In this magnificent new book, Stephen G. Yanoff offers a fresh and compelling portrait of William Henry Seward, one of the most important Americans of the nineteenth century. Seward, best known for the purchase of Alaska, also served as governor of New York, United States senator, and Lincoln’s secretary of state during the Civil War.
Exhaustively researched, drawing on hundreds of sources, TURBULENT TIMES sheds new light on this complex historical figure and the crucial role he played in shaping the fate of our nation. Most enlightening, the William Henry Seward who comes into focus in this superb narrative is a person of great intellect and curiosity, comfortable with ambiguity in his personal and private life.
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William Henry Seward came from good Welsh stock and was reasonably healthy, so the thought of dying suddenly - in a violent fashion - had no specific reason to cross his mind. However, these were turbulent times, and premature death was not uncommon. In 1865, America was still at war with itself, and after four years of fighting, 600,000 soldiers had lost their lives. The odds of dying in combat were 1 in 15.
The odds of dying in a freak accident were much lower.
But in this day and age anything was possible.
On April 5, 1865, at about four o'clock in the afternoon, Secretary of State Seward nearly broke his neck in a freak carriage mishap. Incredibly, it was not the first time that he had fallen off a horse-drawn conveyance, but on this occasion he came very close to death. As his carriage left the State Department, the driver was instructed to travel from Pennsylvania Avenue to the Seward residence on Madison Avenue, adjacent to Lafayette Park.
Seward had intended a family ride, and as usual, he sat outside the carriage body in order to smoke cigars. Upon arrival, he was joined by his son, Frederick, his daughter, Fanny, and a family friend named Mary Titus. The group filed into the carriage one by one, anticipating a long leisurely ride through the city of Washington.
While the coachman, Henry Key, was attempting to close the door with one hand, the horses jerked forward, spooked by his actions. Key held onto the reins, desperately trying to stop them, but their combined force was too much for him.
Sensing danger, Frederick jumped from the carriage and tried to head off the horses.
Fanny Seward, who was sitting in the back seat, later recorded the incident in her diary, writing that "the horses turned around with a rapid sweep and went on increasing their speed. Father had some idea of being able to stop them, and sprang from the carriage in spite of my entreaties that he not jump. I could not see whether he reached the ground safely or not."
In fact, Seward landed on his right arm, breaking it just below the shoulder. Knocked senseless, he gradually came to realize that he had also injured his neck and lower jaw, which would prove to be broken. Writhing in pain, he was carried back to his residence, where he was immediately treated by Dr. Joseph K. Barnes, the 12th Surgeon General of the United States Army.
Oddly enough, Seward's house had established a tragic history long before his accident. Built in 1830 by Commodore John Rogers, it later became a boarding house and then the "Washington Club," a social club for movers and shakers of the city. In 1859, Congressman Dan Sickles shot Philip Barton Key as he walked across Lafayette Park to the Club. Sickles correctly believed that Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, was having an affair with his young wife. Key died in one of the club's first-floor rooms, which now served as the Sewards' parlor.
By strange coincidence, Sickles had been defended by a lawyer named Edwin M. Stanton, who was currently serving as Lincoln's Secretary of War. Notably, Sickles was acquitted with the first use of "temporary insanity" as a legal defense in U.S. history.
Seward gradually regained consciousness, and two hours later, his son and daughter returned to comfort him. Frances, who went by "Fanny," recorded the meeting in her diary, describing her father's condition in graphic terms. "He was so disfigured by bruises, his face so swollen, that he had scarcely a trace of resemblance to himself."
The decision to keep Seward at home, rather than move him to a hospital, was questionable, but it was probably based on the belief that it would hasten his recovery. At the time, there were 57 war hospitals in Washington, D.C., many of which were overwhelmed with patients, rat-infested, dirty, and plagued by diseases like smallpox.
For every man killed in battle, two died from disease. Many of these diseases, such as dysentery, diarrhea, typhoid, and malaria, were a direct result of the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions found in military hospitals. By the end of the war, some 560,000 soldiers would die from disease.
