After the cabinet rejected the agreement, Stanton ordered Grant “to immediately proceed” to North Carolina and “direct operations against the enemy,” which in fact meant relieving Sherman of his command. Grant, however, said nothing of the political consternation that his draft agreement had caused in Washington and also did not reveal that he was to assume command when he arrived at Sherman’s headquarters. Grant merely noted that the agreement had been rejected and that Sherman should offer Johnston identical terms to those he offered to Lee at Appomattox. Johnston eventually agreed to the new terms, sweetened by 250,000 rations for his starved troops, and surrendered his forces on April 26 in what would be the largest single capitulation of Confederate armies in the war.
The day before, Sherman had sent a note to Stanton stating:
I admit my folly in embracing in a military convention any civil matters, but unfortunately such is the nature of our situation that they seem inextricably united and I understood from you (…) that the financial state of the country demanded military successes, and would warrant a little bending to policy.
Rupture in Civil-Military Relations
Sherman would only find out days later about the true nature of the defamatory campaign Stanton had launched against him. In order to further anti-Southern sentiments following the assassination of Lincoln in the North and to humiliate Sherman, Stanton leaked the draft agreement to the press along with other government bulletins and personal correspondence including a letter in which he openly called the general “a common traitor and a public enemy” who instructed his soldiers to disobey the secretary of war’s “lawful orders.” Stanton also insinuated that Sherman may have been influenced by Confederate sympathies and possibly helped the escape of the president of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis—a charge repeated by U.S. president Andrew Johnston—who was still at large at that time. It turns out that this charge was initially leveled by a jealous fellow officer, Gen. Henry Halleck.
As the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck would do a decade later, the secretary of war also carefully edited a telegram that Grant had sent him discussing Sherman’s actions, which noted that Sherman had acted in good faith and did not intend to cause controversy. Stanton, however, leaked two sentences of the document to the press, which merely said that the truce with Johnston was terminated and once more admonishing that “civil matters could not be entertained in any convention between army commanders.” The full telegram was only found after Stanton’s death in 1869.
Stanton was not just trying to rein in a general who ostensibly had become too powerful. For example, the secretary of war never sent Sherman a copy of a March 3 telegram he had sent to Grant on behalf of Lincoln reiterating that Grant “was not to decide, discuss, or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds in his own hands, and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions.” It is unclear why Stanton never conveyed these instructions to Sherman. One explanation is that the two had already clashed over a number of issues pertaining to the Union’s Western Armies and the conduct of the war. A more convincing explanation might be the radical different political outlook of the two protagonists.
Sherman was known to have sympathies for the Southern way of life. “In many ways, Sherman wanted to re-create the status quo ante in southern states, minus slavery,” Chernow writes. McDonough notes that Stanton was infuriated by Sherman’s reactionary attitude against blacks serving in the Union armies. Marvel perhaps offers the most convincing argument when he summarizes Gideon Welles’ analysis of Stanton’s rationale for his ferocious attack:
Looking back on Stanton’s disproportionate alarm, Welles thought he regarded peaceful reunion with intense trepidation because, as a turncoat from the ranks [Stanton had switched his political allegiance] of state-rights conservatives [to Radial Republicans], Stanton (…) feared a rapid restoration of the old Union.
Had Sherman’s agreement with Johnston come into effect, it would have brought defeat to the Radical Republican agenda to which Stanton had pledged his allegiance and might have ended his political career.
Once Sherman was aware of Stanton’s actions, he was both shocked and outraged. According to a Union officer, Sherman “unbosomed himself with an eloquence of furious invective which for a while made us all stare.” Some of those invectives can be found in this New York Times article from May 1865. In a letter to Grant he wrote that, “a great outrage has been enacted against me…My officers and men feel this insult as keenly as I do.” He went on: “Mr. Stanton must publicly confess himself a Common libeler.” Sherman melodramatically concludes the letter with a Shakespearean reference laying bare his contempt for politics: “The lust for Power in Political minds is the strongest passion of Life, and impels Ambitious Men (Richard III) to deeds of Infamy.” When he marched his army to Washington, there were repeated rumors—believed by a number of members in the administration—that he intended to seize power and arrest cabinet members including Stanton.
