Sunday, March 26, 2017

Civil War Sunday Throwback - Historic Walls

This post was originally written in September of 2014.

Civil War Sunday - Historic Walls

The escaped slaves huddled in the cluttered basement.  It was cluttered intentionally, to give them places to hide if the basement was raided.

It was cold and damp, but they did not care.  They had suffered every day of their lives - forced to labor from an early age, with little opportunity to rest.  Some labored on plantations, in the hot, burning sun.  Some were house slaves, attending to their master's every whim.  Others were skilled craftsmen, who had to give some or all of their earnings over to their masters. Some knew extreme cruelty.  Others knew mainly neglect.   They all, however, had one thing in common:

They had the burning desire for FREEDOM.  It was the desire that made them risk everything.  If they were caught, death or cruel punishments awaited, so they only had this one chance.  Somehow, they all had met up with this guide, the guide that would take them north to a magical place called Canada, where men hired by their masters to hunt them down and bring them back could not pursue them.

And now they were in this basement, in a place called New York State, just a few days run from freedom.  It was so close!

The guide had brought them there, but they could only stay a night or two. Then they had to move on.

The house was owned by a white man.

Who was the white man who was sheltering them for the night?
It may have been the man who owned this house in Auburn, New York.  This house was owned by someone who may well have become the Republican candidate for President in 1860.  But Abraham Lincoln got that nomination instead, and the owner of this house became Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State during the Civil War.

He became a friend of former slave, Underground Railroad conductor and overall amazing woman  Harriet Tubman, whom I blogged about last Sunday.  In fact, for some years, they lived only a couple of miles apart, on South Street in Auburn, New York.
His name was William H. Seward. When I went to school, I learned of him only in connection with something he did in 1867.  His entire history before that date was a big unknown.

Photography is not permitted in the house or in the basement that was a stop on the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War, but I can show you the exterior and grounds of this house.

Ironically, Seward was the son of a New York slaveholder, growing up just north of New York City at a time before slavery was outlawed in New York State. As a child, one of his playmates was a slave owned by a neighbor, a black boy who escaped one day after a vicious beating due to a prior escape attempt.  As an older teen, he lived for a time in the Southern state of Georgia, and what he saw of slavery during his time there turned him totally against the "peculiar institution".

Seward risked a lot in sheltering slaves in the years prior to the Civil War, but he risked even more by being an anti-slavery Senator.  He lost the opportunity to run for President of the United States as he was so hated in the states that ended up seceding and forming the Confederate States of America.

(As for those slaves, did they succeed in reaching freedom? We will never know. But like many things in the Civil War, everything was complicated. White men enslaving blacks.  White men helping slaves to freedom....although few of those white men considered blacks as their human equals, and that must also be pointed out.)

Seward nearly lost his life on the night that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  The plotters, who included John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln's assassin), also targeted others in Lincoln's administration for death.  The man assigned to assassinate the Vice President lost his nerve. The man assigned to assassinate Seward, Lewis Paine, went to Seward's house, gained entrance by trickery, attacked Seward's son Frederick,  and seriously wounded Seward.

Seward survived. However,  Seward's wife died of a heart attack shortly afterwards.

After the Civil War ended, Seward remained Secretary of State under Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson.  In 1867, he purchased land in North America from the Russians, who had lost interest in that piece of land. Many people opposed that sale.  They called it Seward's Folly. But the sale went through. 

That land became, almost 100 years later, the State of Alaska.  You could say, though, that Seward had the last laugh when Alaska became our 49th state and proved its worth during the Cold War.

William Seward died in 1872 and is buried just a few blocks away from that house in Auburn.  His last words were "Love one another".

Look at that house.  It's a house that sheltered escaped slaves, was the home of a governor/senator/Secretary of State/ and saw a bloody assassination attempt turned back.  Kings and princes visited Seward there and dined with him, as did many famous people of the 1800's.

Their pictures line the walls of the house.  But you won't see any portraits of the slaves that sheltered in that cluttered basement.  I can wonder what happened to them, and their descendants.

It's a cliche to say "if only those walls could talk" - but, if only those upstate New York historic walls could talk, what would they say to us of the 21st century?


  1. What a great post. Very interesting. If only the walls could talk. One of the dirty little secrets of slavery is that when Andrew Jackson exiled the civilized Tribes from the southeast US, the Native Americans brought their slaves with them. Yep, they had slaves that they brought here via the Trail Of Tears and kept them enslaved until they were set free. Things are very complicated is what I say.

  2. Alana, You did a fine job of writing up Seward’s history. I learned a lot and have a new appreciation for Seward. Thanks for sharing your pictures of his home. They say that one can be part of the problem or part of the solution. Seward was clearly a part of the solution and a very early one at that. Thanks, as always, for sharing and for your comments on my blog.

  3. Wow I had never known about Seward. That house hold so many stories, so. Much have gone inside those walls... It's amazing when you look at it and wonder about those dark days. What an inspiring and engaging post. I loved reading this.


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