William A. Hammond, who was the Surgeon General at the start of the war, described American medicine as approaching "the end of the Middle Ages." His successor, Dr. Barnes, was well aware of this fact, as an inspection of Union Army hospitals had recently declared a third of them to be in bad or very bad condition. Even worse, many of the doctors working in Washington, D.C. had attended only two years of medical school, and at that time, the second year was simply a repeat of the first.
The thought of these doctors treating the Secretary of State did not sit well with anyone, least of all the patient. Consequently, it was agreed that Seward's recuperation would take place at home, under the watchful eye of family and friends. Despite its dark past, the Seward residence was quite comfortable, and better yet, it was close to the State Department. The Sewards had moved in shortly after the surrender of Fort Sumter in April 1861. Biographer Glyndon Van Deusen described the home as "a spacious red brick, three-stories-plus-a-dormer floor mansion, facing on Lafayette Square just east and north of the White House."
Seward, a lifelong abolitionist, must have been somewhat amused by the fact that his home was built on land that was originally owned by Henry Clay. As Speaker of the House, Clay was the one who had led the effort to forge the Missouri Compromise in 1820 - the first of several such ventures dealing with the expansion of slavery. Clay was himself a slave owner, though he favored the emancipation of slaves and their resettlement in Africa.
Fortunately for Seward, the house had recently been renovated, so in addition to some new paint and wallpaper, it now had city water, gas fixtures, and a furnace. The Secretary was carried upstairs and made comfortable in a second-story room. Meanwhile, Fanny Seward continued to record his progress in her diary. On April 6, she wrote: "Father's face is terribly swollen and he bears no likeness to himself. I sat up till three o'clock in the morning - father was restless and talking constantly in his sleep - holding my hand."
Her entry on April 7 read: "Mother and Will came in the evening - on the late train. I told mother before she saw father, something of his appearance - still she was much shocked by it."
Eventually, in order to set the jaw and relieve some of the pain, Seward received a metal jaw splint, which was incorrectly reported as a "neck brace." The splint, designed by a dentist, consisted of metal wires that kept Seward's jaw fragments in alignment while they healed.
Other dental professionals thought that the wire splint was not only ineffective, but also potentially harmful. Dr. Thomas Gunning, who would later design his own device for Seward, chronicled his concern in detail:
Attempts had been made repeatedly to hold the fragments of the jaw together by drawing the teeth up to the roof of the mouth by means of bandages around the chin, face and head ... On the principle of making the upper teeth a splint for the broken lower jaw, except that this patient [Seward] had no upper teeth for the lower ones to rest against, consequently, the fragments of the bone and the adjoining soft parts were so distorted as to cause great pain.
Seward described the pain in vivid detail, stating that "coals of fire could not have hurt me more, and when I could bear it no longer I would tear the bandages off." Incredibly, Seward would linger in agony for the next four days, tossing and turning day and night, but seldom complaining. On April 9, Fanny Seward observed that the swelling of her father's face had begun to subside, ushering in a return to a more normal appearance. Seward's improvement was also noticeable to a frequent visitor named Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War.
Under Stanton's effective - and occasionally ruthless - management, the North had organized its massive military resources and was now on the verge of victory. He was, like Seward, adamantly opposed to slavery, and was despised in the South for issuing an order on August 8, 1862, to "arrest and imprison any person or persons who may be engaged, by act, speech or writing, in discouraging volunteer enlistments, or in any way giving aid or comfort to the enemy, or in any other disloyal practice against the United States."
Regardless of his fierce reputation, Stanton was a constant companion to his fellow Cabinet member, paying Seward frequent visits and treating him with great tenderness. On Sunday, April 9, Fanny Seward wrote that Secretary Stanton had visited her father three times that day. On one occasion, he gently wiped Seward's face with a damp cloth. On another visit, he brought fruit, sent by Mrs. Stanton.
Edwin Stanton was not the only government official to visit that day. Later that evening, President Lincoln stopped by, unannounced, to pay his respects and offer a few words of condolence and sympathy. The President was also anxious to tell Seward about his recent trip to Richmond, which was now under Union control.
