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
Burial Location: Montgomery Cemetery, Norristown, Pennsylvania
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 1861, 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.
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.
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,
GPS coordinates for Major General John Hartranft’s grave: 40.117581, -75.364860