Lincoln: War Management by Memo by Nathan Raab, as published on the New York Times
President Abraham Lincoln wrote great and powerful speeches. Lincoln’s gifts as an orator and a writer came in part from his ability to express even the loftiest, most complex of sentiments in just a few words. He rarely used two words when one would do. This is perhaps best illustrated in the daily task of managing the war. A high percentage of his official communications are not letters at all, but notes by him that appear on the back of letters written by other people, many addressed to his attention. These memos, called endorsements, show Lincoln as an unrivaled wartime commander in chief.
Rarely longer than a tweet, these were issued with such frequency that nearly every day, one, and often several, would leave his office. Someone would write him requesting something, and he would turn that letter over and write his directive. During the war, the man with whom Lincoln corresponded most was Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.
In May of 1863 alone, for example, the president wrote Stanton at least 24 times. More than half of these missives were endorsements. Lincoln forwarded Stanton requests from Confederates for a pardon, recommendations for military promotions, orders for his commanders, and other matters big and small. These shed light on an interesting and complex relationship, one that was crucial to victory. If Lincoln’s letters and speeches show his morality, these endorsements show him waging the war and managing his talented but fractious cabinet, particularly Stanton.
Lincoln and Stanton had met before the war when they had been named to serve together as co-counsels in a lawsuit. Stanton had barred him from his legal team, calling him a “long-armed ape.” As late as 1861, after the First Battle of Bull Run, Stanton wrote to the former president James Buchanan about the “imbecility of the administration.” Despite this, when disgraced Secretary of War Simon Cameron left the cabinet, tarnished by scandal, the president appointed Stanton to replace him. He held no grudge. “A man has not time to spend half his life in quarrels,” he once said. Lincoln saw his job as establishing a system whereby the two could run the war together effectively.
Lincoln gave Stanton discretion in responding to requests and used him to deny requests he felt he could not himself deny. In his recollections, Ward Hill Lamon, a personal friend and self-appointed bodyguard to the president, recalled Lincoln saying to him, “Stanton and I have an understanding that if I send an order to him which cannot be consistently granted, he is to refuse it.”
Take as an example a May 12, 1863, endorsement using a variation of Lamon’s words “consistently granted,” written on the back of a letter from the Union League of Philadelphia proposing the employment of disabled veterans in the war effort. Lincoln wrote to Stanton, “The within is presented with a very praiseworthy object, and is submitted to the War Department, asking the best attention that can be consistently given to it.” In Lincoln-Stanton parlance, this was a suggestion but not an order. The words “consistently” and “consistent” gave Stanton flexibility.
In other cases, Lincoln gave an order that he expected Stanton to follow, and his language is the clue. Such was the case on May 1, 1863, when he wrote an endorsement to Stanton, ordering a military appointment. “Let this appointment be made at once.” This he wrote on the back of the letter requesting it.
Some other cases related to the pardon of captured Confederates wishing to be released from prison. On May 16, 1863, the president wrote an endorsement to Stanton that reads, “The Secretary of War will please instruct Major General Burnside to parole Major Clarence Prentice, now a rebel prisoner in Camp Chase, Ohio, to remain outside the limits of both the loyal and disloyal states, or so-called Confederate States, of the United States of America, during the present rebellion, and to abstain from in any wise aiding or abetting said rebellion.” Prentice’s mother had requested his parole in a letter, but he had not indicated a willingness to take the oath of allegiance. So Lincoln released her son only on the condition that he go abroad.
A great example of Lincoln’s ability to show intention by subtly changing tone came in a pair of endorsements on the same piece of paper, one from 1861 to Secretary of War Simon Cameron and the second to Stanton after he took over in 1862. In the first, requesting a military appointment for a former congressman who had supported Lincoln for the presidential nomination, the president wrote on the back of the letter, “On the within recommendation, I am willing for Mr. Dickey to be appointed a pay master.” A year later, on learning that the appointment had been ignored by Cameron, his endorsement to Stanton, with added urgency, read, “I now think he should have a place and I shall be obliged” to have it done.
Stanton, however, was his own man, and an order from Lincoln did not guarantee it would be carried out. There were occasions when Stanton simply refused to do the president’s bidding. On Sept. 1, 1864, the president received a request from Senator William P. Fessenden of Maine, whom Lincoln would later appoint secretary of the treasury. Lincoln wrote, “I shall be glad for the bearer Rev. Sanford A Kingsbury to be appointed an Assistant Paymaster. Mr. Fessenden especially desires this, and I wish him to be obliged.” At the bottom of the letter, Stanton wrote his own endorsement: “Not a proper appointment & no vacancy.”
An endorsement from late 1864 is just as revealing. A Union general in Arkansas had issued an evacuation order there, and Unionists in that state thought it would harm their case rather than promote it. They wrote to Lincoln to revoke the order, and Lincoln endorsed the letter to be forwarded to the secretary of war. However, the president seems to have been concerned that Stanton would be unsympathetic and decided not to send it. The letter’s carrier also has endorsed the sheet, writing, “I did not deliver this letter to the Secretary of War, but proceeded otherwise to accomplish my mission, and my course was approved by President Lincoln.”
Throughout the war, during quiet and eventful times, such an act played out. And Lincoln’s trust in Stanton was constant. After the president’s assassination, his aide John Hay wrote Stanton: “Not everyone knows, as I do, how close you stood to our lost leader, how he loved you and trusted you.”
Building a cabinet of men who oppose you is a brave act. However, such an act, untended by wisdom and humility, with authority but flexibility, would have ended in disaster. Nowhere is President Lincoln’s day-by-day attention to this reality more visible than in his endorsements, small memos hidden on the backs of other people’s letters.