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Edwin Stanton’s Whipping Boy

By William Marvel
12/9/2016 • Civil War Times Magazine

At war’s end, the Secretary of War deliberately misrepresented William T. Sherman’s actions, in an attempt to further his own political interests.

Major General William T. Sherman entered the reviewing stand to watch his troops march down Pennsylvania Avenue during Washington’s historic Grand Review of the Armies, held in May 1865 to celebrate the end of the war. Politicians and generals congratulated him as he made his way to his seat, but when Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton offered his hand, Sherman refused to take it. Their palpable enmity was largely the result of Stanton’s misguided political scheming.

During his three years as Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, Stanton trod two contradictory paths, and by early 1865 those paths were beginning to diverge too far to straddle any longer. Stanton had come into Lincoln’s Cabinet with a reputation as a conservative Democrat, known for his service as James Buchanan’s attorney general, for his support of John Breckenridge in the presidential election of 1860 and for his disgust with Republicans. Compared to the Radical wing of their Republican Party, however, Lincoln and most of his Cabinet remained conservative enough that Stanton seemed politically palatable to them, though the Radicals had to be won over to assure Stanton’s confirmation in the Senate. Fortunately for him, he had secretly courted that faction during most of his time in the Buchanan administration, and thanks to the endorsement of key Radicals he won Senate approval with relative ease.

From the day Stanton entered the War Department in January 1862, he forged an alliance with the most powerful Radicals on Capitol Hill, cultivating their allegiance and surreptitiously sympathizing with their agenda even as they fell into conflict with the president. So well did Stanton disguise his duplicity that Lincoln never wavered as his political patron, but the approaching end of the war threatened to bring an open breach between Lincoln and the Radicals over Reconstruction. As Stanton certainly understood, he could not continue much longer to be all things to all men.

In January 1865, a couple of weeks after Sherman marched his troops into Savannah, Ga., Stanton sailed down from Washington for a visit. Like much of what Stanton did, the trip involved a nominal objective and one or more ulterior purposes. Officially, Stanton came to collect 25,000 bales of cotton that Sherman had captured with the city, but that might have been accomplished by the Treasury Department official who accompanied him. Acting Adjutant General Edward D. Townsend, part of Stanton’s entourage in Savannah, admitted that collecting the cotton was only an excuse; he claimed the sea voyage was meant to relieve Stanton’s asthma, which worsened during the heating season.

There was another unstated reason for so long a journey. Stanton sailed for Savannah at least partly—and perhaps mainly—in response to the indignation of Radicals over Sherman’s increasingly obvious disdain for “contrabands” and black soldiers.

On the March to the Sea, Sherman’s army had attracted thousands of fugitive slaves, and one of his corps commanders had left hundreds of them to the mercy of pursuing Rebel cavalry on the bank of Ebenezer Creek, pulling up his pontoon bridge before those slaves could cross. Rumors had inflated that incident into a vast slaughter, and a letter on the subject had appeared in the New York press, arousing Radical anger. Sherman harbored the contemporary conservative view of the race issue, and he responded to the accusation with his customary candor, thereby fanning the flames.

In his first dispatch from Savannah, Sherman had insensitively mentioned the need to “clear the army of surplus negroes, mules and horses,” which had provoked a rebuke from Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck warned Sherman that his critics had gained the ear of the president, alluding probably to Stanton, among others.

Stanton showed annoyance at Sherman’s policy before he left Washington, directing him to gather in contrabands as they approached his lines— and, by way of contrast, to expel the families of Confederate officers from their homes. When he reached Savannah, Stanton revealed that he indeed believed that Rebel cavalry had butchered the fugitives trapped at Ebenezer Creek, which Sherman dismissed as a combination of misapprehension, exaggeration and assumption. Sherman said he had less trouble protecting the freedmen from their former masters than from greedy Northern recruiters, who had come down to snap them up as substitutes for drafted white men.

Just before Stanton left Savannah, he and Sherman met with a gathering of the city’s black religious leaders, some of whom were freeborn, some long free and some free only since the arrival of the Union armies. Their chosen spokesman answered specific questions, beginning with the capacity of his people for self-support, and he said they most needed land on which they could support themselves. Assuming that prejudice would persist for years, he preferred colonization to integration, and all but one of those with him agreed.

In accordance with the majority wish of the ministers, Sherman arranged for at least the temporary settlement of Savannah’s freedmen on separate parcels of confiscated land. Northern Radicals regarded Sherman’s order only as further evidence of his prejudice, apparently looking on those settlements as internment camps. Embarrassed by indirect association with that program, Stanton sent the minutes of his interview to William Lloyd Garrison, the Boston abolitionist, gratuitously intimating that he, at least, did not consider Southern blacks “an inferior race.” The better to quell any Radical doubts about his reliability on that subject, he also forwarded a copy of the minutes to Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the first Radical he had secretly befriended back in 1861. He told Sumner that he hoped Congress might adopt some measure to discharge the government’s duty toward “the colored people of the South,” as though to imply now that Congress, rather than President Lincoln, would have to do justice to the former slave.

