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Abraham Lincoln and Edwin Stanton

For Better
Abraham Lincoln and Edwin Stanton

Prospects looked dismal for the United States government at the end of the Civil War’s first year. For all of Abraham Lincoln’s gifts, administration clearly wasn’t one of them. His inept Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, ran a dysfunctional department that grossly overpaid suppliers and undersupplied soldiers. Under Cameron’s direction, generals in the field made policy directly at odds with that of their civilian Commander-in-Chief.

Meanwhile, federal troops lost battles or avoided them, and European powers prepared to back the rebels. The Union was in peril.

Everyone inside Washington knew that Lincoln needed a better man at the helm of the State Department. But when he appointed the highly esteemed Edwin Stanton, most were stunned. Since meeting Lincoln years before during a law case, Stanton had treated Lincoln poorly and spoken of him disparagingly. Six years earlier, Stanton had called Lincoln a “long-armed Ape” within earshot, and now with Lincoln as President, Stanton spoke ill of him to anyone in Washington who would listen: “There is no settled principle or line of action—no token of any intelligent understanding by Lincoln,” Stanton wrote of in the summer of 1861. “Bluster & bravado alterna

tes with timosity & despair—recklessness and helplessness by turns rule the hour.”

Despite Stanton’s disdain, Lincoln was convinced that he was the best man for the post and so he went ahead and appointed him. Then, instead of putting Stanton in his place or humiliating him in turn, Lincoln set out to build a relationship that would win over Stanton and ultimately win the war. Putting his humiliation aside, Lincoln would walk over to the War Office each day and join Stanton in the telegraph room. There, as telegraphs arrived from the field, Stanton would jump and bluster, and Lincoln would stretch out on the sofa, sometimes for hours on end late into the night, talking over matters of strategy and administration. In that room, the two worked thr

ough their differences, and in the course of doing so, stemmed the tide of Union failures—first as adversaries, then as partners, and finally, improbably, as friends.

As partners, the two consistently brought out the best in each other: Stanton wielding his blunt force to end corruption in the supply line and promote generals who made real gains on the battlefield, and Lincoln deploying his tact and political savvy to soothe the egos upon which Stanton trampled. Three years later, when Lincoln died, the usually unemotional Stanton weeped uncontrollably for weeks, having lost not just his President, but his dearest friend.

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