Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War

Bitter Opponent of Lincoln Became One of His Most Important Cabinet Members

Engraved portrait of Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln's secretary of war
Edwin M. Stanton. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Edwin M. Stanton was secretary of war in Abraham Lincoln's cabinet for most of the Civil War. Though he had not been a political supporter of Lincoln's before joining the cabinet, he became devoted to him, and worked diligently to direct military operations until the end of the conflict.

Stanton is best remembered today for what he said standing at the bedside of Abraham Lincoln when the wounded president died on the morning of April 15, 1865: "Now he belongs to the ages."

In the days following Lincoln's murder, Stanton took charge of the investigation. He energetically directed the hunt for John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators.

Before his work in the government, Stanton had been an attorney with a national reputation. During his legal career he had actually met Abraham Lincoln, whom he treated with considerable rudeness, while working on a noteworthy patent case in the mid-1850s.

Up until the time Stanton joined the cabinet his negative feelings about Lincoln were well-known in Washington circles. Yet Lincoln, impressed by Stanton's intellect and the determination he brought to his work, picked him to join his cabinet at a time when the War Department was dogged by ineptitude and scandal.

It is generally accepted that Stanton putting his own stamp on the military during the Civil War aided the Union cause considerably.

Early Life of Edwin M. Stanton

Edwin M.

Stanton was born December 19, 1814, in Steubenville, Ohio, the son of a Quaker physician with New England roots and a mother whose family had been Virginia planters. Young Stanton was a bright child, but his father's death prompted him to leave school at the age of 13.

Studying part-time while working, Stanton was able to enroll in Kenyon College in 1831.

Further financial problems caused him to interrupt his education, and he trained as a lawyer (in the era before law school education was common). He began practicing law in 1836.

Stanton's Legal Career

In the late 1830s Stanton began to show promise as an attorney. In 1847 he moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and began to attract clients among the growing industrial base of the city. In the mid-1850s he took up residence in Washington, D.C. so he could spend much of his time practicing before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1855 Stanton defended a client, John M. Manny, in a patent infringement case brought by the powerful McCormick Reaper Company. A local lawyer in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, was added to the case because it appeared the trial would be held in Chicago.

The trial was actually held in Cincinnati in September 1855, and when Lincoln traveled to Ohio to participate in the trial, Stanton was remarkably dismissive. Stanton reportedly said to another lawyer, "Why did you bring that damned long-armed ape here?"

Snubbed and shunned by Stanton and the other prominent lawyers involved in the case, Lincoln nonetheless stayed in Cincinnati and watched the trial. Lincoln said he'd learned quite a bit from Stanton's performance in court, and the experience inspired him to become a better lawyer.

In the late 1850s Stanton distinguished himself with two other prominent cases, the successful defense of Daniel Sickles for murder, and a series of complicated cases in California pertaining to fraudulent land claims. In the California cases it was believed that Stanton saved the federal government many millions of dollars.

In December 1860, near the end of President James Buchanan's administration, Stanton was appointed attorney general.

Stanton Joined Lincoln's Cabinet At a Time of Crisis

During the election of 1860, when Lincoln was the Republican nominee, Stanton, as a Democrat, supported the candidacy of John C. Breckenridge, the vice president in the Buchanan administration. After Lincoln was elected, Stanton, who had returned to private life, spoke out against the "imbecility" of the new administration.

After the attack on Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War, things went badly for the Union. The battles of Bull Run and Ball's Bluff were military disasters. And efforts to mobilize many thousands of recruits into a viable fighting force were hobbled by ineptitude and, in some cases, corruption.

President Lincoln determined to remove Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and replace him with someone more efficient. To the surprise of many, he chose Edwin Stanton.

Though Lincoln had reason to dislike Stanton, based on the man's own behavior toward him, Lincoln recognized that Stanton was intelligent, determined, and patriotic. And he would apply himself with outstanding energy to any challenge.

Stanton Reformed the War Department

Stanton became secretary of war in late January 1862, and things in the War Department changed immediately. Anyone who didn't measure up was fired. And the routine was marked by very long days of hard work.

The public perception of a corrupt War Department changed quickly, as contracts tainted by corruption were canceled. Stanton also made a point of prosecuting anyone thought to be corrupt.

Stanton himself put in many hours standing at his desk. And despite the differences between Stanton and Lincoln, the two men began to work well together and became friendly. Over time Stanton became very devoted to Lincoln, and was known to obsess over the president's personal safety.

In general, Stanton's own tireless personality began to have an influence on the U.S. Army, which became more active during the second year of the war.

Lincoln's frustration with slow-moving generals was also keenly felt by Stanton.

Stanton took an active role in getting Congress to allow him to take control of the telegraph lines and railroads when necessary for military purposes. And Stanton also became deeply involved in rooting out suspected spies and saboteurs.

Stanton and the Lincoln Assassination

Following the assassination of President Lincoln, Stanton took control of the investigation of the conspiracy. He oversaw the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts. And after Booth's death at the hands of soldiers attempting to capture him, Stanton was the driving force behind the relentless prosecution, and execution, of the conspirators.

Stanton also made a concerted effort to implicate Jefferson Davis, the president of the defeated Confederacy, in the conspiracy. But sufficient evidence to prosecute Davis was never obtained, and after being held in custody for two years he was released.

President Andrew Johnson Sought to Dismiss Stanton

During the administration of Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, Stanton oversaw a very aggressive program of Reconstruction in the South. Feeling that Stanton was aligned with the Radical Republicans in the Congress, Johnson sought to remove him from office, and that action led to Johnson's impeachment.

After Johnson was acquitted in his impeachment trial, Stanton resigned from the War Department on May 26, 1868.

Stanton was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Ulysses S. Grant, who had worked closely with Stanton during the war.

Stanton's nomination was confirmed by the Senate in December 1869. However, Stanton, exhausted by years of exertion, fell ill and died before he could join the court.

Significance of Edwin M. Stanton

Stanton was a controversial figure as secretary of war, but there is no doubt that his stamina, determination, and patriotism contributed greatly to the Union war effort. His reforms in 1862 rescued a war department that was adrift, and his aggressive nature had a necessary influence on military commanders who tended to be too cautious.