Grave Thursday: General John Hartranft

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


Good evening fellow gravers,

This is Kate bringing you the newest installment of Grave Thursday.

With so many fascinating stories populating the Lincoln assassination field, it is often hard to choose the lucky one that will be featured next. This week I chose to spotlight a Union man who always seemed to remain moral, even when confronted with civilians in gray.

Major General John Hartranft

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Burial Location: Montgomery Cemetery, Norristown, Pennsylvania

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Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

John Frederick Hartranft (pronounced “Hart – ranft” according to Inside the Walls authors Barry Cauchon and John Elliott) was born on December 16, 1830 in Pennsylvania. His father, Samuel, worked as an innkeeper and eventually became a real estate inspector (a job his son, and only child, assisted him with for some time). In 1850, at the age of 20, Hartranft left home for New York, enrolling in Union College in Schenectady, New York. He graduated at 23 with an engineering degree. Returning to Pennsylvania in 1854, Hartranft married Sallie Sebring. They had six children together although three died as infants. In letters, Sallie affectionately referred to her husband as “Jackie”. Hartranft soon discovered that a career in engineering was not the right fit for him and began studying law. He was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in October of 1860, shortly before the outbreak of the American Civil War.

When fighting broke out at Fort Sumter in April of 1860, the 30 year old Hartranft pulled together, a mere days after President Abraham Lincoln first called for volunteers, a regiment of 600 men calling themselves the Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment. However, the regiment fell apart even quicker than it had assembled. The men did not share the same patriotic zeal as Colonel Hartranft and returned home just hours before the first Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the war. Despite the loss of his troops, Hartranft was present at Bull Run and would eventually (in 1886) be awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery on the battlefield as he attempted to “rally the regiments which had been thrown into confusion” by the superior Confederate forces.

Despite his valiant efforts, Hartranft was stained by the scandal of his disloyal Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment. The ever vindictive Secretary of War Edwin Stanton would say of Hartranft, “This is the Colonel of the Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment that refused to go into service at Bull Run.” Hartranft soon raised another regiment, the 51st Pennsylvania Volunteers, who would enter combat at the Second Battle of Bull Run (which would also end in loss for the Union). Hartranft and the 51st saw the fall of Vicksburg in 1863 which, along with the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, turned the tides of war in favor of the Boys in Blue. Hartranft was promoted to brigadier general on May 1, 1864 and became a major general in March of 1865. The Norristown bank printed greenbacks with his portrait to celebrate the news. But while thousands of men returned home following the surrender of General Robert E. Lee in April of 1865, the life of Major General Hartranft would take a far different turn.

On May 1, 1865, President Andrew Johnson appointed Hartranft the commander of the Washington Arsenal and tasked him with guarding the eight Confederate civilians who would stand trial for the assassination of President Lincoln. General Hartranft kept meticulous records of his life inside the walls of the Arsenal in a letterbook that still exists today. It has been published as The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: Their Confinement and Execution as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft.

General Hartranft and his staff (you can read about one member, General Levi Dodd, here) were responsible for seeing to every aspect of the prisoner’s daily lives. When Hartranft first reported for duty on May 1, he wrote,

“I have the honor to report that I took charge of eight Prisoners in the cells of this prison…I immediately swept out the cells and removed all nails from the walls and searched the persons of the prisoners.”

He also recorded how he made twice daily inspections of the prisoners. Upon sensing the beginnings of mental imbalances in some of them, General Hartranft petitioned that they be allowed to exercise in the prison yard each day. His request was granted.

It was Hartranft who received the execution orders from President Johnson on July 6, 1865. Ironically, he also received a letter from his wife in which she begged him not to act as a hangman. However, he followed his orders with the same stoicism he had shown throughout the Civil War. He delivered the sentences to the four condemned prisoners, Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt, and then turned to the details of the execution he had been placed in charge of. At some point on July 7, 1865, a photograph was taken of General Hartranft and his staff.

