Edwin Stanton: Biography & Significance

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
Edwin Stanton was the Secretary of War from 1862 to 1868. He served under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, and was crucial in helping Lincoln win the Civil War.


During the American Civil War, numerous armies fought in battles across the divided country, creating a vast tapestry of war. Both Union and Confederate forces needed someone to help coordinate all of that movement and fighting. For the United States, for much of the war, that person was Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Early Days

Like many Union leaders in the Civil War, Stanton was an Ohioan by birth. After losing his father as a teenager, he attended Kenyon College. Upon leaving school, he began practicing law and became a lawyer by trade. The legal profession led to a rising career for Stanton. In 1847, he moved his practice to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and in the late 1850s, he began working in Washington, D.C. Perhaps his most famous case at this time was his defense of Daniel Sickles, a politician and future Union general who shot and killed his wife's lover in Washington. Stanton argued that Sickles was insane at the time of the crime, and Sickles was acquitted. This was the first time in U.S. history that an insanity defense was successfully used.

Because of his rising stature, in the late stages of the James Buchanan administration, Stanton became U.S. Attorney General, bringing him into the political world. Stanton had long-held political connections and was a staunch Democrat for much of his life. Yet, when Southern states began seceding following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, Stanton strongly denounced them. War broke out shortly after Lincoln took office in 1861 and, because of his loyalty to the Union, Stanton remained in Washington to help new Secretary of War Simon Cameron deal with legal matters.

Civil War

Early on in the Civil War, the Lincoln administration had a steep learning curve on military matters. Confederate President Jefferson Davis had a long and distinguished career, having once been the U.S. Secretary of War himself. Lincoln's own Secretary of War Simon Cameron proved an inefficient and incapable cabinet member. Cameron did not provide the abilities that Lincoln needed to win the war. He was a political appointment and was ill-suited for the position. Thus, in early 1862, Cameron was removed from his post. Lincoln, a Republican, asked Stanton, a Democrat, to become Secretary of War. Stanton agreed, believing that by doing so, he was accepting his duty to his country.

Stanton was the Secretary of War for the remainder of the Civil War. Despite having a Democratic background, he was a fiery advocate for a strong war effort and became a Republican during his time in the Lincoln Administration. Stanton clashed with prominent Union generals who had their own strong political backgrounds. Notably, he did not work well with Major General George B. McClellan, a Union officer who was famous for his political nature and disdain for Lincoln (McClellan would end up running against Lincoln for the presidency in 1864).

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton

Stanton used heavy-handed tactics on numerous occasions. Notably, he fought back against those in the north who criticized the war, even ordering and threatening to have certain individuals arrested for deterring individuals from enlisting in the army. Stanton advocated for Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and worked hard to promote state and federal drafts.

Lincoln Assassination

In April 1865, when Lincoln was assassinated, Stanton's heavy-handedness came to be of tremendous use for the country in heading the search for the president's murderer. Stanton organized army forces for a manhunt to find John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators.

One by one, these individuals were rounded up. Booth himself was shot and killed. Several of the others were tried by a military tribunal, organized by Stanton himself. Despite these suspects being civilians, Stanton used the powers of his office to try them in military court rather than a civilian setting. These individuals were convicted and several of them were hung as punishment for their involvement in the Lincoln assassination plot, which was also aimed at Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward.

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