Title: Stanton: Lincoln’s War Secretary
Published by: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: August 8, 2017
Walter Stahr, award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller Seward, tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s indispensable Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, the man the president entrusted with raising the army that preserved the Union.
Of the crucial men close to President Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814–1869) was the most powerful and controversial. Stanton raised, armed, and supervised the army of a million men who won the Civil War. He organized the war effort. He directed military movements from his telegraph office, where Lincoln literally hung out with him. He arrested and imprisoned thousands for “war crimes,” such as resisting the draft or calling for an armistice. Stanton was so controversial that some accused him at that time of complicity in Lincoln’s assassination. He was a stubborn genius who was both reviled and revered in his time.
Stanton was a Democrat before the war and a prominent trial lawyer. He opposed slavery, but only in private. He served briefly as President Buchanan’s Attorney General and then as Lincoln’s aggressive Secretary of War. On the night of April 14, 1865, Stanton rushed to Lincoln’s deathbed and took over the government since Secretary of State William Seward had been critically wounded the same evening. He informed the nation of the President’s death, summoned General Grant to protect the Capitol, and started collecting the evidence from those who had been with the Lincolns at the theater in order to prepare a murder trial.
Now with this worthy complement to the enduring library of biographical accounts of those who helped Lincoln preserve the Union, Stanton honors the indispensable partner of the sixteenth president. Walter Stahr’s essential book is the first major biography of Stanton in fifty years, restoring this underexplored figure to his proper place in American history.
“Stahr has given us not only the definitive biography of the man after Lincoln most responsible for Union victory, but also a work of stunning force and literary excellence. Indeed, I believe Stanton to be one of the finest Civil War biographies ever written.”
—Peter Cozzens, prize-winning author of The Earth is Weeping
“A lively, lucid, and opinionated history . . . The book should be Stanton’s definitive biography for some time to come.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Walter Stahr has delivered another solid, well-researched biography of a major, if often overlooked, figure in American history. His portrait of Edwin Stanton is fair-minded, rigorous, and scrupulously honest, balancing his sometimes questionable record on civil liberties with the logistical wizardry that he applied to win the Union war effort. Stanton is thus a welcome and significant addition to the ample literature on the Civil War and Reconstruction.”
—Ron Chernow, author of The New York TimesBestseller Alexander Hamilton and Washington: A Life
"Moving swiftly across the enormous landscape of Stanton's life and times, Stahr provides a narrative that is both readily accessible and compelling."
"This exhaustively researched, well-paced book should take its place as the new, standard biography of the ill-tempered man who helped save the Union. It is fair, judicious, authoritative, and comprehensive." Harold Holzer, winner of the Lincoln Prize, in the Wall Street Journal.
“Walter Stahr has given us the best all-around account of Stanton’s life as Lincoln’s Secretary of War in over half-a-century. Here is the biography of America’s most difficult man—delightfully written, well-informed, humane and judicious.”
—Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, author of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, winner of The Lincoln Prize
“Walter Stahr’s Stanton offers a masterly account of one of the great characters of the Civil War. The Secretary of War from 1862-1865 was irascible, autocratic, and vengeful, but also steadfast, punctilious, and practical. This fascinating biography reveals how such a complex and unlikely figure came to play such a vital role at the country’s hour of peril.”
—Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War
"There are many biographies of Stanton, but Stahr's will stand out as one of the finest and most detailed. This is a book for both scholars of Civil War history and general readers who have an interest in that period."
—Washington Independent Review of Books.
"A judiciously sympathetic treatment"
—New York Times.
“In this well researched, forcefully written and argued biography, Walter Stahr shows why Stanton deserves great credit for helping to make Lincoln a successful leader. The gruff, irascible, humorless war secretary and the magnanimous, affable, humorous president were an odd couple, but together they provided the extraordinary leadership that the times required.”
—Michael Burlingame, author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life
“Stahr, in an exceedingly important biography, gives us the good, bad and ugly about one of our most controversial yet effective cabinet members. A must read for all interested in Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and Reconstruction.”
—Frank J. Williams, founding Chair of The Lincoln Forum and retired Chief Justice of the RI Supreme Court
As I finished work on Seward, and started thinking about a third book, I floated various possibilities with my agent, Scott Waxman, and editor, Alice Mayhew. The one they liked was Edwin McMasters Stanton, the Civil War secretary of war. I started doing some research on Stanton in the fall of 2012, when we were living in Exeter and I was spending much time on the road, for Seward book events. We signed the agreement for the Stanton book in January 2013.
I knew something about Stanton when I started work on him but, thinking back to that time, I am struck by how little I knew and how much of what I “knew” was wrong. For example: I “knew” that when Stanton first met Lincoln, when they served as co-counsel in a patent case in Cincinnati in the late 1850s, Stanton was rude to Lincoln. This is one of those facts that most Civil War buffs “know.” In their great new military history of the Civil War, Murray and Hsieh state that Lincoln appointed Stanton “despite the fact that the lawyer had egregiously insulted the future president in the McCormick reaper trial in Cincinnati in the late 1850s.”
Not so. Or at least not so simple. All the accounts we have about how Stanton insulted Lincoln when they met in Cincinnati are second hand memoirs, written years later. We have no letter from Lincoln at the time, complaining about the way in which he was insulted. We have no letter from Stanton at the time, denigrating Lincoln. (We do have two long letters that Stanton wrote from Cincinnati to his fiancée; they talk about the case and his co-counsel but do not mention Lincoln.) Is this a point on which we should trust someone saying that someone told him that, years ago, when Stanton first met Lincoln, he called him a “gorilla?”
Even some things that I thought I knew about Stanton from my Seward research proved, on further research and consideration, to be not so simple. For example, in the Seward book I state (as most other authors do) that Seward and Stanton did not meet face to face during the secession winter. Seward himself, in a letter he wrote five years later, said that they were careful not to meet because they knew that their political enemies were watching them. But there is a January 1861 letter from Seward’s best friend Weed, to Lincoln, saying that Stanton was “in constant communication” with Seward. And a month later, there is a note in Seward’s hand to Stanton, inviting him to dinner with the actress Charlotte Cushman. And there are a few other tidbits suggesting that the “did not meet” was a later invention, to heighten the drama, not the contemporary reality.
For those in search of more of the backstory of the Stanton book, take a look at my blog, starting with early 2013, in which from time to time I described the pleasures and difficulties of research and writing on Edwin Stanton.