We welcome to the blog a guest post by William Marvel, author of Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton. Edwin M. Stanton (1814-1869), one of the nineteenth century’s most impressive legal and political minds, wielded enormous influence and power as Lincoln’s Secretary of War during most of the Civil War and under Johnson during the early years of Reconstruction. In the first full biography of Stanton in more than fifty years, Marvel offers a detailed reexamination of Stanton’s life, career, and legacy. Marvel argues that while Stanton was a formidable advocate and politician, his character was hardly benign. Climbing from a difficult youth to the pinnacle of power, Stanton used his authority–and the public coffers–to pursue political vendettas, and he exercised sweeping wartime powers with a cavalier disregard for civil liberties.
In a previous post, Marvel questioned the eulogy allegedly given by Edwin Stanton at President Lincoln’s deathbed. In today’s post, Marvel relates the conflict between General Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton shortly after Lincoln’s death that injured the general’s reputation.
As stern and formidable an opponent as Confederate soldiers and civilians found William Tecumseh Sherman, the general always insisted that he would accept them as fellow countrymen as soon as they submitted to federal authority. He proved as good as his word, especially after hearing President Lincoln’s conciliatory instructions at their City Point conference, late in March of 1865. When he cornered Joe Johnston in North Carolina, less than three weeks later, the two negotiated a complicated surrender agreement that essentially established terms for peace and reunion.
It seems odd that neither recognized how far they had exceeded their authority, but both probably considered their proposal justifiable because their political leaders would have the opportunity to accept or reject it. Even Lincoln would surely have disapproved it, because it involved subjects over which he claimed sole authority, such as the restoration of political rights, amnesty, and the fate of state governments. He would, however, never have responded with the wrath shown by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.
Lincoln was dead by the time the document started for Washington. General Grant received it first, and immediately asked Stanton to call an emergency cabinet meeting, at which everyone concurred that the convention was unacceptable. Stanton vehemently condemned not only the agreement but Sherman himself, and he wrote an order for Grant to go to North Carolina and supervise the operations of Sherman’s troops. He also issued a public rebuke through a press release, in which he accused Sherman of violating an express order against such negotiations—although Sherman had never seen that order. Adding insult to injury, he inaccurately blamed Sherman’s cease-fire for allowing Jefferson Davis to escape, and insinuated that the general might have made a bargain that allowed the rebel leaders to get away with the Confederate treasury. Stanton also published Henry Halleck’s order directing Sherman’s subordinates to ignore their commander’s instructions, which Halleck had based on Stanton’s jaundiced information.
Grant declined to take over Sherman’s command, but he delivered the rejection of the proposal and Johnston promptly surrendered on terms similar to those Lee had accepted at Appomattox. When Sherman learned how Stanton had publicly humiliated him he grew understandably furious, but he confined his retaliation to a legendary snub at the Grand Review, where he left Stanton’s proffered hand dangling in the air. keep reading →