Stanton's personal interactions during the war seem those of a sociopath. People were useful to him or not. He was cruel and domineering toward the helpless and he was obsequious to the influential.
I would like to share vignettes of Stanton at work. Donn Piatt was a childhood friend of Stanton's:
A subordinate, to deal comfortably with the War Secretary, had to be a mere cipher, so despotic was he. I remember when summoned before him as Judge Advocate of the commission called to investigate the conduct of General Don Carlos Buell, in Tennessee, I ventured to say "This is all very well Mr. Secretary but I'd like to know where you find a law to sanction such a court as this."The next day, list in hand, Piatt encounters Stanton on the street.
"My noble captain," replied the Secretary, his short upper lip curling, and with the gleam of his white teeth and dark eyes making an expression anything but comfortable, "you are commissioned to obey orders and not to study law, for it is rather late in life for you to begin that. When I need a legal adviser it is not likely that I will call upon Judge Piatt. If I am to be met here with the quibble of a county-court lawyer I will find some other officer."
The sarcasm stung, for I had been placed upon the bench at the age of 25 ... However I hid the hurt and said, "All right; but I would suggest this is no ordinary inquiry and should be made up of the ablest officers."
"That is true," responded the Secretary, "You go to the list of officers not on duty and I will appoint from them."
I turned and walked with him telling him what I had done. He was in a terrible mood and neither looked at nor spoke to me. At the door of his office, the messenger threw it open and the Secretary stalking in banged it to in my face. This wooden insult sent a flush to my face. Turning, I saw General Fremont who had witnessed the affront, and while talking to this remarkable man the messenger came ... "The Secretary wants you." I went in. Stanton was seated alone at the end of his table. Looking up, he exclaimed, "Don, what in the ___ do you want?"Of course he is saying, I can trust you to hang Buell. And that is the payoff for Piatt in this brutal little psychodrama, a psychodrama that is the Union war effort in miniature.
"Nothing sir, not even civil treatment. You directed me to make out a list of officers to compose the Buell court. I have done so and only came to report the names."
"Take them to Halleck, that is his business," roared the Secretary. "I can't run the War Department let alone trying to run Halleck. Go to him.
"Mr. Secretary," I said quietly, "I don't mind being jumped on by you any more than if it was my elder brother, but I won't be insulted by General Halleck, as you know I will be if I go as you direct."
"Insulted?" he exclaimed angrily, "I'll see to that. Here, take him this" and he hastily wrote a note.
I did as ordered. I appeared before the great Art of War ... He read the note I handed him and then, tearing it in two, dropped it in the waste-basket saying, with all the sarcasm his dull face was capable of -
"What is your address captain?"
I gave it to him and then, rising from his chair, he bowed mockingly and added, "When I need your assistance, I shall certainly send for you, captain."
The sarcasm of this was so well done that it raised the dull, epauleted creature in my estimation far above what his stupid book had done. I retired as gracefully as I could and reported the affair to Stanton.
"Damn his insolence! Why didn't you pull his nose?"
"Because the insult was directed at you," I answered. "I was only the poor devil of a captain assigned to the duty of carrying it. I wish to God I was out of this."
My perplexity amused the Secretary. He burst into a laugh and said, "Oh, never mind Halleck, he can't insult anyone. Take the court he gives you and do the best you can," and seeing that I was deeply hurt he put his arm around my shoulders, in his old caressing way, and added, "and don't mind me, we are both hasty. This is an important business I give you and I know I can trust you."
Consider a story about Lorenzo Thomas (pictured). When, as a consulting War Department lawyer, Stanton gained Cameron's place, he told Piatt he wanted to do four things. The fourth was, "I will pick Lorenzo Thomas up with a pair of tongs and drop him from the nearest window."
In his Anecdotes of the Civil War in the United States, E. D. Townsend relates how Stanton busied Thomas with various special assignments to keep him out of the office. He succeeded in practically vacating Thomas's office from 1862-1868. In attempting to supersede him without relieving him in 1863, Townsend confronts Stanton with the law at which point Stanton rationalizes the presence of Thomas's replacement into a special assignment for a particular task. Not a replacement.
Townsend also relates events around Lorenzo Thomas's appointment to ad interim Secretary of War:
On Friday, the 21st , the general came to the room where I was sitting with another officer, and, calling him, they went out together. In a short time they returned, and the general threw a letter on my table, which was the one from the President, appointing him Secretary of War ad interim. He told me he had delivered the letter to Mr. Stanton, removing him, and had taken the other officer to be a witness to the interview ; that, on reading the letter to Mr. Stanton, the latter remarked, "I suppose you will give me time to remove my private papers!" and that he then asked for a copy of the President s letter of appointment. I made this copy, and the general certified it officially as "Secretary of War ad interim." When Mr. Stanton received the copy, he said he would consider whether he would recognize it or not. General Thomas seemed to think Mr. Stanton would retire without making any opposition. He said emphatically that he should most certainly, at all hazards, take possession of the war-office on the following Monday, which would give Mr. Stanton ample time to vacate, Saturday (February 22d) being a holiday, and Sunday coming right after. He then sent his letter to the President, accepting the appointment.Stanton's reason and mercy are here on display: he will not kill U.S. soldiers in the course of defying his president's orders.