Consequently, “Stanton grew frantic (…) suspecting that the general intended to lead his armies against the government,” Marvel writes. “Stanton’s raving seemed to infect his protégé, Speed [U.S. Attorney General], who even wondered whether Sherman might arrest his best friend, Grant, when he arrived.” Aware of the rumors that he intended to seize power, Sherman told an Union officer when he arrived on the outskirts of Washington: “Let some newspaper know that the vandal Sherman is encamped near the canal bridge…Though in disgrace, he is untamed and unconquered.” When Sherman met the president in the White House, the latter denied advance knowledge of the Stanton leaks. He was also summoned to testify in front of the congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, controlled by Radical Republicans, where he once more had to justify his draft agreement with Johnston. It left him utterly disgusted.
The largest military parade in U.S. history and the fateful encounter between Sherman and Stanton occurred two days after his testimony. Neither before, nor after the parade did Stanton offer an apology to Sherman. Halleck would eventually apologize for his insinuations, but Sherman rejected it. This would have repercussions in the weeks to follow.
Sherman’s men of the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of Georgia were intensively loyal to their commander and were aware of his feud with the secretary of war. In the days following the parade, they publicly displayed their contempt for him. Stanton did not dare to arrest them for fear of inciting violence. According to Ulysses S. Grant in a report to Sherman, some of his Western officers were at the Willard Hotel “drinking and discussing violently the conduct of Mr. Stanton,” punctuated by occasional leaps on the bar counter calling for “three groans for Mr. Stanton.” Soldiers openly taunted Stanton, who feared for his life. It was a dangerous situation and both Sherman and Grant were concerned over losing discipline of thousands of troops stationed in the city and encamped on its outskirts. Next to the delicate Stanton affair, the two generals also feared the deep rivalry of eastern (Army of the Potomac) and western Union forces (Sherman’s Armies of the Tennessee and Georgia).
Concerns over the feud grew so desperate that Sherman’s wife even tried to heal the breach by making a courtesy call on Stanton and his wife, which they welcomed but Sherman refused to give in without an official apology from the secretary of war. The consequences of the rift were unique in American history. “The tense situation among Sherman’s soldiers may have accelerated the process of mustering out the armies,” Marvel speculates. “On May 29, Stanton ordered all troops sent home whose terms of service would expire before October; that included the greater part of Sherman’s four corps and the vast majority of his most loyal officers and men.” In despair for his own safety and that of the government, the secretary of war apparently decided to prematurely disband U.S. military units to prevent domestic insurrection.
The Stanton-Sherman dispute, at least according to Stanton and his acolytes, threatened the sanctity and security of the civilian government. Sherman denied any such designs and it was not taken seriously by anyone who knew him. For Sherman, however, these defamations were yet another confirmation of the despicable nature of politics. “Washington is as corrupt as Hell,” he wrote in a letter, and he intended to “avoid it as a pest house.” Yet his feud with the secretary of war, no doubt not foreseen by Stanton, contributed to establishing an important precedent in what role the military should and should not have in a democracy: It helped keep the U.S. military out of politics.
Markedly, the Stanton-Sherman disagreement was not that unusual. Throughout the nineteenth century, the secretary of war and commanding general of the army had ill-defined and often overlapping responsibilities. This ambiguity triggered public controversy including a rift between Jefferson Davis and General Scott in the 1850s, continuous fights between Stanton and George McClellan during the civil war, fierce arguments between Sherman and William Belknap in the 1870s, as well as disputes between the army’s top military officer and the war secretary during the Spanish-American War in 1898, as Samuel P. Huntington points out in his seminal work The Soldier and the State. However, Sherman, when he was commanding general of the army from 1869 to 1883, was instrumental in guaranteeing that such disagreements gradually would be less of a concern for his successors by not only installing a sense of professionalism in the army, but also by defining and further solidifying the military’s role in American society.