At the time of his death, renowned Lincoln biographer Benjamin Thomas was at work on a life of one of the most controversial figures in American history: Edwin McMasters Stanton, the man who marshaled the military forces of the Union in the Civil War and played a crucial role in the only presidential impeachment trial in our history. Harold Hyman, himself a prize-winning historian, undertook to carry on from the advanced point in research and writing that Thomas had reached.
The result of their collaborative efforts is a monumental work worthy to stand beside Thomas’s own Lincoln as a truly outstanding American biography. Continuously absorbing and written with clarity and grace, Stanton gives an objective, full-scale portrait of this complex and enigmatic figure. Stanton could be explosive and domineering or gentle or considerate; he was at once single-minded and self-doubting.
That Stanton should be “controversial” is curious, for he served with distinction under three Presidents; Lincoln offered him unquestioning trust and warm personal friendship. Yet Stanton’s name is commonly associated with duplicity rather than with selfless patriotism, including charges that he connived in Lincoln’s murder, betrayed each of the Presidents he served, antagonized such generals as McClellan and Sherman, and thwarted opportunities for the peaceful reconciliation of North and South.
This biography puts legend and prejudice in clear perspective by going directly to documentary evidence, by probing into Stanton’s motives and methods, and by evaluating his accomplishments and failures. It is a judicious and honest portrait of a stubborn, dedicated man; but it also brings to light many important details about the times in which he lived.