Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary
By Walter Stahr
Simon & Schuster 2017, $35
Lincoln’s most controversial Cabinet member, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, is the subject of this justly deserved, excellent new biography. Walter Stahr provides a comprehensive portrait of the Ohio-born lawyer-turned-politician, crediting him the central role he played “in winning the central war in American history”—as well as in ending it. Stanton, who served as attorney general in the waning days of James Buchanan’s presidency, replaced Lincoln’s first secretary of war, Simon Cameron, in 1862. When Lincoln was assassinated, Stanton helped mobilize the government to find and prosecute the conspirators. After the conflict, he remained in President Andrew Johnson’s Cabinet but was eventually dismissed. Stanton’s disagreements with Johnson over Reconstruction led to the president’s impeachment.
Stahr’s profile really begins to take off when he examines Stanton’s role in Buchanan’s Cabinet during the Secession crisis. In turning to the Civil War, Stahr’s descriptions of Stanton’s relationship with Union Maj. Gen. George McClellan, his work forging partnerships with members of Congress, and Stanton’s understanding of the power of the press are also intriguing. Moreover, Stahr’s recognition of Stanton’s use of railroads and the telegraph is astute, as is his analysis of the draft, the influential Lieber Code regulating soldier conduct, the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act, and Stanton’s involvement with the enlistment of African-American soldiers.
Readers looking for insight into Stanton’s relationship with Lincoln or other Cabinet members won’t find it here. Stahr instead sacrifices analysis of Stanton’s personal relationships to cover the broad range of issues that he faced as secretary of war, While few of those subjects are covered in detail, Stahr reliably shows the enormity of those tasks. Though this leaves some interesting ground unturned, Stanton is a solid, well-written biography. –Stuart Sanders