Tuesday, January 15, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Monday, Jan. 13, 1862

The Bear

He was a brilliant, short-tempered, stocky bully of a man, whose hard eyes staring out of a profusion of whiskers resembled a bear peering out of a briar patch. He was hard to like and hard to resist, and he had not only memorably insulted Abraham Lincoln years ago, he had kept up a drumbeat of criticism of the President in the first, difficult months of the war, proclaiming “the imbecility of this administration.” He was an Ohio Democrat named Edwin McMasters Stanton and today something amazing happens to him.

This morning, President Lincoln, a Republican, tells his Cabinet that he is going to choose Stanton as his secretary of war, replacing the ineffective Pennsylvania politico Simon Cameron. This incomprehensible action—the President choosing a man who had insulted and criticized him bitterly and who was a member of the opposition party—is but one example of how Lincoln could see possibilities other men couldn’t.

Warned that the bull-headed Stanton “might run away with the whole concern,” Lincoln recalled a Midwestern preacher whose liveliness made church members want to put bricks in his pockets to hold him down. “I may have to do that with Stanton,” Lincoln said, “but if I do, bricks in his pockets will be better than bricks in his hat. I’ll risk him for a while without either.”

Stanton was a Democrat, but unlike many Democrats, he was strongly opposed to both secession and slavery. He had spent part of his time as attorney general under the benighted President Buchanan secretly subverting secessionist tendencies in Washington.

Years before the war, Stanton had been lead attorney on a lawsuit and by chance Lincoln was assigned to his legal team in a Cincinnati court. Stanton repeatedly snubbed Lincoln during their mutual stay in Cincinnati, and sneered at him as “a long, lank creature” and a “giraffe.”

But Stanton was a brilliant lawyer with a reputation for getting things done, no matter the obstacles, and he had two other things going for him: he was known to favor vigorous prosecution of the war and he had the support of Lincoln’s general-in-chief, George B. McClellan, who also was a Democrat.

In the years of war, Stanton would prove to have been a brilliant choice. Congressman Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts will write after the war, “If Lincoln was essential to the success of the Union, it is no less true that Stanton was essential to the success of Lincoln.” Another commentator said, “If Lincoln was the heart of the war effort, Stanton was the head.”

OTHER EVENTS IN LINCOLN'S DAY: An ad hoc council of generals, Cabinet members, Lincoln, and McClellan meet to discuss how to get the Union armies moving McClellan, his feathers ruffled by the meeting, rudely refuses to divulge his plans. Lincoln writes Generals Halleck and Buell in the West, urging them to action against the enemy and stressing a strategy of "menacing him with superior forces at different points, at the same time." While still deferring to the generals' superior knowledge of warfare, Lincoln nonetheless is displaying greater wisdom. And his patience is running out.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

Your suggestions, comments, and questions about this blog are always welcome. Address the author: Ohioan@bloodtearsandglory.com

For more information about the author and his newest book, please go to http://www.orangefrazer.com/btg

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