Known for his leading role in the American Civil War as Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton is a major figure in this era of American history. Expectedly, then, his life is the subject of ongoing interest, not least because of the recent release of the new Apple TV+ historical drama series Manhunt.


Honing in on the 12 days between the assassination of Lincoln and the eventual death of his murderer John Wilkes Booth, Manhunt follows the chase for Booth, with Stanton (played by Tobias Menzies) acting as the driving force behind the hunt.

But, as a drama series, Manhunt necessarily blurs the boundaries between fiction and fact. So, what do we know about the real Edwin Stanton, and how much of the series is historically accurate?

Who was Edwin Stanton, US secretary of war?

Born on 19 December 1814 in Ohio, Edwin Stanton was a prominent American lawyer who became a politician and close ally of President Abraham Lincoln. Stanton is famed for his pivotal role in Lincoln’s cabinet during the American Civil War, during which he served as secretary of war, overseeing the broad strategy of the Union’s war effort.

After Lincoln’s assassination, Stanton successfully directed the hunt for John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators. He then played a key role in Reconstruction, serving under the administration of Andrew Johnson – Lincoln’s successor following his assassination.

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In 1869, President Ulysses S Grant nominated Stanton to take up a seat as a justice of the Supreme Court, in recognition of his vast contribution to American politics and society – but he would never take his seat; he died just four days after being appointed.

Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, surrounded by colleagues including Edwin Stanton
Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, surrounded by colleagues including Edwin Stanton. (Photo by Getty images)

What was Edwin Stanton’s relationship with Lincoln, and how did they work together?

Edwin Stanton first met Lincoln in 1855, while he was still a lawyer and working on a legal case about patenting (he reportedly treated Lincoln with disdain). Later, in the 1860 presidential election, Stanton was an advocate of Lincoln’s Southern Democrat adversary John C Breckinridge, whom Lincoln defeated in the polls to become the 16th president of the USA.

Despite Stanton’s widely-known and general dislike of the president – he continued to vocally criticise Lincoln during the early stages of his administration – Lincoln recognised Stanton’s talent as an effective political force, especially relating to his capacity for efficient organisation.

Recognising a potential use for Stanton’s talents, Lincoln appointed his would-be enemy to the crucial position of secretary of war after Simon Cameron resigned from the position in 1862. Regardless of his initial opposition to Lincoln, Stanton’s commitment to the preservation of the Union saw him accept the role.

Overcoming their initial animosity and differing personalities, Stanton and Lincoln formed an effective working relationship. Over the course of the war, as Lincoln witnessed Stanton’s success in his role, the two became increasingly close. Lincoln relied on Stanton’s advice and his ruthless approach in bringing the war to an end.

Such was the strength of this unlikely relationship, Stanton switched his political support to favour Lincoln’s Republicans, and was deeply affected by the president’s death in 1865.

Printed lithograph depicting the death of President Abraham Lincoln, surrounded his friends and colleagues
Printed lithograph depicting the death of President Abraham Lincoln, surrounded his friends and colleagues. (Photo by Getty Images)

What was Edwin Stanton’s role in ending the Civil War?

Stanton’s role in ending the American Civil War was significant but controversial.

Historian William Marvel, author of a 2015 biography on Stanton, describes him as an “autocrat” who wielded his power excessively to repress wartime freedoms, spreading propaganda and opposing the rights of the press.

He paints Stanton as a stark, totalitarian, surly figure, characterising the man as: “the Dick Cheney of the Lincoln Administration”. Stanton “oversaw a disturbing degradation of first, fourth, fifth, and sixth amendment rights,” Marvel explains, that culminated in “overt repression”.

A battle between Confederate and Union forces during the American Civil War
A battle between Confederate and Union forces during the American Civil War. (Photo by Getty Images)

In short, in his role as secretary of war and close adviser to Lincoln, Stanton did the dark and dirty work that may have ensured that the Union achieved and retained the upper hand over the Confederates. His restriction of press liberties closed unwanted channels of communication, keeping his side’s plans secret and allowing only information favouring Union forces to flow into the public domain.

Additionally, Stanton was brutal in his approach to managing the loyalty of those on the Union side, and he went to great lengths to remove any figures he suspected could be secretly supportive of the Confederate cause. This led to the arrest of civilians and political operators, sometimes even without charge.

Perhaps more tangibly, Stanton’s greatest strength as Lincoln’s secretary of war was in his command of logistics, and his efficiency. He placed focus on the use of the railway transport system to quickly move war material shipments, and he played a vital role in supporting Union general William Rosecrans in his 1863 campaign in Tennessee, by coordinating the transport of 20,000 soldiers over a vast 1,500-mile distance in just 10 days.

With methods that many saw as undermining his country’s fundamental rights, Stanton made scores of enemies on all sides and cemented himself as a broadly unpopular figure in Lincoln’s cabinet. That is, excepting Lincoln, who saw Stanton as a shrewd and effective tool.

Stanton, Lincoln, and General Ulysses S Grant worked closely together towards the goal of the Confederates’ unconditional surrender, managing Robert E Lee’s request in early March 1865 for a “satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties by means of a military convention.” The effective end of the Civil War eventually came on 9 April 1865, with Lee surrendering at Appomattox Court House.

