Abraham Lincoln had a great strategy for destroying enemies: he befriended them. Perhaps no other sitting American President had so many enemies as did Lincoln. As history tells, one of them would eventually take his life.
But it wouldn’t be Edwin M. Stanton.
Lincoln, an Illinois lawyer, met Stanton, the high-powered Washington, D.C. lawyer and future attorney general, when the D.C. based lawyer invited Lincoln to join him in the infamous McCormick Reaper case set to be tried in Chicago. Never having served in such a prestigious position, Lincoln accepted the position, and worked tirelessly preparing document after document, conducting research for the legal team.
But Lincoln didn’t know that Stanton was only using Lincoln to make himself look good in the eyes of the Illinois judge who would try the case. In fact, not only did Stanton not have any use for Lincoln’s work, he would not even associate with the man he called “a giraffe.” Lincoln eventually got the message and receded from the legal team.
But that was 1855.
Five short years later, in 1860, that same “giraffe-like” Abraham Lincoln was the President of the United States. But Lincoln’s political savvy did nothing to assuage Stanton of his low opinion of Lincoln. In personal letters to friends and even Union General George McClellan, Stanton said of the president, he had “no token of intelligent understanding.”
There was no love lost between the two men. But lost love didn’t concern the president; he was focused on not losing a war! The Civil War was going badly for the Union, and the War Department, based just up the street from the White House, was in absolute disarray. Logistics were sloppy, supplies were always short and late, and updates from battlefields were often sketchy.
Advisors to the president recommended he appoint the man best-suited for the job of Secretary of the War Department: Edwin M. Stanton. So Lincoln swallowed all his pride, and did just that.
What could have been Lincoln’s biggest blunder of the Civil War – appointing a known enemy to such an important post – turned out to be one of Lincoln’s best decisions.
When Stanton joined the cabinet, Lincoln trusted him implicitly. Lincoln spent more time with his Secretary of the War Department than he did any other cabinet member. Almost every day, Lincoln walked down the street to get updates from Stanton on particular fronts. Sometimes, during critical battles, Lincoln made the trek three or four times a day. In fact, it wasn’t unheard of for the president to spend the night in the telegraph office of the War Department waiting on updates from the field.
The trust Lincoln had for Stanton was well-deserved. Often times, Lincoln would not even read over military commissions that required his signature if he spotted Stanton’s name on the ledger. Stanton’s approval was good enough for Lincoln.
Lincoln’s trust of Stanton began to change the two men’s relationship. Stanton responded with unfailing loyalty. Disparaging words of Lincoln not only disappeared from Stanton’s lips, but neither he nor any of his family members would tolerate a scornful remark of their beloved president.
Where enmity once was, a friendship blossomed. On the evening of April 9, 1865, upon Lincoln’s return to Washington aboard the River Queen, it was Stanton who greeted him – with a bear hug – and informed Lincoln of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Five days later, on the morning of April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died from the gunshot wound inflicted on him the night before while taking in a show at Ford’s Theater. The famous words spoken upon Lincoln’s death, “Now he belongs to the ages,” are attributed to Stanton.
Robert Todd Lincoln, the assassinated president’s son, wrote that Stanton, “for more than ten days after my father’s death in Washington, called every morning on me in my room, and spent the first few minutes of his visits weeping without saying a word.”
Because Abraham Lincoln was willing to forgive and trust, he gained a friend. A very dear friend.
Lincoln on Leadership by Donald T. Philips. Warner, 1993, Pages 16-17 and 30-31.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)