University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Seward and Lincoln, The Washington Depot Episode

Volume XX · Spring 1965 · Number 3
Seward and Lincoln: The Washington Depot Episode

Historians and biographers have any number of possible roads stretching out before them. They may assume the philosopher's role, and try to understand and make clear the "why" of history. They may be avant-garde writers, seeking to establish new theories of historical development. They may be simple narrators of past events, and may or may not attempt to portray the past in the light of present knowledge. But no matter which one, or which combination of these roads the historian chooses, he should always be listening to one stern admonition from Clio. He must seek to find out the truth about what happened in the past. He must continuously and relentlessly evaluate the evidence that lies before him, with a view to discovering what actually happened, and then he must tell his story without fear or favor.

Truth is a fascinating goddess, as the multitude of observations about it in Bartlett and other compendiums makes manifest. "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free," said the apostle, John, and the admonition has rung down the ages. Bacon records that "jesting Pilate" asked, "What is truth? - and would not stay for an answer." Historians, unlike Pilate, are compelled to stay, and that is the reason for this examination of one bit of historical evidence.

On February 22, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was due to arrive in Washington, D.C.; his inauguration as President of the United States was just ten days away. Lincoln had been reticent about public utterance ever since his nomination, and during that Winter the outstanding leader of the Republican party in meeting the rising threat of secession had been William Henry Seward. Lincoln had designated Seward as his Secretary of State, and Seward naturally was anxious to be one of the first to welcome the President-elect to the Capital.

Lincoln was scheduled to arrive in Washington on a late afternoon train, and Seward and Elihu B. Washburne, Congressman from Illinois and a personal friend of Old Abe, as everyone called the President-elect, were at the station to meet him. The train came in, but Lincoln was not on it, and the best Seward and Washburne could do was to escort Mrs. Lincoln and the Lincoln children to Willard's Hotel, where a suite had been reserved for the presidential party. The two men then agreed to meet the next train from Baltimore, which was due to arrive at six o'clock the following morning.

This 6:00 A. M. train on February 23 was on time, and Lincoln was on it. Washburne met it. The question is, was Seward there also? On this point there is conflicting evidence.

Seward wrote to his wife the same day: "The President-elect arrived incog. at six this morning. I met him at the depot; and after breakfast introduced him to the President and Cabinet. . ." Charles Francis Adams, Congressman from Massachusetts and close friend of Seward, wrote in his diary that same day that Lincoln had arrived at six o'clock, and had been met by Seward and Washburne who took him to Willard's Hotel. Nicolay and Hay, in their monumental biography of Lincoln, said the same thing. Lucius E. Chittenden, Register of the Treasury, recorded in his Reminiscences of Lincoln that

The street lights were not yet extinguished on the early morning of the 23d of February, when Elihu B. Washburne and Senator Seward stepped from a carriage at the ladies' entrance of Willard's Hotel. A tall man with a striking face, followed them into the hall, the swinging doors closed, and the future president and preserver of the republic was safely housed in its capital.

The famous detective, Allan Pinkerton, in his Spy of the Rebellion, has an illustration showing Lincoln leaving the depot with Seward and Washburne. Finally, Seward's son, Frederick W. Seward, who had gone to Philadelphia to warn Lincoln of a plot against his life in Baltimore, news of which caused Lincoln to take a secret night journey through Baltimore to Washington, wrote in a manuscript now in Rush Rhees Library:

I hastened to the telegraph office [in Philadelphia1 and sent my father a word previously agreed upon, upon receiving which, he would understand that his advice had been taken [that Lincoln should change his itinerary in view of the threat to his life].

Accordingly he was at the railroad station in Washington on Saturday morning, with E. B. Washburne, of Illinois, when Mr. Lincoln and Col. Lamon, very much to the surprise of the bystanders, stepped out of the night train from Philadelphia.

At this point, the reader may well ask, what more need be said? Well, let us look at the rest of the evidence.

Pinkerton's Spy is not the last word in accuracy. His manuscript, giving a contemporary account, declared that "Washburne said . . . he was at the Depot . . . and that Gov. Seward was to have been at the Depot also, but that he (Washburne) did not see him." This is a second-hand report of what Washburne is supposed to have said at the time. Years later, however, Washburne wrote the following account for A. T. Rice's Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, which was first published in 1886:

I was on hand in season [at the depot], but to my great disappointment Governor Seward did not appear. - I could not mistake the long, lank form of Mr. Lincoln -. Entering the carriage - we drove rapidly to Willard's Hotel, entering on Fourteenth Street, before it was fairly daylight. - We had not been in the hotel more than two minutes before Governor Seward hurriedly entered, much out of breath and somewhat chagrined to think he had not been up in season to be at the depot on the arrival of the train.

As a final touch on the Washburne side of the story, Ward Lamon's account, in his Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, a compilation from articles, letters, and memoir jottings by Lamon, published by his daughter and not a first-rate source, bears out Washburne's account of Lincoln's arrival in Washington.

Here, then, are completely contradictory accounts of the part Seward played in Lincoln's arrival at Washington. What is the historian to do with them? Obviously it is his duty to assess their value and, hopefully, come to some conclusion as to what really happened.

The evidence that Seward was at the depot is certainly weighty, especially his own unequivocal statement. Furthermore, Washburne's account was evidently written twenty years or more after the event, and he might have been confused as to what had happened that February morning in 1861. Stranger mistakes than that have been made by memoir writers. But on the other hand, Washburne's account is very circumstantial. It describes how Lincoln was dressed, and how Seward acted when he arrived at Willard's. It does not read like a figment of the imagination.

One might well conclude that either Seward at the time or Washburne years later made up a story out of whole cloth. There is, however, a third possibility-that Seward's account was a partially true recital of what actually happened. He may have arrived at the station just after Washburne and Lincoln had left for the hotel. Seward was at this time anxious to be in Lincoln's good graces, for a furious struggle was raging over the composition of the Cabinet, and he was also very anxious that no story should get abroad that could be construed as an intentional slight to the President-elect. He undoubtedly went to the depot, and may subsequently have taken pains to say to all and sundry, including his wife (to whom he may have been embarrassed to confess the truth) that he had met Lincoln there or, what was almost the same thing, that he had gone to the depot to meet the President-elect. This would be a cover for a mistake that he had made, perhaps by oversleeping.

Whether or not Seward met Lincoln at the train is not a matter of cosmic significance. They were together much and amicably during the succeeding week. The episode merits attention mainly because it is one of a multitude of problems that beset the researcher as he delves into the great masses of historical evidence in a well-nigh endless, never completely conclusive, but always necessary search for historical truth.