How an unknown Army sergeant saved William Seward’s life and thwarted the ultimate success of Booth’s conspiracy.
A flamboyant actor, staunch Confederate sympathizer and leader of a band of conspiratorial misfits, John Wilkes Booth is infamous as the figure who plotted and executed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln just five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. What is often lost in the drama of Lincoln’s death, however, is Booth’s more ambitious plan for the night of April 14, 1865—to decapitate the Federal government.
While Booth cast himself in the starring role—killing Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant—he had also cast supporting actors with orders to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. But Grant and his wife escaped Booth’s grasp when they bowed out of an evening at the theater with the president, leaving town earlier in the day. The character tapped to kill Johnson got cold feet and spent the evening drinking, wandering the streets and sleeping. That left the gang member whose intended victim was William Seward.
That other assassin—named Lewis Powell, later Lewis Paine or Payne—nearly succeeded in his mission. Through an adept combination of bluffing and force, he maneuvered into Seward’s bedroom and was poised to kill him until he was thwarted in the act by Army nurse George Foster Robinson.
Today the attack on Seward is essentially a footnote in the history of the Lincoln assassination. Even more so the names of the players—except perhaps for Seward himself. Had Powell succeeded in his mission, the violent deeds of April 14 would have been even more catastrophic for a nation struggling to emerge from the chaos of civil war. Ultimately it was a bit player—Robinson—who rewrote Booth’s script.
Nearly two years before that fateful night in 1865, Powell was wounded and captured at Gettysburg while fighting in the 2nd Florida Infantry, Army of Northern Virginia. As a POW, he served as a nurse in Gettysburg hospitals, but after being moved to Baltimore he managed to escape and make his way to Virginia. There, he joined Mosby’s Rangers and, it is widely speculated, became involved with the Confederate Secret Service. What is known for certain is that in January 1865 Powell deserted from the Rangers. Reaching safe haven in Baltimore, he took the Oath of Allegiance as “Lewis Paine,” probably his phonetic spelling of “Payne,” the name of the family with whom he boarded while serving with Colonel Mosby.
Not unlike Powell, George Foster Robinson, a native of northern Maine who had served with Company B of the 8th Maine Volunteer Infantry, also found himself assigned to nursing duties after he was wounded (in the Battle of Petersburg). He was on special assignment on the evening of April 14—acting as night nurse to Seward. Robinson had been glad to get the job. As he explained in an interview that appeared in the April 14, 1900, Boston Globe: “I was nearly well, and asked to be detailed to some employment. The war was over then, and veteran soldiers were a drug in the market.” He recalled that “the very air seemed permeated with joy at the thought that the long, horrible war was really over.”
Robinson’s patient had been seriously injured in a carriage accident a week or so earlier. Seward’s right arm had been broken, as well as his jaw in three places. The secretary had been taken back to his home at the Old Clubhouse on the east side of Lafayette Square, across from the White House. There, a doctor improvised a dental brace to hold Seward’s jaw together and allow it to heal. Confined to his third-floor bedroom, Seward was nursed by various family members and Robinson.
Just before 10 p.m., as the Lincoln party was enjoying the antics of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre six blocks away, Powell rode up to the Old Clubhouse and worked his way inside. Contemptuously ignoring a young servant’s protests, Powell tramped to the top floor. So heavy was his footfall that Seward’s daughter Fanny wondered aloud about the carelessness of anyone who would make so much noise near a sickroom.
A son, Frederick Seward, met Powell at the top of the stairs. They argued for a few moments as Powell insisted he had a bottle of medicine to deliver from a Dr. Verdi. Frederick peeped inside the sickroom for a moment—an unfortunate mistake, as it showed the thug which room Seward was in. Then Frederick closed the door and refused Powell permission to enter. The would-be assassin then acted as though he was leaving but suddenly turned and sprang on Frederick, repeatedly striking his skull with a pistol.
What happened next was vividly described by Robinson—who clearly had a gift for storytelling—to the Globe. At the sound of young Seward being beaten nearly to death, said Robinson: “I sprang from my chair, threw open the hall door in time to meet a tall, powerful, beardless young man about to open it himself. Back of him Frederick Seward was covered with blood from wounds in his head. The stranger jumped through the door at me. I saw a knife flash in the feeble gaslight.” And that was only the beginning.
Robinson threw up his arm to parry the blow and received a cut on the forehead. Blood poured down his face and into his beard. Powell then punched Robinson in the face, and the latter momentarily fell to the floor. As Fanny ran from the room screaming for help, Powell leaped onto the sick man’s bed. He slashed several times at Seward’s neck and face, but was hindered by the fortuitous presence of the metal and leather brace.
