It is not easy to manage foreign affairs for a nation at war with itself.
As Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward had to conduct diplomacy for a country riven by Civil War. With very limited leverage, he needed to prevent international rivals from taking advantage of America’s internal divisions. That meant deterring the great powers of Western Europe from supporting the Confederacy, while protesting France’s occupation of Mexico in violation of the Monroe Doctrine.
Unfortunately, late in the war, an untimely accident interrupted Seward’s work. On April 5, 1865, a horse carriage collision concussed him, broke his jaw, busted his right arm and battered his slender frame black and blue. A young man would need considerable time to recover from injuries so severe, but at the time of the accident, Seward was just weeks away from turning 65.
Nine nights later, the Secretary of State laid resting in his bedroom. Still weak and swathed in bandages, he dozed in a daze of opiates and booze — the prescribed painkillers of the day.
Around 10:00 p.m., someone knocked on the front door and rang the doorbell. A strapping young man pushed past the butler and bounded up two flights of steps, claiming to deliver medicine from Seward’s personal physician.
The convalescent’s son — Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward — stopped the stranger at the top of the stairs and told him his father was asleep.
His little sister Fanny poked her head out of the patient’s bedroom and corrected him: “Fred, Father is awake now.” She shut the door again.
The stranger descended a few steps, then turned to shoot at Seward’s son. When the gun misfired, the intruder rushed up the steps and pistol-whipped Frederick, beating him senseless.
“Murder! Murder!” shouted the butler from the bottom of the stairs. He ran out into the street to get help.
Meanwhile, the intruder drew a knife and charged into Seward’s bedroom. Shoving Fanny aside, the assassin leapt on top of the Secretary and stabbed him repeatedly in the neck and face. The patient flailed feebly to fend off his attacker and rolled onto the floor in a narrow space between the bed and the wall.
The noise awakened Seward’s other son, Augustus, an Army officer who had been sleeping in the same room. He and his sister tried to restrain the intruder with help from Private George Robinson, an attendant who rushed in from elsewhere in the house. During the struggle, the assassin stabbed Augustus and Robinson repeatedly.
While the private wrestled with the attacker, Augustus ran out of the room to fetch a pistol. The assassin seized the opportunity to flee. At the bottom of the stairs, he stabbed a telegram delivery man in the back — severing his spine and permanently paralyzing him — before exiting the house and vanishing in the night.
Peering down at Seward’s bloodied body, his daughter shrieked, “Oh my God, Father’s dead!"
“I am not dead,” the Secretary growled evenly. “Send for a doctor, send for the police. Close the house.”
Ignoring his own wounds, Private Robinson worked with Fanny to bandage Seward. Despite multiple face and neck wounds, the Secretary’s jaw splint had protected his jugular from the blade.
Later that night, they learned that President Lincoln had been been shot around the same time. He died the next morning.
Seward and his sons recovered from their wounds and went back to work, but the attack traumatized the Secretary’s wife, who died of a heart attack just two months later.
Subsequent investigations revealed a conspiracy to assassinate the president and other prominent Union leaders. John Wilkes Booth died resisting arrest, but Seward’s attacker — a Confederate veteran named Lewis Powell — got apprehended and hanged along with three co-conspirators.
With the Civil War concluded, Seward worked with President Andrew Johnson to enforce the Monroe Doctrine by pressuring France to quit Mexico. The US massed troops on the southern border and gave military aid to President Benito Juarez to turn the tide against the foreign invaders.
In 1866, Seward’s daughter Fanny died of tuberculosis. Despite his grief, the Secretary kept working. He negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Although many contemporaries ridiculed the acquisition as “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox,” the vast mineral wealth of the Last Frontier has amply vindicated the Secretary’s vision.
Before the war, Seward had championed the rights of African Americans and immigrants as a state legislator, Governor and a US Senator from New York. In fact, Lincoln won the 1860 Republican nomination at his expense because “Honest Abe” took more moderate positions on slavery and said nothing to offend anti-immigrant bigots. Sadly, after Lincoln’s assassination, Seward tarnished his formerly distinguished civil rights legacy by tacitly supporting Johnson’s white supremacist Reconstruction program.
Seward retired from government service in 1869. He traveled west to see some of Alaska firsthand, then swung South to visit Mexico, where he received a hero’s welcome for helping our southern neighbor free itself from French domination.