I am sometimes asked why it is taking me so long to research and write my biography of Edwin Stanton. Let me answer, somewhat, by relating what I have found in my research regarding a single day, June 2, 1862.
There are two main sources for Stanton’s correspondence in this period. The first is a microfilm set of the telegrams sent and received by the Secretary of War. This National Archives publication, M473, has not been used much by prior historians, perhaps because it is confusing; messages are filed by more or less by date, with some errors in the dating; messages are in handwriting, often hard or even impossible to read. But the handwriting is itself often interesting, for the large number of messages from this period in Stanton’s own hand show that it was he, not his clerks, who was writing them. After reviewing a few reels of M473 in Washington (for some reason the only place the National Archives has a set) I have purchased several reels. So I am reviewing them now here at Exeter.
The second key source for Stanton correspondence is the Official Records, more fully known as The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. This set of 128 volumes, compiled by the War Department in the late nineteenth century, has been heavily used by many historians. It is now available online, in the Making of America website of Cornell University. It is also available in print in the Exeter library.
In early June 1862, George McClellan and his Union army were nearing Richmond; indeed on this day McClellan reported to Stanton that his advance guards were within four miles of the city. Stanton sent five messages to McClellan on this day, ranging from a message congratulating McClellan on his progress to one informing him that a particular quartermaster would be appointed as requested by McClellan.
Four different Union generals were in or near the Shenandoah Valley, responding to the attacks there of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. Stanton sent messages to all four of these generals on this one day: John Fremont at Strasburg, George McDowell at Front Royal, Nathaniel Banks at Williamsport, and Franz Sigel at Harpers Ferry. Much of Stanton’s work in these days was just keeping one general apprised of the other’s movements. But he often added, in his own hand, little postscripts to these messages. For example, in a message to Sigel, relaying news from Fremont, Stanton added: “I hope no time will be lost in pressing forward to aid General Fremont.”
Stanton was also in touch with generals farther west, including Henry Halleck, in Corinth, Mississippi, and Ormsby Mitchel, in Huntsville, Alabama. He wrote three messages to Halleck on June 2, including one congratulating him on his “brilliant and successful achievement” in capturing Corinth and another detailing the railroad engines and cars that were nearby and would be sent in Halleck’s direction. Stanton did not often apologize, but he almost apologized to Mitchel for failing to keep him informed; he closed his message by saying “I will hereafter keep you advised of all the movements in the field.”
Stanton was also in frequent communication with governors at this time. On May 25, alarmed by Jackson’s movements in the Shenandoah, Stanton had sent a message to all the northern governors: “Intelligence from various quarters leaves no doubt that the enemy in great force are advancing on Washington.” Stanton had requested that the governors send all available troops, even troops enlisted for only three months. A few days later, on May 27, Stanton changed his mind: he sent a message to most (but not all) the governors: “President directs that the militia be released and the enlistments made for three years or during the war.”
These conflicting messages caused confusion, which Stanton was still sorting out on June 2. Stanton wrote, for example, to Governor Holbrook on this day, saying that he would take as many three-year troops as Vermont could provide. He added (then crossed out) that: “Jackson is flying from the valley of the Shenandoah with Fremont Sigel and McDowell after him.” This is visible in M473 but not in the Official Records. Stanton also wrote to Governor Tod in Ohio that “the appearances now are that if recruits can be had rapidly enough . . . the war can be finished up in three months.”
Stanton was also in communication with other prominent civilians on June 2, 1862. He answered a purported letter from Horace Binney, the famous Philadelphia lawyer, who had asked why Lincoln did not summon an overwhelming force; it later emerged that this “Binney letter” was a hoax. Stanton also wrote to David Dudley Field, the famous New York lawyer, thanking him for suggestions on recruiting. Stanton wrote to Stephen Logan, Lincoln’s former law partner, asking whether he was willing to be part of a commission to audit the accounts of the quartermaster in Cairo, Illinois. Stanton sent similar letters, on this same day, to George Boutwell, former governor of Massachusetts, and John Shepley, a lawyer in St. Louis, Missouri. And there were two letters to Kentucky, one to a federal officer and one to a newspaper editor, defending a recent order against one of the prominent Clay family.
