Edwin Stanton’s home was located near Franklin Square, a short walk from the White House and the War Department. As Secretary of War, Stanton lived in the style of the prosperous attorney he had been before the war — but without the income he had before the war. He bought the land for the three-story house on north side of K Street in 1859 when he was one of the city’s most prominent attorneys. The brick-faced house was completed in 1860. Journalist Noah Brooks wrote that Stanton “has a little, aristocratic wife, lives in handsome style, consuming much of his large fortune, probably, in his ample and somewhat gorgeous way of live.”1 Unfortunately for Stanton, his second wife had social pretensions without social graces. Her temper and personality was considered as difficult as her husband’s. Nevertheless, Stanton was devoted to her and Mr. Lincoln liked her.
On the eve of the Second Battle of Bull Run on August 30, 1862, John Hay and President Lincoln went to visit General Henry Halleck at his office. Hay wrote in his diary that Halleck ‘was at dinner & Stanton came in while we were waiting for him and carried us off to dinner. A pleasant little dinner and pretty wife as white and cold and motionless as marble, whose rare smiles seemed to pain her. Stanton was loud about the [George McClellan] business. He was unqualifiedly severe upon McClellan. He said that after these battles, there should be one Court Martial, if never any more. He said that nothing but foul play could lose us this battle & that it rested with [McClellan] and his friends. Stanton seemed to believe very strongly in Pope. So did the President for that matter.”2 Mrs. Halleck’s expression may have been grief; it had been less than two months since her baby son had been buried.
According to Benjamin P. Thomas and Harold M. Hyman, “Stanton would have preferred simpler living. His major contribution to their ornate home was a set of high bookcases which he has ordered built in 1864…[that] sheltered more that 2,500 volumes; law books in the main, but supplemented since 1862 with works on military strategy and the laws of war. In the secluded study where these texts offered him some isolation from the grinding pressures that awaited him each day, Stanton sought brief comfort.”3 Shortly after he was appointed to the Cabinet, Stanton issued orders that “the Secretary of War will transact no business and see no person at his residence.”4 Mr. Lincoln was exempt from the order which was meant to protect Stanton from the kind of intrusions at home which had bedeviled predecessor Simon Cameron.
Stanton and Mr. Lincoln saw each other frequently — at Mr. Lincoln’s office, at the War Department at the Soldiers’ Home, where each had residences. Mr. Lincoln “spent more time with Stanton than with any other cabinet officer,” according to Stanton biographers Benjamin P. Thomas and Harold M. Hyman.5 They often traveled to and from the Soldiers’ Home together and when Stanton could not go, the President would often stop at Stanton’s home on the way to the White House and visit. Usually, Stanton came out to the President’s carriage.
Historian Benjamin Thomas wrote: “The Stantons lived in splendid style in a large three-story brick house on H Street, spending far more than his salary as Secretary of War, for his pre-war earnings as a lawyer had put him in easy circumstances. The Stantons also did considerable entertaining, notwithstanding the long hours he put in at the War Department. Like the other cabinet ladies, Mrs. Stanton held a sort of open house on Monday, which was known as ‘cabinet calling day.’ An Iowa lady, attending one of these affairs, observed that Mrs. Stanton ‘is very handsome, and receives her friends with easy dignity.’6
There was no love lost between Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Stanton. Mrs. Stanton told a Union Army officer Adam Badeau: “I do not visit Mrs. Lincoln; I do not go to the White House. I do not visit Mrs. Lincoln.” Badeau remarked: “I was not at all intimate with Mrs. Stanton, and this remark was so extraordinary that I never forgot it; but understood it afterward.”7
On April 14, 1865 Stanton visited the home of Secretary of State William Seward before returning home. He responded to a group of serenaders and prepared for bed. “The War Secretary was just undressing at home when man came banging at the door (the bell-pull was broken), shouting that the President was shot and Seward was murdered. Humbug, Stanton told Ellen, he had left Seward only an hour before. But he had hardly finished saying it when another messenger arrived with a still wilder tale. The undressing was postponed; Stanton took a hack to Seward’s house,” wrote Stanton biographer Fletcher Pratt. 8
- Benjamin P. Thomas and Harold M. Hyman, Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln’s Secretary of War, p. 392.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House, p. 37.
- Thomas and Hyman, The Life and Times of Lincoln’s Secretary of War, p. 392.
- Frank A. Flower, Edwin McMasters Stanton, p. 119.
- Thomas and Hyman, Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln’s Secretary of War, p. 385.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, “Lincoln’s Humor” and Other Essays of Benjamin Thomas, p. 198.
- Adam Badeau, Grant in Peace from Appomattox to Mount McGregor: A Personal Memoir , p. 361-362.
- Fletcher Pratt, Stanton: Lincoln’s Secretary of War, pp. 414-415.