After the War: Edwin M. Stanton

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series After the War: Civilian Leaders

Edwin McMasters Stanton Secretary of WarEdwin M. Stanton was Lincoln’s second Secretary of War. He succeeded Simon Cameron who was inept at best, corrupt at worst on January 15, 1862. Stanton proved to be neither of those two things.

Stanton was very efficient at administering the huge War Department that purchasing everything from horses to guns to foodstuffs. But Stanton devoted considerable energy to the prosecution of Union officers whom he suspected of having traitorous sympathies for the South, the most notable of whom was Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter.

On August 8, 1862, Stanton issued an order to “arrest and imprison any person or persons who may be engaged, by act, speech or writing, in discouraging volunteer enlistments, or in any way giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or in any other disloyal practice against the United States”.

Stanton was at the room in the Petersen House when Lincoln died and uttered the famous phrase “Now he belongs to the ages” (or possibly “angels”), and lamented, “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen.”

He then took charge of the hunt for the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and his accomplices. The prosecutions were not handled by the civil courts, but by a military tribunal, and therefore under Stanton’s tutelage. Stanton has subsequently been accused of witness tampering, most notably of Louis J. Weichmann, and of other activities that skewed the outcome of the trials.

Stanton continued as Secretary of War under President Andrew Johnson. He strongly disagreed with Johnson’s plan to readmit the seceded states to the Union without guarantees of civil rights for freed slaves. The two clashed over implementation of Reconstruction policy, and Johnson dismissed Stanton and named Ulysses S. Grant as his replacement.

However, his dismissal was overruled by the Senate. Stanton barricaded himself in his office when Johnson tried again to dismiss him, this time appointing Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas as his successor.

Radical Republicans initiated impeachment proceedings against Johnson on the grounds that Johnson’s removal of Stanton without Senate approval violated the Tenure of Office Act. Stanton played a central role in the attempt to impeach President Andrew Johnson.

In a dramatic trial in the House Johnson was convicted of eleven articles of impeachment detailing his “high crimes and misdemeanors“, in accordance with Article Two of the United States Constitution on February 24, 1868. He avoided removal from office by a single vote in the Senate on May 16, 1868.

Stanton resigned from office after the Senate vote and returned to the practice of law. He campaigned heavily for Ulysses S. Grant in 1868, and Grant rewarded him with an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in December 1869. The Senate confirmed Stanton on December 19. However, Stanton (whose health had worsened during the war), suffered a severe asthma attack on December 23, and died at 4:00 a.m. on December 24, 1869, in Washington, D.C.

Stanton was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington. Because Stanton died before taking the oath of office, he is not considered to have officially joined the Supreme Court.

Stanton had taken a large pay cut to serve as Secretary of War, and his finances were in bad shape when he died. Congress voted his wife a sum the equivalent of one year’s pension for a U.S. Supreme Court justice, since her late husband had been confirmed to the Court but not sworn in. Friends also collected a generous fund to care for her and her family.

Edwin Stanton was at the center of three monumental events in the life of the United States: the American Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. As such, he was a pivotal individual in American history.


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