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William H. Seward
Historically superb letter by which Seward sends vital certified copies of documents
for use as exhibits in the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators
William Henry Seward, 1801–1872. Superb Manuscript Letter Signed, William H. Seward, one page, with integral leaf attached, 7¾” x 10”, on stationery of the Department of State, Washington, [D.C.], June 13, 1865.
This extraordinary letter represents a vital part of the Military Commission trial of the conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Without the evidence that Secretary of State Seward sent with this letter, the prosecution likely could not have made its case.
On trial for their lives were David E. Herold, George A. Atzerodt, Lewis Payne, Michael O’Laughlin, Edward Spangler, Mary E. Suratt, and Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. They were charged with the assassination of the President, the attempted assassination of Secretary of State Seward, and conspiracy to assassinate other federal government officials, including Vice President Andrew Johnson, in an attempt to dismantle the federal government and revive the Confederate cause.
On the night of April 14, 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth fired a Derringer at point-blank range, discharging a bullet into the back of Lincoln’s head as Lincoln sat with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and two guests in the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., watching a performance of Our American Cousin. About the same time, Powell talked his way into Seward’s house and repeatedly stabbed Seward, who was in bed recuperating from a broken jaw, in the face and neck. Atzerodt, who was supposed to kill Johnson but who insisted to Booth that he had signed on only to kidnap the President, got cold feet and backed out. Seward was scarred for life but survived because the splint that he wore to repair his broken jaw blocked Powell’s knife from cutting his jugular vein. Lincoln’s wound was mortal, however, and Lincoln died the next day at the Petersen House across the street from the theatre.
The offices that the victims or intended victims held were key elements of the conspirators’ crime. It was common knowledge, of course, that Lincoln had been President, Seward was Secretary of State, and Johnson had been Vice President. But in the law, common knowledge is not proof. As a matter of proof that the conspirators had committed those acts, then, the prosecution had to offer substantial evidence that Lincoln, Seward, and Johnson had, in fact, legally held those offices at the time of the attacks on April 14, 1865, that left Lincoln dead and Seward severely wounded. It may have been a technicality—but it was essential to obtaining convictions for the crimes charged.
Those crimes were set out in the formal Charge and Specification against the defendants. Omitting some of the legalese language, it stated:
Charge I. For maliciously, unlawfully, and traitorously, and in aid of the existing armed rebellion against the United States of America on or before the 6th day of March, A. D. 1865, and on divers other days between that day and the fifteenth day of April, A.D. 1865, combining, confederating, and conspiring together with one John H. Surratt, John Wilkes Booth, Jefferson Davis, . . . and others unknown, to kill and murder . . . Abraham Lincoln, . . . President of the United States of America, and Commander-in-chief of the army and navy thereof; Andrew Johnson, now Vice President of the United States aforesaid; William H. Seward, Secretary of State of the United States aforesaid; Ulysses S. Grant, Lieutenant General of the army of the United States, under the direction of said Abraham Lincoln; and in pursuance of and in prosecuting said . . . conspiracy . . . , and in aid of said rebellion, afterwards, to wit, on the 14th day of April, A. D. 1865, . . . together with said John Wilkes Booth and John H. Surratt, maliciously, unlawfully, and traitorously murdering the said Abraham Lincoln, then President of the United States and commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States, as aforesaid; and maliciously, unlawfully, and traitorously assaulting with intent to kill and murder the said William H. Seward, then Secretary of States of the United States, as aforesaid; and lying in wait with intent maliciously, unlawfully, and traitorously to kill an murder the said Andrew Johnson, then being Vice President of the United States; and the said Ulysses S. Grant, then being Lieutenant general, and in command of the armies of the United States, as aforesaid.
