After Abraham Lincoln drew his last breath at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Stanton had spent the night sending messages to military officials and government personnel in response to the assassination. Yet he was neither the Cabinet member closest in the line of succession or, for that matter, closest to Lincoln. That was Secretary of State William Henry Seward, for whom that April had indeed been the cruelest month. His story says a great deal about the precarious nature of the U.S. government as the Civil War ended, and how relationships evolve between presidents and their advisers.
A two-term senator from New York, where he also had been governor, Seward had been the favorite to win the Republican nomination in 1860, but lost to Lincoln at the party convention. What had helped Seward become the party’s most prominent leader had also hurt him: a tendency to sound more radical than he actually was, and a close relationship with political operative Thurlow Weed that linked Seward to corruption. After Lincoln’s election, the president-elect took the practical step of appointing Seward secretary of state – the top job in the Cabinet and one for which the worldly Seward was well suited.
The relationship between the two men took time to jell. Seward expected to dominate Lincoln, who gradually disabused him of the notion. With Seward’s wife spending most of her time at their home in Auburn, New York, Seward was available to visit with Lincoln at all hours, and they enjoyed each other’s company. Other Republicans became convinced that Seward somehow controlled the president, and was responsible for the Union Army’s many failures in 1862. The party’s Senate caucus almost unanimously demanded Seward’s ouster after the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg. Lincoln maneuvered against them and kept Seward in the Cabinet – but the secretary realized that his political future rested in Lincoln’s hands.
By early 1865, Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles were the only two appointees who had been in Lincoln’s cabinet since the beginning of his presidency. Seward joined Lincoln at the Hampton Roads conference in early February to discuss the possibility of peace with Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. Then Seward briefly joined Lincoln at City Point, Virginia, before returning to Washington on April 2 to address cheering crowds celebrating the latest news of the Army of the Potomac’s successes against the rebels.
But on April 5, Seward, his son and daughter, and a friend went for a carriage ride. When the driver tried to close the carriage door, something startled the horses and they began to run. Seward jumped from the carriage in hopes of corralling them, but instead fell and broke his arm and jaw. Nearing his sixty-fourth birthday, Seward was in bad enough shape to prompt his son to write to Frances Seward, the secretary’s wife, in New York and tell her to come to the Capitol (although Mary Lincoln assured her husband, who was ready to come back to Washington upon hearing the news, that Seward would be all right).
Lincoln returned from Virginia on the night of April 9 amid the news that Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. He came to Seward’s home and laid down next to him, Lincoln with his head on his elbow, to be able to talk to the secretary more easily. He told Seward about visiting soldiers in a hospital and concluded: “I think we are near the end, at last.”
Seward’s injuries and pain and his reactions to medication meant that he remained bed-ridden. He continued to receive updates about the dying Confederacy from his family and Stanton. On April 14, Frederick Seward, his father’s assistant at the State Department, substituted for him at the cabinet meeting where Lincoln suggested allowing white southerners to restore their state governments as fast as possible – a view that Seward shared.
That night, as John Wilkes Booth moved toward Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre and George Atzerodt lost his nerve and drunkenly roamed the streets rather than killing Vice President Andrew Johnson, Lewis Powell knocked on the door of Seward’s home in Lafayette Park. He told the butler that he had medicine for the secretary. Once inside, he encountered Frederick Seward, who told Powell his father was asleep. Powell stabbed Frederick, then hit him on the head with his gun, knocking him unconscious.
Powell ran into Seward’s room. As Seward’s biographer Walter Stahr has pointed out, the secretary of state was lucky that night. Powell was no expert at using a knife, and Seward’s previous injuries made him a poor target. Powell sliced open Seward’s cheek and neck, but the wires on Seward’s jaw may have caused one of Powell’s swipes at him to miss his jugular vein. Seward’s doctors had laid him on the side of the bed so that his broken arm could dangle, and Seward either fell off the bed or rolled off on the far side by the wall, putting himself out of Powell’s reach. After slashing both Seward’s other son and a soldier detailed to the secretary’s home, Powell ran from the house yelling, “I’m mad, I’m mad!” Fanny Seward, the secretary’s daughter, ran into Seward’s room and yelled, “Oh my God! Father’s dead!”
Despite his own wounds, the soldier, Sgt. George Robinson, helped Seward back onto the bed, and recalled him saying, “I am not dead. Send for the police and a surgeon, and close the house.” The family doctor tended to the secretary of state and the other wounded. Frederick Seward was comatose for weeks. William Henry Seward slowly healed, at least physically.
Stahr has written that there are several accounts of when and how the secretary of state learned that Lincoln had died. Fanny Seward later said that the next morning her mother “very gently” told him, “Henry, the President is gone.” According to another report, on April 20, Seward asked to be closer to the window. From his bed he saw the flags at half-mast and articulated what he already knew: “The President is dead.” He told his nurse, “If he had been alive he would have been the first to call on me; but he has not been here, nor has he sent to know how I am, and there’s the flag at half-mast.”
Over the next two months, despite his grief over Lincoln and his concerns about his son, Seward began working again, and then returned to cabinet meetings with the new president, Andrew Johnson. Politically, Seward became even more isolated as Johnson fought with congressional Republicans over Reconstruction. Personally, he would suffer through the death that June of his wife Frances, whose ill health worsened over the events of the night of April 14. The following year, his daughter Fanny would also die. Seward pressed on, remaining secretary of state until Johnson left office in 1869. His health declined, but he did manage to travel extensively in the years before his death in 1872.
Of those most affected by Lincoln’s assassination, his wife Mary and the Lincoln children have properly received the most attention. But William Henry Seward was among the victims that night, too. The violence on the night of April 14 cost him a friend and ally, and probably contributed to his wife’s rapid decline. Another bit of evidence of its effects survives. In photos taken after the attacks, Seward wore a high collar to hide the scars on his neck. But he couldn’t hide the scars on his face – and, shrewd politician that he was, he was well aware of the scars left on his country.