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Believing that perhaps President Johnson would spare Mary Surratt from the gallows, and possibly believing in her innocence himself, Hartranft posted mounted guards along the route from the prison to the Executive Mansion so that he would be the first to receive any messages from Capitol Hill. That order never came. On the afternoon of July 7, 1865, General Hartranft led the somber march to the gallows and completed one of his final tasks, reading the death warrant.

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For his kind treatment of the prisoners, Hartranft was thanked by Anna Surratt, the clergy members who accompanied the condemned on the scaffold, and given ownership of David Herold’s pointer dog (Hartranft had allowed the dog to remain with his master in the Arsenal) by Herold himself just before he died. General Hartranft’s work in Washington was done.

General Hartranft returned home to Norristown in 1865. He was elected the 17th governor of Pennsylvania and served in that office from 1873 to 1879. He tried but failed to secure the Republican Presidential nomination in 1876. He served as postmaster, was appointed to numerous veterans boards, and was an official state delegate at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, his first and only time abroad. Just a few years later, in 1893, Chicago would successfully outrank the Paris exposition in size, grandeur, and overall impact with the World’s Colombian Exposition.

Hartranft contracted Bright’s disease (inflammation of the kidneys) and pneumonia in 1889. He died on October 17, 1889, just shy of his 59th birthday. He was laid to rest in a large, well-marked burial plot in Montgomery Cemetery.

General Hartranft left few personal documents behind. Most of what historians know about him comes from his 1865 letterbook. Its words show a man who always carried out his orders but did so with respect, humanity, and kindness. And so we forever salute you, Major General John Hartranft.

Until next time,

-Kate  

GPS coordinates for Major General John Hartranft’s grave: 40.117581, -75.364860

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

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14 thoughts on “Grave Thursday: General John Hartranft

  1. Rich

    Hi Kate! Thanks to you and Dave for these interesting stories. In PA Hartranft was a contradiction. Many will say he was a forgotten man whose remains languish in a small overgrown cemetery. PA labor did not forget. Although he was in support of unions his treatment of the Mollie Maguires resulted in his reputation being tarnished locally and at least up to the mid-1990’s his gravesite regularly vandalized. You can still see the bullet holes that mark the image on his obelisk in Kate’s pictures. The base of the monument had to be repainted to cover up the graffiti.

    • Kate H.

      Thanks for the new information. It seems the good general more or less peaked during the Civil War era. The published version of his letterbook includes a few backstory sections from the editors which mention how Hartranft faded into obscurity rather fast after his death. I did not know about his grave being vandalized though. I guess you can’t win every battle you fight.

  2. judith Breitstein

    How come no mention of Christian Rath? I have read he made the hoods worn by the conspirators, fashioned the nooses and refused the allow anyone but himself to handle the body of Mary Surratt after the hanging.

    • Rath may be the subject of a future Grave Thursday, especially given the way in which he botched the execution of the conspirators. We have yet to visit his grave, however, and we’re trying to only use our own pictures. That could change though.

    • Kate H.

      Captain Rath was the executioner and thus did have some large roles leading up to and on 7/7/65. He selected the soldiers that dug the graves, made the nooses and hoods, supposedly whispered to Lewis Powell how he hoped that Powell would die quickly, and put Mary Surratt in the “place of honor” on the gallows. Hartranft also made sure that Mrs. Surratt was escorted from her cell by higher ranking officers and not common soldiers.

      When the bodies were cut down, they were not only seen by Rath but also looked over by Dr. George Porter, another member of Hartranft’s staff, and several other doctors. I have read that the rope had embedded itself into Mrs. Surratt’s skin so far that during removal parts of her skin did not easily detach from it.

      Rath is a very interesting man and deserves his own post where his acts of kindness can be recounted. This post was for General Hartranft and so I made the decision to keep the narrative focused on him. (Dodd is only mentioned because he has a Grave Thursday post as well). Dave and I have a friend who lives in Michigan (where Rath is buried) and he has offered to photograph the grave for us. Once I receive those pictures, there will be a post about Christian Rath.