Specification 1. In this: that they . . . did, in aid of said armed rebellion, on or before the 6th day of March, A. D. 1865, and on divers other days and times between that day and the 15th day of April, A. D. 1865, combine, confederate, and conspire together . . . to kill and murder Abraham Lincoln, then President of the United States aforesaid, and commander-in-chief of the army and navy thereof; and . . . to kill and murder Andrew Johnson, now Vice President of the said United States, upon whom, on the death of said Abraham Lincoln after the fourth day of March, A. D. 1865, the office of President of the United States, and commander-in-chief of the army and navy thereof, would devolve; and to . . . kill and murder Ulysses S. Grant, then Lieutenant General, and, under the direction of the said Abraham Lincoln, in command of the armies of the United States . . . ; and . . . to kill and murder William H. Seward, then Secretary of State . . . , whose duty it was, by law, upon the death of said President and Vice President of he United States . . . , to cause an election to be held for electors of President of the United States—the conspirators aforesaid designing and intending by the killing and murder of the said Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and William H. Seward, as aforesaid, to deprive the army and navy of the said United States of a constitutional commander-in-chief; and to deprive the armies of the United States of their lawful commander; and to prevent a lawful election of President and Vice President of the United States . . . ; and by the means aforesaid to aid and comfort the insurgents engaged in armed rebellion against the said United States, . . . and thereby to aid in the subversion and overthrow of the Constitution and laws of the said United States.
And being so combined, confederated, and conspiring together in the prosecution of and unlawful and traitorous conspiracy, on the night of the 14th day of April, A. D. 1865, at the hour of about ten o’clock and fifteen minutes p. m., at Ford’s theatre, on Tenth street, . . . John Wilkes Booth, one of the conspirators . . . , in pursuance of said unlawful and traitorous conspiracy, did, then and there, unlawfully, maliciously and traitorously, and with intent to kill and murder the said Abraham Lincoln, discharge a pistol then held in the hands of him, the said Booth, the same being then loaded with powder and a leaden ball, against and upon the left and posterior side of the head of the said Abraham Lincoln; and did thereby, then and there, inflict upon him, the said Abraham Lincoln, then President of the said United States, and commander-in-chief of the army and navy thereof, a mortal wound, whereof, afterwards, to wit, on the 15th day of April, A. D. 1865, . . . Abraham Lincoln died; and thereby, then and there, and in pursuance of said conspiracy, the said defendants and the said John Wilkes Booth and John H. Surratt did . . . kill and murder the said Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States . . . .
. . . .
And in further prosecution of said unlawful and traitorous conspiracy and of the intent thereof as aforesaid, the said Lewis Payne did, on the sane might of the 14th of April, A. D. 1865, about the same hour of ten o’clock fifteen minutes p. m., . . . unlawfully and maliciously make an assault upon the said William H. Seward, Secretary of State, . . . in the dwelling-house and bed-chamber of him . . . , and the said Payne did then and there, with a large knife, held in his hand, unlawfully, traitorously, and in pursuance of said conspiracy, strike, stab, cut, and attempt to kill and murder the said William H. Seward, and did thereby, then and there, and with the intent aforesaid, with said knife, inflict upon the face and throat of the said William H. Seward divers grievous wounds . . . .
And in further prosecution of said conspiracy and its traitorous and murderous designs, the said George A. Atzerodt did, on the night of the 14th of April, A. D. 1865, and about the same hour of the night aforesaid, . . . lie in wait for Andrew Johnson, then Vice President of the United States . . . , with the intent unlawfully and maliciously to kill and murder him, the said Andrew Johnson.
. . . .
And in further prosecution of said conspiracy, Mary E. Surratt did . . . on or before the sixth day of March, A. D. 1865, and on divers other days and times between that day and the 20th day of April, A. D. 1865, receive, entertain, harbor and conceal, aid and assist the said John Wilkes Booth, David E. Herold, Lewis Payne, John H. Surratt, Michael O'Laughlin, George A. Atzerodt, Samuel Arnold, and their confederates, with knowledge of the murderous and traitorous conspiracy aforesaid, and with intent to aid, abet, and assist them in the execution thereof, and in escaping from justice after the murder of the said Abraham Lincoln . . . .