"It was in the evening," Frederick Seward recalled. "The gas-lights were turned down low, and the house was still, every one moving softly, and speaking in whispers." The Secretary had developed a fever and was having trouble sleeping. To make matters worse, he was swathed in bandages, and the extreme sensitiveness of his wounded arm made even the touch of the bed clothing intolerable. "Grave apprehensions were entertained, by his medical attendants, that his system would not survive the injuries and the shock."
When Fanny Seward walked into the room, she found the President sprawled across the foot of the bed, head in hand, cheerfully relaying the details. They shook hands, and Fanny noted that the President - her beloved President - acted in his usual manner - kind, genial, and unaffected. Lincoln stayed for over an hour, and before he left, he told them that one of his last acts in Richmond was going through a Union hospital of seven thousand men, and shaking hands with each one. Incredibly, at this point, neither Lincoln nor Seward knew that earlier in the day, at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops to General Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the American Civil War.
The terms of the surrender had been dictated by Stanton himself, and as Lincoln and Seward would soon learn, they were surprisingly generous. After a flurry of notes between the two generals, it was agreed that the written instrument of surrender would address the following points:
Duplicate rolls of all the officers and men were to be made, and the officers to sign paroles for themselves and their men, all agreeing not to bear arms against the United States unless regularly exchanged. The arms, artillery, and public property were to be turned over to an officer appointed to receive them, the officers retaining their side-arms and private horses and baggage.
In addition, General Grant allowed each Confederate soldier who claimed to own a horse or mule to retain it for farming.
Newspaper reports would claim that General Lee offered his sword, but those accounts would be swiftly denied by General Grant, who later wrote: "The much-talked of surrendering of Lee's sword and my handing it back, this and much more that has been said about it is the purest romance."
Later that evening, around 10:00 p.m., Secretary Stanton paid Seward a late night visit waking him, knowing that his friend and colleague would want to know immediately of Lee's surrender. "God bless you," Seward whispered when Stanton read the telegram.
"Don't try to speak," Stanton said.
"You have made me cry for the first time in my life," Seward replied.
Sadly, it would not be the last time that Seward would cry. Even now, a dark conspiracy was taking shape, and before long, Seward would experience a greater inner agony. However, for the present, he had to concentrate on regaining his health. The next five days were difficult to bear, but as the New York Times reported, steady progress was being made. On April 12, it reported that "the Secretary was gradually improving, though he occasionally suffers much pain."
Two days later, on April 14, it stated that "the Evening Star reports that the side of Seward's face has been placed in wires instead of bandages [since the swelling had reduced] and now he does not suffer as much pain. He is still unable to leave his bed as yet. He uses a slate and pencil to communicate with others."
Reports of Seward's condition - and the fact that he was bedridden - also appeared in The Evening Star, Harper's Weekly, and The Sun, a Baltimore newspaper. Some of the articles contained a graphic degree of detail, similar to the details that Mrs. Seward had recently conveyed in a letter to her sister:
I find Henry worse than I anticipated; though all say he is better than he was the first two days. His face is so marred and swollen and discolored that one can hardly persuade themselves of his identity; his voice so changed; utterance almost entirely prevented by the broken jaw and the swollen tongue. It makes my heart ache to look at him.
Mrs. Seward's heartache would soon be shared by her entire family, and, in a very real sense, by much of the nation. In less than a week, President Lincoln, accompanied by his wife, Mary, and Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancee, Clara Harris, would attend a play, Our American Cousin, at Ford's Theatre. Somewhere between 10:15 and 10:30, John Wilkes Booth would shoot the President in the back of the head, almost at point blank range. The assassin would then stab Rathbone with a double-edged Bowie knife, jump onto the stage, and shout, "Sic semper tyrannis!"
Unaware that Lincoln had been mortally wounded, the Seward household went about its business, preparing for another long night.
They had no idea how long that night would be.
