150 Years Later: William Seward’s Very Bad Week

Copyright Andrew B. Conrad

Copyright Andrew B. Conrad

The Civil War Sesquicentennial is coming to a close.  Much as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln came to symbolize the end of the Civil War, so too does the remembrance of Lincoln’s death provide a capstone to the anniversary observances of America’s bloodiest war.  The impact of Lincoln’s death has been discussed by various media outlets, including this month’s National Geographic.  Lincoln’s assassination was just one cog of a wider plan to kill the president, vice-president, and secretary of state in one night.  When his would-be assasin cam knocking on his door, Secretary of State William Seward had already had a rough week.  Seward, a native New Yorker, is immortalized in this prominent statue in New York City’s Madison Square Park.  Seward, a staunch abolitionist who came close to receiving the Republican nomination for president instead of Lincoln in 1860, is said to be the first New Yorker honored with a statue in the city.

Seward’s bad week started during a carriage ride on April 5 on Vermont Avenue in Washington D.C. with his daughters. The carriage door was not tightly closed and kept flying open.  The coachman dismounted to shut the door and the horses began to run away with carriage.  Seward attempted to jump from the carriage and rein in the horses, but the heel of his shoe caught the carriage and threw him face-first onto the ground.  By the time the carriage was stopped, with the girls safe and sound, Seward was being carried home with a broken arm and a broken jaw.  The broken jaw required a metal splint and bed rest for a number of weeks.

On the evening of April 14, a man arrived at Seward’s home on Lafayette Square.  The man claimed to be from the pharmacy with medicine that needed to be delivered to Seward himself.  The butler let the man into the house, at which point he made his way upstairs and forced his way into Seward’s bedroom.  The stranger was on no errand of mercy, he was Lewis Powell, a former Confederate soldier wounded at Gettysburg.  Powell was stopped by Seward’s son and Assistant Secretary of State, Frederick, who refused to let the man come any closer.  The would-be assasin carried a 1858 Whitney revolver and fired it at the young Seward.  The revolver misfired, but Powell managed to club Frederick over the head and advance into Seward’s room.  The revolver was damaged beyond repair, however, so Powell drew a silver handled Bowie knife and sprang on the defenseless secretary of state, slashing at his throat and face.  The splint kept the blade from cutting Seward’s jugular, thereby saving his life.

Sergeant George F. Robinson and Seward’s son Augustus, himself an army officer, attempted to pull Powell off of Seward.  Seward by this time was on the floor behind the bed where Powell could not reach him.  Powell stabbed Robinson, Augustus, and Seward’s 20-year-old daughter, Fanny before Augustus managed to draw his pistol.  Powell bounded down the steps and headed for the front door.  A telegraph messenger named Emerick Hansel,, in the wrong place at the wrong time, arrived as Powell was making his escape.  Powell stabbed Hansell in the back, causing him to fall on the floor.  Powell yelled “I’m mad!  I’m mad!” before running outside to his getaway horse.

Having been abandoned by his co-conspirator, David Herold, Powell was left in a Washington D.C. he knew very little about.  He wandered the city for a few days before being captured.  He was executed in July.  Powell had not managed to kill anyone, but the consequences to the people involved were devastating.  Seward carried the scars of the attack on his face for the remainder of his life.  Frederick remained in a coma for two months as a result of the revolver blow to his head.  Seward’s wife, Frances Adeline, believed her son Frederick would die.  Her heightened state of anxiety is believed to have contributed to the heart attack that killed her in July.  Emerick Hansel, the unfortunate telegraph messenger, remainder paralyzed for life after the attack.

Seward continued as secretary of state for Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.  In 1867 he successfully negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million–2 cents per acre.  The decision was known as “Seward’s Folly” at the time, but Seward correctly realized it was his greatest achievement, but that it would “take the people a generation to find out.”  Alaska became a state in 1959.

The Madison Square Park sculpture was made in 1873, the year after Seward’s death, by New York sculptor Randolph Rogers.  More than 250 subscribers, Ulysses S. Grant among them, contributed to the monument’s $25,000 cost.

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