When historical fiction writer Trudy Krisher read Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin she became interested in Fanny Seward, the beloved daughter of William Seward who was Lincoln's rival for the Republican presidential candidate. He became his closest friend politically and personally. She also read James Swanson's book Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer. Learning that Fanny Seward had kept a diary and no biography existed, Krisher began her research that culminated in
Fanny Seward: A Life.
I was thrilled to see this book title offered on NetGalley, because like Krisher I also was captivated by the assassination attempt on William Seward and by the role his daughter Fanny played in his life.
I was disappointed to learn that Krisher's original manuscript reached 600 pages but found no publisher. She had to halve her book. Early on I had wished to hear more of Fanny's voice through incorporation of her diary entries and writing. Happily these source materials do appear later in the book, especially as relating to the assassination attempt on her father's life.
The Seward family was privileged yet unpretentious, progressive and free-thinking. Frances Seward was an intellectual who preferred the introverted and quiet rural life. She was involved in the Underground Railroad. She knew Elizabeth Cady Stanton who described Frances as having "independence of character". Always in frail health Frances used her illnesses to avoid society.
"A cargo of 300 slaves, wild from Africa, has been landed in Georgia by the sloop “Wanderer”—and the nation is quite stirred up about it. I hope the “stealers of men” will be justly punished, and the poor Africans be restored to their native land." Fanny Seward 1858 diary excerpt
William Seward was outgoing, sanguine, and personable...and "addicted" to politics. Goodwin in Team of Rivals tells how he was the most liberal Abolitionist Republican and assumed he would be nominated for their presidential candidate. He was too liberal, and Lincoln was elected. Seward was offered Secretary of State on Lincoln's Cabinet, and he assumed he would "lead" behind the scenes. Instead Lincoln won Seward's respect and loyalty.
Fanny was plain and conventional, a loving child, an adoring sister. Her family role was that of nurturer. Books were her first love, and writing her second. She wrote plays, poems, and a novel during her short life. Her power of observation and descriptive writing indicates that had she been born in another time perhaps she would have been a journalist.
Her father was publicly conservative about marital happiness, and her mother felt a woman could accomplish more of importance in the world when unmarried. Consequently, Fanny seriously considered writing as a career.
Her parents were often separated, Frances staying in Auburn NY while William lived in Washington D.C. with visits home as he could. Fanny spent a good deal of time with her father and was knowledgeable about all aspects of the Civil War. She visited the camps, the battlefields, and the hospitals. Fanny met national figures, becoming close to Dorothea Dix, superintended of women nurses, and to the renowned actress Charlotte Cushman, an emancipated woman who was also a closeted lesbian.
The biography's climax revolves around the events of April 14, 1865. While John Wilkes Booth and President Lincoln played out their roles in the Ford Theater, embittered Confederate Lewis Powell was lurking outside the Seward home, armed with a gun and a knife. William Seward had suffered massive injuries in a carriage accident, his jaw broken and his arm useless. Fanny had been reading to her father, and had just turned down the light. Seward's nurse Sergeant Robinson was in attendance. Powell was determined to fulfill his role and assassinate the Secretary of State, while a third member of the plot was to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson.
Read the book! I won't give away the story! Except to say that Fanny showed great spirit and selflessness in defending her father, and her actions likely saved his life.
'Blood, blood, my thoughts seemed drenched in it—I seemed to breathe its sickening odor. My dress was stained with it—Mother’s was drabbled with it—it was on everything. The bed had been covered with blood, the blankets & sheet chopped with several blows of the knife.'
Fanny was never in fine health, and tuberculosis brought an early death at age 21. She was not alive when her father died in 1872. His final words were "Love one another."
To read more see:
Civil War Women Blog on Fanny, including photographs:
This promo for the book includes photographs and the horrendous story o the assassination attempt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aA2ctNH6YjA
Read excerpts from Fanny's diary from the University of Rochester:
Fanny Seward: A Life
Syracuse University Press
Publication Date: January 15, 2015
I thank Syracuse University Press and NetGalley for providing the e-book in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.