In the case of Ann Howard, we move past imagination to delusionally obsessive behavior. Stanton could not quench the fantasy that Ann Howard had been buried alive until he personally dug up her corpse and personally handled her cholera-ridden remains.
Then again, in choosing to clothe the corpse of his dead first wife in her wedding gown, Stanton obsessed that it should fit the corpse closely (flatteringly?) and had the dress modified repeatedly.
Lincoln comments famously on Stanton's mania (the needing-bricks-in-his-pockets remark) where Piatt finds Stanton the depressive weeping uncontrollably after what should have been a pleasant reunion.
The Stanton breakdown best known to Civil War readers occurred March 9, 1862.
Sound-bite-sized snippets of this incident have been doled out by talespinners in a hurry, depriving readers of the full flavor of the utter insanity that ruled that day - insanity emanating from a vortex inside Stanton.
The entire episode is passed off as no more than a collective panic attack, with Stanton more affected than the other Cabinet members.
(I ask readers to go to their favorite histories and read how the incident is treated before proceeding with what follows.)
The source is the Diary of Gideon Welles - a long entry. I have edited out his remarks about the panic of Lincoln, Seward, and others because the way he describes these, they are nothing more than anxiety attacks. Lincoln et al are upset and frightened but they make no claims, assertions, extrapolations, etc. In their panic they merely seek more and more information under the influence of emotionally impaired judgement.
The behavior of one person in this anecdote, however, could reasonably called mad. Welles:
When intelligence reached Washington on Sunday morning, the 9th of March, that the Merrimac had come down from Norfolk and attacked and destroyed the Cumberland and Congress, I called at once on the President, who had sent for me. Several members of the Cabinet soon gathered. Stanton was already there, and there was general excitement and alarm. The President himself was so excited that he could not deliberate or be satisfied with the opinions of non-professional men... But the most frightened man on that gloomy day, the most so I think of any during the Rebellion, was the Secretary of War. He was at times almost frantic, and asWelles next lays out the claims Stanton makes for the Virginia, a single ship about which Stanton knows almost nothing:
he walked the room with his eyes fixed on me, I saw well the estimation in which he held me with my unmoved and unexcited manner and conversation.
The Merrimac, he said, would destroy every vessel in the service, could lay every city on the coast under contribution, could take Fortress Monroe; McClellan's mistaken purpose to advance by the Peninsula must be abandoned, and Burnside [in NC] would inevitably be captured.If the Virginia were some kind of Jules Verne supership of the future, all but one of these claims would still be beyond reason. But Stanton has more:
Likely the first movement of the Merrimac would be to come up the Potomac and disperse Congress, destroy the Capitol arid public buildings; or she might go to New York and Boston and destroy those cities, or levy from them contributions sufficient to carry on the War.What one ship on earth could do that? Would it carry infinite fuel, infinite shot, infinite crew, infinite storage? Would its guns have unlimited elevation and unlimited traverse? Would its draught be adjustable? Welles describes an attempt to refute Stanton point by point, plunging the reader into that pathos. Welles:
... to me there was throughout the whole day something inexpressibly ludicrous in the wild, frantic talk, action, and rage of Stanton as he ran from room to room, sat down and jumped up after writing a few words, swung his arms, scolded, and raved. He could not fail to see and feel my opinion of him and his bluster, that I was calm and unmoved by his rant, spoke deliberately, and was not excited by his violence.Welles writes how Lincoln and the others fed off of Stanton's emotions and how he was alone. As with Piatt, Welles is struck by changes in Stanton's visage. Welles describes his hopes for the Monitor:
... when I mentioned she had two guns, his mingled look of incredulity and contempt cannot be described; and the tone of his voice, as he asked if my reliance was on that craft with her two guns, is equally indescribable. Others mingled in the conversation with anxiety and concern, but on the part of Stanton there was censure, bitterness, and a breaking-out of pent-up malevolence that I could not misunderstand.Please read the following carefully and think carefully about what Welles is saying:
My composure and the suggestions and views I presented were evidently a relief to him [Lincoln], but Stanton's wailings and woeful predictions disturbed him. Both he and Stanton went repeatedly to the window and looked down the Potomac the view being uninterrupted for miles to see if the Merrimac was not coming to Washington. It was asked what we could do if she were now in sight.Both he and Stanton went repeatedly to the window - I would suggest that Stanton was again in the grip of an obsessional delusion. Here, he could not exhume a corpse to find inner peace, he had to take different actions. Welles:
... Stanton in his terror telegraphed to the governors of the Northern States and the mayors of some of the cities, warning them of the danger, and advising, as I was told, that rafts of timber and other obstructions should be placed at the mouths of the harbors.The man of action responds to the man of imagination.
In connection with this flurry of orders to coastal cities, Welles discovered that Stanton secretly ordered a naval officer (Dahlgren) to prepare to sink ships in the Potomac as well. On Lincoln's advice, the order is shelved until such time as the Virginia should be spotted in the Potomac.
The Virginia did not come and Stanton's obsession passed.
(Image by the late, great Virgil Finlay.)