So far I have talked only about Stanton’s official correspondence. But of course there are other sources for this period, especially newspapers. Stanton was the subject, at this time, of a bitter battle in the newspapers, in some sense a proxy war between Stanton and McClellan. The Boston Advertiser, although generally supportive of the Lincoln administration, called on May 27 for Stanton’s resignation. The Advertiser demanded “that Mr. Stanton should vacate a department which he has proved himself incompetent to fill, and should make way for some officer who will not undertake to manage for our generals in the field when sitting in his chair in the War Office, who will not ruin our campaigns by his interference, and whose vision extends beyond the Department of the Rappahannock.” In particular, the Advertiser charged that Stanton had impeded McClellan by denying him the promised troops of McDowell.
The New York World was also, in late May and early June, attacking Stanton and defending McClellan. “The misconduct of the campaign in Virginia, outside of Gen. McClellan’s command, is mainly due to the Secretary of War and his radical aiders and abettors in and out of Congress. The strategy which was sneered at, and the cautious, well-laid plans which were condemned and overruled, is now found were indispensable to the proper conduct of the war. Gen. McClellan was not fast enough, so Generals McDowell, Banks and Fremont were ordered to march on Richmond ahead of him. They have tried to do so, and what is the result? Witness the defeat of Milroy, the flight of Banks, and the inaction of McDowell.”
On June 2, the Boston Evening Transcript came to Stanton’s defense. In a long editorial, reprinted in other papers, the Transcript argued that “Stanton came into power when foreign intervention seemed imminent, with no one great military advantage yet followed up, and with capital distrusting the national finances, on which all depended. With the breadth and vision of a statesman, and with a terrible earnestness and force of will of a Cromwellian, he brought into the national counsels, for the first time since the war began, comprehensiveness, decisiveness and a thorough realization of the value of time to this nation. For the first time the national will found expression.”
Responding to the specific charge, that Stanton had deprived McClellan of McDowell’s troops, and therefore impeded the attack on Richmond, the Transcript said that McClellan’s demands “would have left not a national soldier between the forts across the Potomac and Richmond by way of Fredericksburg.” The Transcript added that “when the correspondence of the War Department on that subject sees the light, it will be found that the President himself interfered to prevent the 23,000 men left to General McDowell from being sent [to McClellan].”
The reference to the “correspondence of the War Department” raises an interesting question: to what extent was Stanton himself involved in this late May-early June newspaper war?
We cannot answer completely, but there is some suggestive evidence. On June 2, the same day the Boston Transcript article appeared, its author, Horatio Woodman wrote to Stanton, saying that although they had never met, he felt that he knew Stanton well through their mutual friend Governor John Andrew. A few days before this, on May 28, Senator Charles Sumner had written to Andrew to say the Boston Daily Advertiser article was “absolutely false.” Sumner “was with the President and the Sec of War Sunday evening, & had from their own lips the precise state of the case. The late movements have all been under the orders of the President. Of this be assured. But this is not all. This whole trouble is directly traceable to McClellan, who took away to Yorktown an amount of troops beyond what he was authorized to do, so as to leave Washington defenseless. When the President became aware of this he was justly indignant.”
We cannot be sure, but it looks like Stanton spoke with Sumner, who wrote to Andrew, who spoke with Woodman, and thus that Stanton provided information for Woodman’s article. Stanton might claim that he did not care what the papers printed about him, but he did care, and he defended himself from time to time. This is but one instance of what I expect to be a major theme of my book: how Stanton dealt with the press.
I cannot go into this level of detail for each day of the Civil War; the book would be 1000 pages long and nobody would read it. But I believe that I need to research in this level of detail in order to understand what Stanton did, why he did it, and then write about it in less detailed, more readable ways. That is what I am trying to do, but it may take a while.