If you’re a history buff–and many readers of this blog are–you’ve undoubtedly observed that today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth while watching the play Our American Cousin on Friday night, April 14, 1865; he lingered a few hours and died early on the morning of April 15. Just about everything that can be said about Lincoln, and his death, has been said today. In honor of the anniversary, though, I thought I’d devote an article to the other part of the story of that terrible night, and the one that rarely gets remembered in its own right: the very nearly successful attempted assassination of William H. Seward, U.S. Secretary of State, by one of Booth’s cronies.
Although much less consequential historically than the assassination of the President–Seward not only survived, but continued on as Secretary of State under Lincoln’s successor–the attack on Seward was definitely more violent and brazen than Booth’s shooting of Lincoln, and its perpetrator, Lewis Powell, was undoubtedly crazier and more depraved than Booth was. Booth sneaked up on his victim with a tiny gun whose victim never knew he was there and probably suffered no pain; Powell, by contrast, brutally stabbed, beat and slashed no less than six victims, up close and face-to-face. Furthermore, although Booth’s plot involved a number of people, Powell was the only one besides Booth himself who actually had the courage to go through with the plan. Obviously we’re fortunate Seward survived, but the outcome could easily have been very different.
George Atzerodt, one of Powell’s friends and co-conspirators, didn’t have the nerve to kill anyone–when it was game-time, he went and got drunk instead.
The story of this ugly attack began in January 1865 when Lewis Powell, a tall, powerfully-built 20-year-old former Confederate soldier originally from Alabama, arrived in Baltimore, Maryland. Powell had served with distinction in the Southern army and was wounded on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. He was fiercely pro-Southern. In Baltimore he seems to have mucked around with some Confederate spies and sympathizers, though exactly who he met and when is not entirely clear. We do know that sometime that winter Powell became friends with John Wilkes Booth, the noted actor (and fellow Confederate sympathizer), who had lunch with him at Barnum’s Hotel and offered Powell the chance to be part of a history-making event: a secret plot to kidnap Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, and hold him for political ransom.
Booth was the ringleader of what to date was the only successful conspiracy to assassinate a U.S. President–all the others (yes, even Kennedy) were killed by men acting alone. As the plot took shape over the first few months of 1865 it kept morphing in its details and membership, but Powell was always involved, and the kidnap-and-ransom scenario was the prime motivation until almost the very end. After a series of misadventures, though, Booth, Powell and the others were caught flat-footed by the sudden and (to them, at least) unexpected surrender of the Confederate army on Sunday, April 9, 1865. Booth kept missing his chances to get close to Lincoln and with the Confederate government dissolved the kidnap idea seemed unworkable anyway. When Booth learned that Lincoln was going to see Our American Cousin on Friday night, he very quickly organized the final incarnation. He decided he would decapitate the entire Union government. He (Booth) would blow Lincoln away in his theater box; co-conspirator George Atzerodt was supposed to shoot Vice-President Andrew Johnson at his hotel; and Powell was assigned to do in Secretary of State Seward at his house. The final details of the plot didn’t come together until the very last minute.
An artist’s depiction of the pistol-whipping attack by Powell against Frederick Seward, the son of the Secretary of State. The younger Seward survived.
Seward, probably Lincoln’s closest political friend, hadn’t been to work in a few days. On April 5 he was badly injured in a carriage accident. He broke several bones including his jaw, and a doctor had put a split on his neck to help heal the jaw. He was in bed at his three-story townhouse at Lafayette Square at the time Lincoln was enjoying Our American Cousin across town. At almost the same time Booth shot Lincoln, Powell, accompanied by conspirator David Herold, arrived at the Seward house. He was carrying a revolver and a large knife. He gained entry by telling William Bell, Seward’s butler, that he was delivering medicine for Seward prescribed by his doctor–but the doctor had just left not long ago. Powell muscled his way into the house, started upstairs and was stopped by Frederick Seward, the Secretary’s son. When Frederick became suspicious Powell drew the gun and pulled the trigger. The gun misfired. Powell instead used the gun to beat Frederick senseless.
Soon the Seward house was in pandemonium. Having dispatched the son (victim #1), Powell ran into the bedroom with the knife, coming upon a (male) Army nurse and Seward’s daughter standing by Seward’s bedside. Powell slashed the nurse (victim #2), punched Fanny Seward in the face (#3) and then attacked his main target. Stabbing deeply with the knife, Powell slashed and plunged his blade into his helpless victim. Unbeknownst to Powell, though, the splint on Seward’s jaw deflected the worst blows. Seward’s other son Augustus ran into the room, and got stabbed several times (victim #5) for his trouble. While running out of the house, shouting “I’m mad! I’m mad!” for good measure Powell attacked one more person, a State Department clerk (victim #6), stabbing him in the back. Powell was convinced he’d succeeded in killing Seward. In fact he left six people stabbed, slashed, beaten and bloodied, but alive.
The assassination conspiracy began to unravel even before Powell’s bloody rampage began. Booth managed to shoot Lincoln, but of his cohorts only Powell did what he was supposed to do. Even Powell’s accomplice, David Herold, ran away when the commotion began at the Seward house. George Atzerodt didn’t even make it within sight of his target, Andrew Johnson. He got drunk at the hotel bar instead and never went through with it. Powell was lucky for a short while, managing to get out of Washington and then eventually back in when he tried to meet up with his buddies at Surratt’s boarding house, where the main plot was hatched. Soldiers were waiting for him there. He was taken into custody, tried and eventually executed with the other conspirators, minus Booth, who conveniently committed suicide-by-cop only twelve days after the assassination.
On July 7, 1865, the Lincoln conspirators were executed in Washington. A case can be made that Mary Surratt, owner of the boarding house where the plot was hatched, was innocent.
Seward survived and recuperated. He wasn’t seriously debilitated by the attack, though he carried a scar for the rest of his life. The other victims of the attack similarly recovered without permanent disabilities, though you could certainly expect they suffered from PTSD (unknown in 1865). The nurse, George F. Robinson, was credited with helping save Seward’s life and awarded a medal by Congress. Seward himself went on to purchase Alaska for the United States and greatly enlarged the U.S.’s role on the world stage. He died of respiratory illness in 1872.
Powell’s attack on Seward was pretty pointless. It was motivated, I think, less by political ideology or even political rage than it was Powell’s slavish, generally unthinking devotion to John Wilkes Booth. Since the South had already been defeated, the attack on the high officials of the Union government, even if successful beyond simply Lincoln, had no political point other than a mean, empty gesture of violent anger. It’s a shame that after the horrific bloodbath of the Civil War–a terrible conflict, but one that served a higher purpose of ending slavery and redefining freedom in America, however imperfectly–two ugly men like Booth and Powell ultimately got the last word. History is sometimes depressing.