Then, three months later, came the assassination of the president. Lincoln’s death deprived Stanton of his most powerful political protector, leaving the Radicals as his most reliable allies. When Andrew Johnson first assumed the presidency, he evinced a sharply Radical attitude himself, at least in his vindictive suggestions for the handling of former Confederates, all of which greatly encouraged Senate zealots like Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Zachariah Chandler of Michigan. Stanton, who habitually sought the support of incompatible factions by playing double roles, evidently believed for a short while that he could ingratiate himself to both the new president and the dominant congressional coalition while wearing the same face.

By the time of Lincoln’s death, Sherman had run Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee to ground in North Carolina, and the two generals put their armies into camp while they composed an intricate surrender convention for the approval of their respective governments. Sherman, who had waged war as viciously as any of the Radical generals he scorned, always maintained that his hostility would vanish the moment the Rebels laid down their arms, and his agreement with Johnston confirmed as much. Word of the assassination had not reached them when they first met, and Sherman seemed deeply imbued with the spirit of magnanimity that Lincoln had expressed during a late-March interview with him and Grant. With his Confederate counterpart, Sherman outlined a complete blueprint for Reconstruction, including a general amnesty, the restoration of citizens’ political rights and the preservation of state governments.

The proposed convention would have subverted the Radical plan for Reconstruction, which included disenfranchising former Rebels, granting political rights to the freed slaves and perhaps awarding them homesteads on confiscated property. Sherman and Johnston continued their cease-fire while the paperwork traveled north. Grant recognized immediately that Sherman had exceeded his authority, asking Stanton to call a special Cabinet meeting.

Stanton gathered the president and Cabinet members that night, and they unanimously rejected the agreement as intruding on the prerogatives of the chief executive—and on those of Congress, as any Radical would have argued. There the matter might have ended, since the document had merely been sent for approval or disapproval, but Stanton waxed especially vitriolic on Sherman. Later that night he composed an order for Grant to proceed to Sherman’s headquarters and “direct operations against the enemy,” intimating that Sherman would be removed from command at the moment of victory.

To this Stanton added an unfairly accusative and unnecessarily public rebuke. Since the assassination he had been sending what were essentially press releases to Maj. Gen. John Dix, in New York, for publication in the newspapers there, and he wired Dix a diatribe against Sherman. In it he cited a March 3 order to Grant prohibiting any political negotiations between Union and Confederate generals, clearly hoping to leave the impression that Sherman was aware of it. In fact, Sherman was just leading his armies out of South Carolina when that order went out, and he never saw it, as Stanton probably knew. Sherman’s negotiations reflected the kindly spirit Lincoln had conveyed at their March meeting—as well as Stanton’s own advice, at Savannah, that policy restraints might have to be relaxed for the more important goal of prompt capitulation.

Stanton’s screed was clearly crafted to gratify Radicals, and he devoted most of it to demonizing Sherman. Stanton suggested, inaccurately, that the armistice had allowed President Jefferson Davis to escape with a fortune in Confederate gold. Davis and his Cabinet had slipped away behind Johnston’s army before the negotiations began—but Stanton insinuated Sherman might have made an illicit bargain with the Rebel leaders, quoting a rumor that Davis and his fugitive government hoped to “make terms with General Sherman,” so they could flee the country with their treasure. He concluded with an announcement that Grant had gone to North Carolina to take over the fight against Johnston, broadcasting his hint that Sherman would be relieved of command.

By the ferocity of his initial attack on Sherman in the Cabinet meeting, Stanton plainly hoped to convince the others that the generous surrender terms amounted to insubordination, or even treason. It worked, especially with Stanton’s new protégé in the Cabinet, Attorney General James Speed. Paranoia, fueled by guilt over his injustice to Sherman, apparently drove Stanton frantic, and within a few days he worried that the general would lead his armies against the government rather than submit. His raving seemed to infect Speed, who wondered whether Sherman might arrest his best friend, Grant, when he arrived at Sherman’s headquarters.

Looking back on Stanton’s disproportionate fury, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles thought Stanton regarded peaceful reunion with trepidation because, as a turncoat from the ranks of states’ rights conservatives, he feared a rapid restoration of the old Union. Reconstruction as Sherman’s convention conceived it would likely restore the Democratic Party to power. For antislavery politicians like Wade, Sumner and Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, that would have spelled disaster by assuring the defeat of their social-justice agenda and squandering what they viewed as the chief fruits of victory. For men like Stanton, who had learned to depend on government connections for their livelihood, restoration of the old political order would have exacted a more personal toll. He might also have faced potential prosecution for the excesses of his military tribunals, and had he been subjected to the same version of justice he inflicted on others he would have had good cause for worry.

Grant left Washington before the accusative telegram went out, joining Sherman and instructing him to offer Johnston the same terms as Lee had accepted at Appomattox on April 9: The Rebels were to turn in their arms and go home on parole, and were not to be disturbed as long as they maintained good behavior. Johnston accepted without hesitation, and Grant did not inflict the intended humiliation of watching over Sherman, instead coming directly back to Washington.