The trial began May 12, 1865, at the penitentiary at the old federal arsenal at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., where the defendants were held and where four of the convicted conspirators were later hanged. The prosecutors apparently recognized late in the trial that they had not tied the plot to the federal offices that the victims and intended victims held, as the charge required. On June 12, 1865, they began to produce evidence with which to do so.
The prosecution sought to prove Lincoln’s presidency and Johnson’s vice presidency two ways: first, that they were elected, and second, that they served in office. On June 12, therefore, Assistant Judge Advocate General John Bingham offered into evidence certified copies of the journals of the joint sessions of the United States Senate and House of Representatives showing that Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin were elected President and Vice President for a term of four years beginning March 4, 1861, and that Lincoln and Johnson were elected President and Vice President for a term of four years beginning March 4, 1865. Trial Tr. at 4070; Exhibits 87, 88. Of course, since Lincoln’s assassination and the other acts occurred April 14, 1865, only the election for the term beginning March 4, 1865, was relevant. But the fact that Lincoln and Johnson were elected did not establish that they then actually served in those offices. So Bingham called Brigadier General Edward D. Townsend of the Adjutant General’s Corps to testify that he knew “the fact that Abraham Lincoln acted as President of the United States from and after the 4th of March, 1861, until the 15th of April, 1865, when he died,” that Hamlin “acted as Vice President during the four years preceding the 4th day of March, 1865,” and that “afterwards Andrew Johnson acted as Vice President until the death of Abraham Lincoln on the 15th of April, 1865.” Townsend testified that he “had frequent official intercourse with” Lincoln “as President of the United States during that time.” Trial Tr. at 4071–72.
But the fact that Lincoln and Johnson were elected and that they served likewise did not establish that they legally qualified for their offices. The Constitution requires that the President take a prescribed oath that “I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” U.S. Const. art. II, § 1. The oath prescribed for the Vice President in 1865 was the “test oath” that Congress, motivated by the Civil War, enacted in 1862: “I do solemnly swear, or affirm, that I have never voluntarily borne arms against the United States since I have been a citizen thereof; that I have voluntarily given no aid, countenance, counsel or encouragement to persons engaged in armed hostility thereto; that I have neither sought, nor accepted, nor attempted to exercise the functions of any office whatever, under any authority or pretended authority in hostility to the United States; that I have not yielded a voluntary support to any pretended government, authority, power or constitution within the United States hostile or inimical thereto.” Act July 2, 1862, ch. 128, 12 Stat. 502.
Nor, of course, did evidence about Lincoln and Johnson establish anything at all with respect to Seward.
On June 13, 1865, Thomas Ewing, Jr., co-counsel for Dr. Mudd and counsel for other defendants, debated at length with Bingham and Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt just what the charges were against which of the accused and what the legal basis for the charges was. Trial Tr. at 4244–47. In Ewing’s view, the charge that the defendants “maliciously, unlawfully, and traitorously, and in aid of the existing armed rebellion against the United States of America” assassinated Lincoln and sought to murder the other intended victims charged four separate crimes, not one. He repeatedly insisted that the Judge Advocate General explain just what charges were levied against which of the defendants. After much debate before the Military Commission, Holt explained, in apparent exasperation:
I stated in the brief remarks that I submitted, that I regarded them all as charged with conspiring to assassinate the President of the United States and the various members of the Government named in the pleadings; and they are further charged with having executed that conspiracy so far as the assassination of the President was concerned and the attempt to assassinate the Secretary of State, and to have attempted its execution so far as concerns the lying in wait and other matters which are distinctly set forth as indicating the individual action of each of these conspirators in connection with the general programme of crime as charged, all being in pursuance of the conspiracy, all alleged to be in aid of the Rebellion, and therefore properly charged as "traitorously" done as well as feloniously done.
Trial Tr. at 4257 (emphasis added). Therefore, while trying to explain away the adverbs in the charge—one wonders why they were there if they were essentially unnecessary—Holt reemphasized the official character of the victims.
