulant, and insubordinate refusal to shake hands with Secretary of War Stanton during the Grand Review in Washington.

In such a comprehensive work, these complaints are just quibbles. Concerning research into the American Civil War, there is no such thing as exhaustive, but William Marvel seems to have investigated Edwin Stanton to within an inch of his remarkable, yet rather distasteful, life.

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