Saturday, February 14, 2009

Lincoln and Fanny Seward

To mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the University of Rochester has put online a selection of diary entries written by Fanny, the daughter of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward. Among these diary entries is an eye-witness description of the attempted murder of her father by a Confederate spy and associate of the man who succeeded in assassinating Lincoln that very same day.

The twelfth of February was not only the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin (see previous article), but also of Abraham Lincoln, one of the US’s greatest presidents. He successfully led the country through the American Civil War, thus preserving the Union against the secessionist Confederates and ending slavery. But, as the war was drawing to a close, on 14 April 1865, Lincoln was assassinated - the first president, in fact, to be murdered - by John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate spy.

On the same day, and at the same time, another Confederate spy and associate of Booth, Lewis Powell, attempted to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward. This plot, however, failed. He continued to serve as Secretary of State under the next president Andrew Johnson, and to negotiate the purchase of Alaska from Russia, an act that is remembered as his greatest achievement but which was ridiculed at the time as ‘Seward’s Folly’.

Many of Seward’s papers are held by the University of Rochester’s Rare Books and Special Collections department, and these include a treasure of letters to, from and about Lincoln. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth, on 12 February, the university’s library launched an exhibit entitled Lincoln at Rochester; and, in connection with this has made available some extracts from Fanny Seward’s diaries.

Frances (or Fanny) Seward’s life was short. Having contracted typhoid when a child she suffered ill health, and died when only 22. However, as a teenager and young woman, she was already taking over social duties in Washington, because her mother preferred to stay at the family home in Auburn. She began keeping a diary at 14, and continued until a few weeks before her death.

The university’s library website has just made available both the images and the transcribed texts of Fanny’s diary from 10 days in April 1865, up to and including 14 April. The final entry, for 14 February, is long, over 4,000 words, and provides an extraordinary eye-witness account of the attempted assassination of her father. Here is a short extract.

‘. . . I remember running back, crying out ‘Where’s Father?,’ seeing the empty bed. At the side I found what I thought was a pile of bed clothes - then I knew that it was Father. As I stood my feet slipped in a great pool of blood. Father looked so ghastly I was sure he was dead, he was white & very thin with the blood that had drained from the gashes about his face & throat. Fred was in the room till after Father was placed on the bed. Margaret says she heard me scream ‘O my God! Father’s dead.’ I remember that Robinson came instantly, &: lifting him, said his heart still beat - & he, with or without aid, laid him on the bed. Notwithstanding his own injuries Robinson stood faithfully at Father’s side, on the right hand - I did not know what should be done. Robinson told me everything - about staunching the blood with cloths & water. He applied them on the right side, & I, kneeling on the bed, on the left, put them on a wound on that side of the neck. Father seemed to me almost dead, but he spoke to me, telling me to have the doors closed, & send for surgeons, & to ask to have a guard placed around the house. . .

. . . It was then that I first heard about the President, one of the gentlemen telling Mother that he was shot. As this group stood there Father related in a clear, distinct manner, his recollections of the whole scene - between each word he drew breath, as one dying might speak, & I feared the effort might cost his remaining strength. I think we gave him tea in the night - at his own request. I was in constant apprehension of some fatal turn in his symptoms . . .’

There is another set of extracts from Fanny’s diaries on the libary website - from September 1860, when Fanny was 15. These were published in the Library Bulletin for an article on Stumping for Lincoln (politicians are said to be stumping when they’re on the campaign trail). In an introduction to the extracts, Patricia C Johnson explains how Fanny came to be ‘stumping for Lincoln’ that year.

‘There was no possibility of Mrs Seward joining her husband on the trip. She was a semi-invalid who hated crowds, parties, travel and, most of all, the political limelight. She agreed, though, when Seward decided to substitute their fifteen-year-old daughter, Fanny. The motive for taking the young girl was not solely or even mainly political. Seward intended that his beloved only daughter should have a wide, liberal education and the campaign provided an opportunity for her to glimpse much of the Midwest. The parents also hoped that it would improve her health. She was a delicate child, subject especially to coughs, colds, and fevers and there was a chance that the exercise, fresh air, and change of climate would bolster her weak constitution.’

Johnson also explains that Fanny would write notes in a pocketbook diary and then transfer those notes, in an expanded form, into her main diary, but that the diary for 1860 no longer exists. Here, though, is an entry from the pocketbook diary for 6 September 1860.

'Rose rather late. Visited the State Reform School - Interesting and humane much pleased with it, State Agricultural college men deliverd adress to Father. Procession formed, Took in our carriages - it was between two and three miles long. Girls dressed as States, wideawakes etc. Paraded through city - Speaking at a public common, covered stage. Father’s lap - He began speaking stage began to give way - we off all right - he spoke - Gen Nye followed - Company dinner - Torchlight and roman candles evening were gay with the Hosmers such nice people. Mr Howard joined.’

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