By that time Robinson was on his feet again. “I leaped upon the bed beside the stranger, caught his arm as his right hand gripped the knife for a surer and more powerful stroke, and thus diverted the blade in the nick of time.” The sergeant had a real fight on his hands now. Photographs show Powell as a massively built young man, cold-eyed and a good 6 feet tall. Contemporary accounts suggest he had a remorseless, fanatical personality and was willing to do anything necessary for the sake of a cause. Compounding Robinson’s difficulty was the fact that he was still recovering from his battlefield wound and had only recently stopped using crutches.
Somehow the injured soldier managed to pull Booth’s hit man off the bed. Despite Robinson’s bulldog grip, Powell slashed the Army sergeant’s right shoulder twice. “I clenched my arms about him with my utmost strength, while he was trying to force me away, so that he could use his arms either to thrust his bloody knife into me or to beat me into insensibility by blows with his big pistol,” Robinson recalled. “One who has never experienced a hand-to-hand conflict for life or death knows nothing of what a thrilling moment that is in one’s life. We wavered back and forth in tight embrace. All that I saw was my desperate, big antagonist and that knife blade.”
Robinson’s injured leg began to give way beneath him. But with strength born of desperation he somehow forced Powell toward the door and began dragging him to the railing, intending to toss him over to the lobby three stories below. Major Augustus Seward, another son, had been drawn to the noise, and Robinson yelled at him to grab the knife. Powell then broke free, bounding down the stairs and out the front door screaming: “I’m mad! I’m mad!” On the way down he wounded another victim, a messenger from the State Department named Hanzell.
Fortunately Secretary Seward managed to roll off the far side of his bed during the melee, which made it more difficult for Powell to reach him again. That is where Fanny and Robinson found him. He was able to speak and told them to close the house. When the police and Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes arrived, they found a scene awash in blood. It covered Seward, Robinson, Frederick, the knife, a broken pistol, the carpet and many other areas of the room. It took several minutes to wash Seward’s wounds. During that time, Robinson learned from Barnes about the shooting of President Lincoln.
Robinson was ill for several weeks after the attack and returned to the Douglas Hospital. His multiple wounds required several months to heal. As for Fanny and her mother, who were already in fragile health, the shock of assassination night likely contributed to their deaths, both of which occurred within a year. Frederick Seward took months to recover, and even then he needed an operation to relieve pressure on his brain. Powell was eventually captured and went to trial with seven of the conspirators. He was hanged, along with three of his comrades, on July 7, 1865.
Robinson recovered and moved on with his life. He married Aurora Clark of Springfield, Maine, and they eventually had two sons, George and Edmund. Beginning on July 30, 1865, several friends initiated a fundraising campaign for him, selling photo portraits for 50 cents, $2 and $5 apiece. Perhaps a bit embarrassed about a hero raising money that way, the U.S. government decided to reward him in July 1866.
At Robinson’s request, the government let him keep the knife wielded by Powell as a souvenir of his brush with death. It came with a letter from Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt: “Your conduct on the occasion mentioned is now a matter of history, and none will hereafter doubt but that, by your self-possession and courage in grappling with the assassin, you contributed largely to save the life of the Secretary of State at the extreme hazard of your own— a most meritorious public service nobly rendered, and of which the weapon now committed to your keeping will be an enduring memento.” Robinson’s reward is now on display at Ford’s Theatre.
Finally, on March 1, 1871, Congress voted Robinson a more substantial gift—$5,000 and a gold medal. Three inches across and a quarter-inch thick, it featured a bas-relief of Robinson and was inscribed: “Awarded by the Congress of the United States to George F. Robinson for his heroic conduct in saving the life of Hon. William H. Seward, secretary of state of the United States, April 14, 1865.” On the back was a picture of the two men struggling—Powell was on the right, his right hand upraised with knife at the ready, Robinson in the middle, gripping the knife hand. On the left was a surprisingly placid-looking Seward, propped up in bed.
Robinson later worked as an Army clerk and paymaster and eventually retired to Pomona, Calif., where he devoted himself to his 20-acre orange grove. He died on August 16, 1907, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
His grave site, however, is not the only national site dedicated to Robinson. In 1965, on the centennial of the conspirators’ attacks on Lincoln and Seward, Congress named a 10,415-foot peak 90 miles northeast of Anchorage for him—a suitable honor, given that two years after he saved the secretary’s life, Seward brokered the purchase of Alaska.
Robinson’s act of heroism is largely forgotten today, but its effects are not. Had Booth’s scheme succeeded fully, it would have been an even more severe blow to the nation than Lincoln’s death alone. The North’s bitterness and paranoia would have been even worse, and the country might have witnessed reprisals against Southern leaders that could have delayed reconciliation for generations. In his own way, an unknown Army sergeant helped stem that tide through a devotion to duty and honor that deserves to be remembered.
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.