Thus, on June 13, 1865, Major W. W. Winthrop wrote Seward to request a certified copy of his commission as Secretary of State. Later that day, Holt himself wrote Seward to request certified copies of Lincoln’s 1861 and 1865 oaths of office as President, Johnson’s oaths of office as both Vice President and President, and Seward’s commission as Secretary of State.
In response, Seward wrote this this letter to Holt at the Arsenal in Washington, D.C., where the Military Commission held the trial. Seward sent some of the requested documents but noted that the State Department did not have Lincoln’s original oaths of office. He writes, in full:
Judge Advocate General,
In compliance with the request contained in your letter of this date, I enclose herewith, a certified copy of the Oath of Office of President Johnson, and of the confirmation of William H. Seward, as Secretary of State. The Oaths of President Lincoln, taken 4th March 1861 and 4th March, 1865 and that of Mr. Johnson as Vice President, are not on the files of this Department. A certified copy of Mr. Seward’s Commission as Secretary of State was forwarded this morning to Major W. W. Winthrop, pursuant to a request in a letter from him, which, it is presumed, is now before the Court.
I am, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
William H. Seward
These documents—Johnson’s oath of office as President and Seward’s confirmation by the Senate as Secretary of State and his subsequently issued commission—were introduced into evidence without objection on June 14, 1865, the day after Seward wrote this letter. The transcript of the trial reads:
Assistant Judge Advocate Bingham offered in evidence, without objection, a certified copy under the seal of the Department of State of the oath of office of Andrew Johnson as President of the United States before the Chief Justice on the 15th day of April, 1861, which is appended to this record marked Exhibit No. 91.
Assistant Judge Advocate Bingham also offered in evidence, without objection, a duly certified copy of the resolution of the Senate dated March 5, 1861, consenting to the appointment, and advising the same, of William H. Seward as Secretary of State of the United States, and also a duly certified copy of the commission of William H. Seward as Secretary of State of the United States, dated March 5, 1861, signed by Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, and attested by J. S. Black, Secretary of State, under the seal of the United States, which are appended to this record marked Exhibit No. 92.
Trial Tr. at 4241.
Under the constitutional provisions regarding the Vice President at the time, Johnson’s oath of office as President on April 15, 1865, taken on a date other than March 4, at least established that Johnson succeeded unnaturally to the presidency. Johnson had to succeed some President, and Lincoln was the only other President whom the evidence identified. By inference, then, Johnson’s presidential oath of office had probative force upon the issues and was sufficiently substantial to warrant the Military Commission’s finding that Lincoln indeed had been President of the United States at the time of his assassination.
Similarly, although Johnson’s oath of office as Vice President was missing, his oath of office as President sustained the finding that he had been Vice President at the time Atzerodt was accused of lying in wait for him.
Finally, the certified copy of Seward’s commission sustained the finding that Seward was the Secretary of State when he was attacked. The Constitution requires the President to commission “all the Officers of the United States.” U.S. Const. art. II, § 3. It appears that Congress did not act to require a separate oath of office for federal office holders other than the President until August 6, 1861, which was after Seward had been commissioned and had taken office. See Act of Aug. 6, 1861, ch. 64, 12 Stat. 326.
The documents that this letter references thus were vital to the prosecution of the conspirators. Hence the importance of this letter itself. It is an integral part of the history of the Lincoln assassination and its aftermath.
This letter, too, disproves the incorrect history that appears in one of the official accounts of the conspiracy trial. In 1865, following the trial, Benn Pitman, the official recorder to the Military Commission, compiled a summary of the trial, part history and part quasi-transcript. Pitman’s work says that the certified documents that Seward sent with this letter were offered and admitted into evidence on June 12, 1865, not on June 14. The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators 244 (1865). Under Pitman’s account, the documents were admitted into evidence the day before Seward sent them—a physical impossibility. As the scanned copies from the National Archives files below show, those documents were certified June 13, the date of this letter.
This letter is in fine condition. It has two normal mailing folds, which run between lines of text, barely touching some of the letters, well removed from Seward’s black ink signature. Minor fold splits have been archivally repaired.
This superb letter belongs in the finest of Lincoln, Civil War, or presidential collections.
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