Stanton had nevertheless aroused enormous animosity toward Sherman over the faux pas. Even the general’s brother, Senator John Sherman of Ohio, expressed his distress at the terms, although he pointed out that his brother was merely extending the same generosity as Grant and Lincoln. He added that the incident was all the more painful in the wake of the assassination, and the vindictive atmosphere prevailing so soon after Lincoln’s funeral may have explained the exaggerated public outrage, which Stanton had manifestly intended to incite. Henry Halleck, by then assigned to duty in Richmond, had joined in the clamor against Sherman, directing Sherman’s subordinates to disregard their commander’s orders, and Stanton had that edict published too. Convinced that Stanton had acted maliciously—and it is all but impossible to believe otherwise—Sherman quietly nursed his grudge. On his way through Richmond, Sherman sent Halleck an icy note refusing to march his troops in review before him and essentially warning him to keep out of their way—and his.

The trial of those accused in the Lincoln assassination plot had hardly begun when prominent Washington Radicals heard that Stanton might soon resign. That story surfaced just as newspapers began reporting that General Sherman’s army was nearing the capital on its march from Richmond, and the official snub Sherman had given Halleck on his way through that city suggested that he was coming with blood in his eye, intent on taking revenge against the author of his humiliation. Stanton’s apprehension on that point may have prompted remarks that initiated the resignation rumor.

When the soldiers who had marched through the Carolinas did arrive, they and their general went quietly into camp below the Potomac River. No mutinous mob assailed the War Department, but a few days later even the trial of the conspirators had to pause as the returning soldiers took over the city. Washington brimmed with visitors who had come to see the last grand review of the nation’s two principal armies. Before dawn on May 23, tens of thousands of cavalry, infantry and artillery filed into the streets leading toward the Capitol as crowds of civilians, convalescent soldiers and Confederate deserters jostled each other for vantage points on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. A canopied reviewing stand had been erected where the avenue bent behind the White House, and there sat President Andrew Johnson, with Stanton on his right and Grant on his left, along with a few other Cabinet members, military officers and women. At 9 a.m. the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac began moving along the avenue between cheering crowds, followed by the infantry with its bands blaring. Artillery brigades squeezed in between the infantry divisions, and it was well into the afternoon before the last caisson had rumbled past.

Sherman’s armies of the West took center stage the next day, marching in the loose-jointed fashion that had carried them across four states, bowing and turning to wave their acknowledgment of the onlookers’ cheers. Some of them led mules burdened with pilfered cookware, atop which sat the occasional half-tamed critter collected along some Southern byway. A battalion of bummers—the undisciplined stragglers who had foraged so avariciously throughout the Carolinas— rode their commandeered horses and mules.

Sherman led the procession, saluting the president and Grant as he passed the reviewing stand. Once past, he consigned his horse to an orderly and climbed up to sit with the dignitaries. Johnson, Grant and the others all stood to greet him, shaking his hand, but this was the first time he and the secretary of war had met since Stanton’s tantrum over the surrender convention. A Massachusetts congressman had seen Sherman two days before, finding him still extremely bitter over Stanton’s rebuke, and when a hopeful Stanton extended his hand, Sherman let him grasp the air with it, clapping his own hand to his side and merely nodding, or bowing slightly. Across the avenue sat others who had been waiting for this very moment, many with binoculars or opera glasses trained on the tall, florid general and the squat, gray bureaucrat.

Stanton swallowed the insult. He may have begun doubting his own popularity after an avalanche of criticism over trying the assassination suspects by military commission: Even some Radicals had expressed great dissatisfaction with the tribunal. With so many angry soldiers in the city, he could not afford to provoke another controversy.

After the review, Sherman’s troops began showing overt public contempt for the secretary of war, and Stanton dared not arrest them for fear of inciting violence—perhaps against himself. On May 26, a drove of Sherman’s officers poured into Willard’s Hotel and began to damn Stanton high and low; some of them would periodically jump up on the bar, call for “three groans” for the secretary, and then jump back down for another drink and another similar toast. Solicitous of her husband’s career prospects, Ellen Ewing Sherman tried to heal the breach by making a social call on the Stantons herself—and Stanton eagerly welcomed the attempt, entertaining Mrs. Sherman for “a very pleasant half hour.” The general remained obdurate nevertheless, insisting that Stanton owed him an apology, and the tense situation among Sherman’s soldiers may have accelerated the process of mustering out the armies. On May 29, Stanton ordered all troops sent home whose terms of service would expire before October; that included the greater part of Sherman’s four corps and the vast majority of his most loyal officers and men.

Some have supposed that Sherman never forgave Stanton for his politically motivated affront, and that resentment flavored his portrait of the secretary when he came to write his memoirs. Certainly Sherman never regained whatever personal respect he might have once held for Stanton, but neither did any of the other individuals Stanton betrayed or sacrificed during his lifetime. The general did seem to forgive him, though, and after the ailing Stanton left office Sherman offered to provide him with an army escort to bring him out to a post in the Rockies, where he might find relief from the asthma that would soon kill him. With that invitation Sherman merely showed the more gracious side he had revealed in his negotiations with a vanquished foe.

 

Adapted from Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton, by William Marvel, ©2015 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher: www.uncpress.unc.edu

Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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