On Saturday, February 22d, I went to the War Department, as usual on holidays, merely for my private letters. The rooms were all locked, and the keys were in
Mr. Stanton s possession. He had remained in his own office all night. I went to General Schriver's room, which was directly opposite the Secretary's. At about
noon General Thomas entered the building unaccompanied. He had been all the night at a masked ball with his family, had just sat down to breakfast without taking off his uniform, when he was arrested and summoned before Chief-Justice Cartter, of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. The arrest was made on a warrant issued upon Mr. Stanton's affidavit that, on a pretended appointment of Secretary of War ad interim, he had endeavored to exercise the authority of the Secretary of War, contrary to the act "regulating the tenure of certain civil offices," passed March, 1867. He gave bail in five thousand dollars to appear on the following Wednesday. From the court he proceeded directly to the President s office, and, after consultation with the President, went to the Secretary's room in the War Department. His arrest had changed his intention of waiting till Monday to demand possession of the office. There were several members of Congress with Mr. Stanton. The general courteously saluted those present, and the following colloquy ensued:
General Thomas (addressing Mr. Stanton). I am Secretary of War ad interim, and am ordered by the President of the United States to take charge of this office.
Mr. Stanton. I order you to repair to your room, and exercise your office as adjutant-general.
General T. I am Secretary of War ad interim, and I shall not obey your orders; but I shall obey the order of the President to take charge of this office.
Mr. S. As Secretary of War, I order you to repair to your office as adjutant-general.
General T. I shall not do so.
Mr. S. Then you may stand there, if you please; but you will attempt to act as Secretary of War at your peril.
General T. I shall act as Secretary of War.
There the official interview ended. There was no excitement in language or manner, but each spoke with quiet determination. There was a short-hand writer present who took down every word. Presently, General Thomas crossed the hall to General Schriver's room - both doors had been all the time open. Mr. Stanton, followed
only by the stenographer, came in after him. The door of General Schriver's room was then closed. Mr. Stanton, resuming the colloquy, said in a laughing tone to General Thomas, "So you claim to be here as Secretary of War, and refuse to obey my orders, do you?" General Thomas replied, seriously: "I do so claim. I shall require the mails of the War Department to be delivered to me, and shall transact all the business of the department." Seeing that the general looked as if he had had no rest the night before, Mr. Stanton then, playfully running his fingers up through the general's hair, as he wearily leaned back in his chair, said, "Well, old fellow,
have you had any breakfast this morning? " "No," said Thomas, good-naturedly. "Nor anything to drink?" "No." " Then you are as badly off as I am, for I have had neither." Mr. Stanton ten sent out for some refreshment; General Thomas related how he had been arrested just after returning with his children from a ball, before he had time to eat his breakfast, and they had a very pleasant conversation for half an hour. Presently, Mr. Stanton asked General Thomas when he was going to give him the report of an inspection of the national cemeteries which he had lately made. Mr. Stanton said if it was not soon rendered it would be too late to have it printed, and he was anxious to have it go forth as a creditable work of the department. There was apparently no special point to this question, and General Thomas evidently saw none, for he answered pleasantly that he would work at it that night and give it to him. It struck me as a lawyer's ruse to make Thomas acknowledge Stanton's authority as Secretary of War, and that Thomas was caught by it. I, some time after, asked Mr. Stanton if that was his design. He made no reply, but looked at me with a mock expression of surprise at my conceiving such a thing.
Before General Thomas left the department, Mr. Stanton handed him a letter forbidding him to give any orders as Secretary of War. The general read and indorsed it as received on that date, signing the indorsement as Secretary ad interim; which Mr. Stanton seeing, he remarked, laughing, "Here you have committed another offense!" To this the general assented. He soon after went away for the day.
[...] There were some persistent reports that it was fully intended that possession of the War Department should be gained by force, if Mr. Stanton would not voluntarily retire. [...] As for Mr. Stanton, who had heard some of the reports of intended violence, he gave orders, the evening of the 22d, that, if General Thomas should come to take the department by force, no resistance should be made, but that he should be immediately notified of his approach. This order was kept secret, because, if known, it might lead to the attempt being made. Mr. Stanton, however, declared he would not have blood shed on his account, and, if an assault on the building were attempted, he would not try to repel it.