A Willing Assassin
John Wilkes Booth's assassination of President Lincoln was part of a larger plot that included two other men, George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell. Atzerodt was supposed to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson, but he got drunk and lost his nerve. Powell was given the task of killing Secretary Seward, and he had no intention of backing down. Lewis Thornton Powell, alias Lewis Payne, was a former Confederate soldier who had been wounded and captured at Gettysburg in the summer of 1863. Subsequently, he managed to escape from the military hospital and join Colonel John S. Mosby's 43rd Virginia Cavalry Battalion. Mosby's Rangers, as they were called, were a rebel unit specializing in guerrilla raids on Union supply lines. In later years, some historians would speculate that it was Colonel Mosby who originally recruited Powell, along with five others, to go to Washington and kill President Lincoln.
Betty J. Ownsbey wrote about Powell's recruitment in her book, Alias "Paine," pointing to an article written in 1892 by the son of the Reverend Dr. Abram Dunn Gillette, Powell's spiritual advisor in the death cell and on the gallows.
Powell admitted to the minister that "for months previous while in the Secret Service of the Confederacy, he had journeyed back and forth from Richmond to Washington and Baltimore in conference with prominent men in the latter city." He did not name the men. According to Gillette, these men kept him in funds and encouraged him with dreams of glory and the lasting gratitude of the Southern people.
The first known meeting between Booth and Powell took place in Richmond, Virginia. While serving as a prison guard, Powell had an opportunity to attend the theater, and he was greatly impressed by what he saw. After the show, he asked to meet one of the cast members, a well known actor named John Wilkes Booth. The actor was happy to oblige. Booth had already begun to formulate a plan to abduct the President of the United States and his Cabinet, and he undoubtedly saw Powell as a malleable subject, eager to help the Southern cause.
Excerpted from "Turbulent Times"
Copyright © 2017 Stephen G. Yanoff.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1 The Accident, 1,
CHAPTER 2 A Willing Assassin, 11,
CHAPTER 3 Night of Terror, 19,
CHAPTER 4 Early Years, 29,
CHAPTER 5 Albany, 39,
CHAPTER 6 Abolitionist Fervor, 49,
CHAPTER 7 In Sickness and in Health, 59,
CHAPTER 8 A Death in the Family, 67,
CHAPTER 9 Political Comeback, 77,
CHAPTER 10 Governor Seward, 87,
CHAPTER 11 Second Term, 95,
CHAPTER 12 Private Life, 109,
CHAPTER 13 Seward for the Defense, 117,
CHAPTER 14 Manifest Destiny, 127,
CHAPTER 15 The Hero of Buena Vista, 135,
CHAPTER 16 A Higher Law, 145,
CHAPTER 17 Peace Over Slavery, 155,
CHAPTER 18 Senator Seward, 165,
CHAPTER 19 Popular Sovereignty, 175,
CHAPTER 20 Buchanan's Mess, 185,
CHAPTER 21 An Irrepressible Conflict, 213,
CHAPTER 22 "Off With His Head!", 223,
CHAPTER 23 "Lincoln Nominated", 233,
CHAPTER 24 Secretary Seward, 245,
CHAPTER 25 Mr. Seward's Little Bell, 255,
CHAPTER 26 Diplomat & Politician, 265,
CHAPTER 27 Saving the Union, 275,
CHAPTER 28 The Ugliness of War, 285,
CHAPTER 29 Lincoln Re-elected, 297,
CHAPTER 30 Good Friday, 307,
CHAPTER 31 The Man in the Light Overcoat, 317,
CHAPTER 32 Standing Trial, 327,
CHAPTER 33 Prayers and Punishment, 337,
CHAPTER 34 More Sadness, 347,
CHAPTER 35 Reconstruction, 359,
CHAPTER 36 Seward's Folly, 367,
CHAPTER 37 Stubborn as a Mule, 379,
CHAPTER 38 Articles of Impeachment, 389,
CHAPTER 39 The Reno Gang, 399,
CHAPTER 40 Tragedy and Triumph, 411,