New, Effective Leadership at the War Department
January 15, 1862. At the start of 1862, many questions persisted about military leadership in the Lincoln administration. The country had never before raised, armed, fed, or put on the field an army
as large as the one that Secretary of War Simon Cameron oversaw. By the fall of 1861 Cameron had proven himself incapable of managing the enormous military bureaucracy required to prosecute the war. Inefficiency, poor communication, and widespread corruption were serious impediments to the Union war machine. A consensus developed that Cameron needed to be replaced, and early in January, 1862, he was persuaded to resign. (1)
Lincoln’s choice to replace Cameron was the Democratic lawyer Edwin M. Stanton, who had served President James Buchanan as attorney general in the final months of his administration. Stanton had once been active as a Jacksonian Democrat, but by the turbulent 1850s he was keeping his political cards close to his chest. Well known as a hard-working and fiercely effective attorney, he established a lucrative legal practice in Washington, D.C., moving his family to the capital in 1856. (2) His service to Buchanan consisted most notably of persuading the President not to give in to Southern demands to abandon Fort Sumter and other actions that would have strengthened the Confederacy’s military hand. (3) There could be no doubt that Stanton was a strong Unionist.
Stanton’s efforts in the Buchanan cabinet won him great admiration among Republicans and Union Democrats alike. Although the aggressive lawyer had affronted Lincoln in the courtroom many years before and severely criticized the President in private during the summer of 1861, he possessed qualities that Lincoln needed in the post, and the President was willing to overlook past differences. (4) Stanton’s appointment as Secretary of War, confirmed by the Senate on January 15, 1862, met with widespread approval in the Northern press as well as in the inner circles of power in Washington. Some would come to regret their support for him.
Stanton moved quickly to reorganize the War Department. He devoted himself to victory, often working long into the night and never taking time for vacation or amusement. His temper and stubbornness became legendary. He antagonized many, including his recent political ally, General George B. McClellan, but favored others whom he considered competent and effective, such as Generals U. S. Grant and George Thomas. Faced with an overwhelming job, Stanton made mistakes but persevered, becoming “one of the chief architects of victory,” in the words of historian Allan Nevins. (5)
Administratively, the appointment of Edwin M. Stanton as Secretary of War may well have been the turning point of the Civil War. His enormous energy, organizational abilities, and overbearing will ensured that the great advantages enjoyed by the North in raw materials, manufacturing, and manpower would eventually prove decisive in the conflict.
– Submitted by Jeffrey D. Marshall, Director of Research Collections, University of Vermont Libraries
1. Allan Nevins, The War for the Union. Volume I: The Improvised War, 1861-1862 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959), 409.
2. Benjamin P. Thomas and Harold M. Hyman, Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln’s Secretary of War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962, 68-75).
3. Ibid, 90-117.
4. Nevins, The Improvised War, 410-11.
5. Nevins, The War for the Union. Volume II: War Becomes Revolution, 1862-1863 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), 37.