University of Rochester

Dramatic New Diary Entries Added Online In Honor of Lincoln's 200th Birthday

February 9, 2009

On April 14, 1865, the same night and at the same hour that Abraham Lincoln was shot, his Secretary of State William Seward also was targeted for assassination. Attending her convalescing father that night, Frances "Fanny" Seward watched in terror and later recorded in one of the century's most harrowing eyewitness accounts how the assassin, a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other, attacked Seward as he lay in bed recovering from a near-fatal carriage accident.

On Feb. 12, in honor of Lincoln's 200th birthday, the University of Rochester will post online digital facsimiles of Fanny Seward's gripping description of the failed attempt on her father's life. The selections will include Fanny's diary entries for April 5, 1865, the day of her father's accident, through April 14, 1865, the day both Seward and Lincoln were attacked.

The diary entries will appear on the University's library Web site Lincoln and His Circle ( accompanied by footnotes and easier-to-read transcriptions. Launched last year, the Web site contains rare correspondence with Lincoln, including 72 letters penned by the president and 218 others sent to Lincoln.

"These diary entries vividly capture the raw history of this horrific event," said Richard Peek, director of the University's Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation. "It's difficult to imagine that there's a more dramatic first-person account of 19th-century American history than what is contained in the diary entry for April 14th."

With the eye of the writer that Fanny aspired to become, the 20 year old describes how the intruder rushed into the room. "I ran beside him to the bed imploring him to stop," wrote Fanny. "I must have said 'Don't kill him,' for father wakened, he says, hearing me speak the word kill, & seeing first me, speaking to some one whom he did not see—then raised himself & had one glimpse of the assassin's face bending over, next felt the blows."

Fanny describes the chaos that ensued as the assailant, Lewis Powell, struggled with her brother, Frederick, and the male nurse, Sergeant George Robinson. "I remember standing there, by the corner at the foot, & thinking 'This must be a fearful dream!' Then I looked about and saw, first … three men struggling beside the bed … next I saw all the familiar objects in the room, the bureau, the little stand, the book I had been reading, all looked natural. Then I knew it was not a dream."

After Powell fled down the stairs and out of the house, Fanny found her father on the floor. "As I stood my feet slipped in a great pool of blood. Father looked so gastly [sic] I was sure he was dead, he was white & very thin with the blood that had drained from the gashes about his face & throat."

William Seward survived the ordeal and slowly recovered, as did his son who suffered severe head trauma in the attack. But the nightmarish events undermined the already compromised health of Seward's wife and daughter; Frances Seward died two months later, followed by Fanny in October 1866.

Fanny left six diaries, spanning the last eight years of her life, from 1858 to 1866, which are part of the University's William Henry Seward Papers. These private journals offer an insider's view of Washington's social life and intimate glimpses of Lincoln and his inner circle.

In the selection posted online, Fanny describes Lincoln's April 9, 1865, visit to her recuperating father, the last time her family saw the president. Lincoln "was lying on the foot of Father's bed, talking with him… He told us much about his visit to Richmond, & that one of his last acts was going through a hospital of seven thousand men, & shaking hands with each one. He spoke of having worked as hard at it as sawing wood—& seemed, in his goodness of heart, much satisfied at the labor."

A work in progress, the postings of Fanny Seward's diaries will continue with additional entries from these important Civil War journals.