One of the greatest losses among the historic buildings with a Lincoln connection in the District of Columbia would certainly be the Secretary of State William Seward Home on Lafayette Square. There was no other single place in Washington that Lincoln would frequent so often, other than the War Department and the White House itself. That house at 17 Madison Place will be the topic of most of this discussion. However, I want to start “one house back,” as those of us who have moved around would say.
In trying to inventory all of the Lincoln sites in Washington, it helps to understand that the War-time capital was a city in flux, in a steady state of transition and turmoil. In national politics, as well as in the military, you didn’t expect to stay in one place for long. In Seward’s case, his position was usually secure enough as a former governor and then senator, but he moved for positional advantage, or to be where his station would best suit him. When he first came to Washington in 1849, it was as a senator. Since the legislative sessions were short, he began, as most others had done, staying in the hotels and boarding houses, and then returning home to Auburn, NY, for most of the year.
Seward was elected for his second senate term in 1855. Now it seems he wished for a more permanent address in the city. He rented a brand new house at 148 G Street, northeast corner of 21st and G. At the time this was a sparsely built suburban part of town, just five blocks west of the White House. This building survives as the campus security headquarters for George Washington University.
But now comes the Lincoln connection. Seward must have been feeling the need for a better strategic location. In 1858, he moved to a more prestigious neighborhood of stately townhomes at 252 F Street between 13th and 14th Streets. Walking away from the Treasury Department, the house was just past mid-block on the left. Today the Finemundo Restaurant has the site. This was the Seward residence on February 23, 1861, the day President-elect Lincoln came to town.
The story goes that the senator, defeated presidential contender, and now secretary of state hopeful, had overslept and missed meeting Lincoln at the B&O train station. He rushed the block and a half down 14th Street to the Willard Hotel getting there just after Lincoln arrived. Then he calmly offered his services to escort the president-elect to call on President Buchanan and then Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott (see Scott post). After a brief rest back at the hotel, Seward took Lincoln to his home for some dinner and cabinet planning. Picture yourself at Finemundo sharing a bite with that pair.
Add another Lincoln site to our inventory. Dinner at the Seward home on Saturday and again the next day after church services at St. John’s, was not on Lafayette Square but here on F Street, across from today’s Press Club Building entrance.
The evidence for this location comes first from the city directory of 1860 for the house number and then from many contemporary newspaper accounts. An anecdote comes from the diary of Gen. Erasmus Keyes as quoted in his memoir, Reminiscences of Fifty Years Observation of Men and Events, Civil and Military (1885), p. 381. Keyes was to stop at Seward’s home on Easter Sunday morning (March 31) 1861, to deliver the message from Gen. Scott, that Ft. Pickens (Pensacola) could not be reinforced before it would be attacked by Confederates.
Arriving at Mr. Seward’s house on F Street, I was admitted, and found the astute secretary standing in the middle of his parlor alone. ‘Mr. Seward, I am here by direction of Gen. Scott, to explain to you the difficulties of reinforcing Ft. Pickens.’
‘I don’t care about the difficulties,’ said he. ‘Where’s Capt. (Montgomery) Meigs? Please find him and bring him here.’
‘I’ll call and bring him on my return from church.’
‘Never mind church today; I wish to see him and you here together without delay.’
The rest of the story has Seward and Lincoln demanding that a plan be developed, with the president directly giving orders outside of the military chain of command. Ft. Pickens was saved (for other reasons), and Col. Keyes lost his position as military secretary to the commanding general.
The National Republican newspaper (March 1, 1861) reported on the progress of a “vast assemblage” of singing revelers working their way toward Willard’s Hotel in anticipation of the Lincoln inauguration. “From the home of Mr. Corwin, the crowd repaired to the residence of the Hon. W.H. Seward, on F Street, between 13th and 14th.”
The first reports of Seward’s move to Lafayette Square hit the papers with news of his grand open-house party on the night of May 14, 1861. He probably took possession shortly after May 1. The Philadelphia Inquirer headlined the story “Governor Seward’s Reception:”
The Secretary of State having removed into his new residence on Lafayette Square (formerly the Club-House), gave a magnificent entertainment on Tuesday night….Among the guests were the President and his Cabinet, General Scott and staff….
Yes, the president was there for the very first party, and he would return frequently to enjoy the generous Seward hospitality probably hundreds of times right up to his last visit on April 9, 1865.
The reference to the “Club-House,” is about the former use of the house by the Washington Club. There had been many famous occupants since the home had been built by Commodore John Rogers in 1831. Henry Clay and Chief Justice Roger Taney had connections here. But in 1858, some prominent citizens bought the place for their eating club. The greatest scandal of the era played out on the street here when in October 1859, NY Cong. Dan Sickles murdered his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key. Mortally wounded by pistol shots at close range, Key was brought into the Club, where he soon died. Sickles was acquitted with the first successful use of the temporary insanity defense, and went on to become a Union general. One of his attorneys was Edwin Stanton. The Club soon folded and the house was empty for nearly a year.
Seward breathed new life into every aspect of the house and the neighborhood. He wanted the 23-room mansion because he intended to entertain on the world stage as would befit the “prime minister” role he intended to play in the Lincoln Administration. Every national and international celebrity who would come to Washington was entertained at Seward’s. Here the president could relax in a smaller group than he could typically manage in the over-accessible Executive Mansion. Seward could arrange for Lincoln to meet with military and political leaders in a more intimate and confidential setting than the White House.
Commodore Samuel DuPont wrote of a planning meeting at Seward’s on October 1, 1861, before the campaign against Port Royal Sound, S.C. He and Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox “go to Seward’s where the President was, to have a final decision on the expedition.” DuPont was a little disconcerted when Lincoln failed to recognize him as the commander of the assault, and Fox had to remind him. “Seward,” DuPont recounted, “pokes a cigar at Fox who, sitting on the same sofa with Lincoln, puffs smoke into the President’s eyes. Meantime, there is a desperate hunt all over town,” for Cameron, McClellan, and (Gen. Thomas W.) Sherman, while Seward intoned, “There’s nobody, nowhere tonight.”
The last description of a Lincoln visit was written by Seward’s daughter, Fanny. The secretary had been badly injured in a carriage accident while the president was touring Richmond right after its capture. Lincoln cut short his victory tour to rush back to visit Seward in his room. Fanny described a tender scene as the president stretched out on the bed beside her father to be able to speak softly to Seward to describe what he had seen of the rebel capital. This last visit to Lafayette Square was on April 9, 1865.
The Seward House was razed shortly after the secretary died. In 1895, the Lafayette Square Opera House was built in its place. Today, a Federal Court building occupies the site. The threshold that Lincoln crossed countless times was probably in the left entry stair section of the court building. There are historic markers for most of the Rogers-Seward House historic tenants, but these are inside the main lobby and are accessible to the public only during regular business hours.