Robert E Lee surrenders to Ulysses S Grant
Robert E Lee surrenders to Ulysses S Grant. (Photo by Getty Images)

Who were Edwin Stanton’s wife and family?

Edwin Stanton married twice in his life. He met Mary Ann Lamson at the age of 18, and the couple were married by 1836. The pair had two children: Lucy, who was born in 1840 and died in 1841 following a period of illness, and Edwin, who was born in 1842.

Illness returned to the Stanton family once again in early 1844, with Mary succumbing to a fever that left her bedridden. She died mere months later, in March 1844, and Stanton was reportedly distraught by her loss, which placed a strain on his own physical and mental health.

Almost twenty years after marrying Mary, Stanton married his second wife, Ellen Hutchison, in 1856. She came from a wealthy and prestigious Pennsylvania family, and they remained together until Stanton’s death. One of Edwin and Ellen’s two sons, James Hutchison Stanton, died in infancy in 1862, bringing further tragedy to Stanton’s life.

Stanton was survived by two sons and two daughters.

What was Edwin Stanton’s role in the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth?

Stanton played a key organisational role in the hunt for John Wilkes Booth, and the rest of the conspirators, in the aftermath of Lincoln’s shooting on 14 April 1865.

He directed the pursuit of the group ¬– who had also attacked secretary of state William Seward and planned an assault on Vice President Andrew Johnson – and gave sweeping orders to set all military forces on alert, lock down Washington, and protect the surviving members of Lincoln’s cabinet. However, contrary to what is shown in the Manhunt drama, Stanton did not physically pursue Booth, who was ultimately killed by the solider Sergeant Thomas H Boston Corbett after a 12-day hunt.

Portrait of John Wilkes Booth
Portrait of John Wilkes Booth. (Photo by Getty Images)

After Booth’s death, Stanton turned his attention to organising the case against his fellow conspirators, wielding his legal experience and relentless efficiency to great effect.

He helped to organise the military trial against the other arrested conspirators, leading to the execution of Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt by hanging. Edman Spangler, a stagehand who helped Wilkes Booth to escape, was sentenced to six years of hard labour, and Dr Samuel Mudd was sentenced to life imprisonment – though eventually pardoned by President Johnson. John Surratt, son of Mary Surratt, fled the country and initially escaped justice, though he eventually returned to the US and faced a civilian court in 1867. He was not convicted.

What was Edwin Stanton’s part in Reconstruction and opposition to President Andrew Johnson?

Edwin Stanton remained in his role of secretary of war after the end of the Civil War, and into the Reconstruction era under President Andrew Johnson. During this time, the administration grappled with how to reintegrate seceded states into the Union and how to integrate millions of newly freed African Americans into social, political, and labour systems.

However, Stanton’s vision for how Reconstruction should progress was at odds with Johnson’s, and he especially clashed with Johnson over what Stanton perceived as leniency towards former Confederates.

Stanton wanted a slow military demobilisation, with the intention of keeping the Union army stationed in the south in order to limit former Confederates’ political power, and ensure that they complied with the end of slavery.

In this vein, the series Manhunt depicts Stanton as a keen advocate for the freedom and rights of the formerly enslaved black populations. In reality, Stanton was strong on this cause, and was a firm proponent for giving black Americans the power of self-determination, urging the government to ask them “what they wanted for themselves,” before imposing any decision upon them. This was in line with the anti-slavery views he’d held throughout his life on moral grounds, and with his support for black soldiers fighting for the Union against the Confederates.

Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States
Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States. (Photo by Getty Images)

Conversely, Johnson advocated a softer approach, aiming to quickly restore the powers of the southern states without much Federal oversight. Additionally, Johnson’s plans to protect the new legal rights of formerly enslaved black people in the South were limited, and he was willing to allow former Confederate leaders back into positions of power without hesitation.

Ultimately, the gulf between Stanton and Johnson’s visions of how Reconstruction should be handled was partly behind Johnson’s eventual impeachment. Their friction came to a head when Johnson attempted to remove Stanton from office, though this backfired as Congress supported Stanton’s views over Johnson’s.

Johnson faced impeachment, though was ultimately acquitted, leaving Stanton to resign and resume his practice of law until his death.

How did Edwin Stanton die, and what was the condition of his health?

Edwin Stanton died on 24 December 1869, just four days after his nomination to the Supreme Court. He was 55 when he died.

His death is noted to have been a result of complications with his lifelong condition of asthma. From the age of 10, Stanton had suffered with the health condition, leading him towards the study of books, and away from endeavours of physical activity.

This asthma impacted Stanton’s health throughout his adult life. Ultimately, Stanton’s health began to seriously deteriorate from 1868 onwards. He was advised to stop making speeches due to his asthma, impacting his legal work as he became more visibly unwell.


From then on, Stanton’s health continued on a downward trajectory, until his death resulting from asthmatic complications.

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James OsborneContent producer

James Osborne is a content producer at HistoryExtra where he writes, researches, and edits articles, while also conducting the occasional interview