  3. Dennis D. Urban

    The correct pronunciation of the general’s surname has always baffled me. I thought the “f” was silent though Kate uses it in her pronunciation guide. While “ft” can be pronounced, it sounds strange. Can this be cleared up for this language perfectionist?

    • Laurie Verge

      I have never heard it pronounced without the “f” and just assumed that it was a proper German pronunciation. I really don’t know which pronunciation is correct. After so many years of hearing it one way, the “ft” just rolls off the tongue easily for me.

      • Laurie Verge

        I also meant to mention that Hartranft’s journal (day book) from his time at the trial of the conspirators was hidden away at Gettysburg College for many years until Betty Ownsbey and Nancy Griffith had it plopped in front of them by a librarian there while they were doing research in the 1980s. Betty immediately knew what they had and ran to call James O. Hall. He told them to stay right where they were, he’d be there in two hours – and he was!

        They were allowed to duplicate it, but then archivists from the NARA stepped in, and courts decided that the papers were best secured in a Pennsylvania division of the NARA. Ed Steers, Harold Holzer, and Bill Edwards have stepped in over the years to assure publication of the papers, and now-deceased Al Gambone published a book on Hartranft about 15-20 years ago.

        On several occasions, we have had descendants of the General attend the Surratt Society conferences and bring along family heirlooms for display. Dennis, I’m pretty sure that they (the Shiremans) pronounced Hartranft with the “f” sounding.

        Here’s a link to what the National Civil War Museum in Pennsylvania says about the General:

        http://www.nationalcivilwarmuseum.org/portals/0/PDF's/Hartranft2.pdf

        • Carol Rinehart

          So interesting to read this, John Hartranft is my husbands great great uncle, we have a family reunion every year in Michigan- this next year is the 95th reunion- 5 years there was no reunions due to the war. I have minutes to the reunions from the first one to current. It is very cool, they are all hand written in a book. I have been doing research on his family, so much history on family

  4. Thomas A. Bowman

    Hello Kate:

    Great article on General Hartranft. That cemetery is located in a bad area and vandalism has been a problem there for years.

    Another member of the execution group is buried in the same cemetery – General Winfield Scott Hancock.

    General Hancock and his daughter are buried in a tomb nearby. The general’s tomb was broken into a few years ago, but it is now protected from further vandalism by a high fence and locked gate.

    General Hancock’s wife and son are buried in a St. Louis Cemetery.

    I visited the cemetery many years ago. Interesting place as there are many Civil War veterans buried there. General Adam Slemmer, the hero of Fort Pickens is also buried there.

    Thanks again for the article.

    Thomas A. Bowman

    • Kate and I saw General Hancock’s mausoleum as well when we visited General Hartranft. His grave may show up on Grave Thursday one of these days.

  5. Gary Goodenow

    I learn so much here. And I thank you for your work, and I thank the posters for their informative contributions.

    Respectfully, I offer Secretary Stanton seems later to have changed his view of this officer. One article states: “Hartranft was promoted that May [1964] to the command of an entire brigade of infantry consisting of six regiments, one of which was his old 51st Pennsylvania. On May 14, he was named brigadier general in the Volunteer Army. The citation, signed by Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, and President Lincoln, stated that the nomination was made because of the ‘reposing special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelities and abilities of J.F. Hartranft …’ ”

    See http://www.dailylocal.com/article/DL/20150406/NEWS/150409907 Brackets added.

    It’s also worth noting this article adverts a particular Honor to the Major General: a former U.S. President served as one of his pallbearers. Rutherford B. Hayes, himself a front line fighter in that terrible war, marched to the last posting with Hartranft’s remains.

    I suggest a former President’s attendance at his funeral, and in particular the President’s service as a pallbearer, must put Gen. Hartranft on a very, very short list of distinguished American servicemen.

    Regards.

  6. Gary Goodenow

    Of course, I mean May 1864, not 1964. Please excuse my mistake.

  7. Pingback: Grave Thursday: Captain Christian Rath | BoothieBarn

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