When it comes to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, I often find myself interested in the little people. I enjoy looking into the lives of those who witnessed, took part in, or crossed paths with John Wilkes Booth’s plot. The recent Grave Thursday posts help to demonstrate this interest as Kate and I have been highlighting some of the minor characters that are connected, in some way, to Lincoln’s death. Today’s post shares in this theme by introducing a man on the outskirts of the events of April 14, 1865, James Donaldson.
According to his death record, James Donaldson was born in Alexandria, Virginia in 1818. By 1852, Donaldson was married, starting a family, and resided in Washington, D.C., the city he would call home for the rest of his life. In 1853, James Donaldson was hired as a watchman for the State Department under Secretary of State William Marcy where he was paid $500 a year. He continued in the employ of the State Department rising through the ranks to become an assistant messenger with a salary of $700 a year. When Abraham Lincoln appointed William Seward to be the Secretary of State in 1861, Donaldson found himself under a new boss that he would become very close to as the years went on.
Being a messenger for the State Department during the Civil War was a important job. In addition to running messages for the Secretary throughout the city of Washington, Donaldson was also called upon to join Seward on his trips across the north. In August of 1863, Seward was entertaining the dignitaries of several foreign governments, playing tour guide to the ministers of England, France, Russia, Nicaragua, Italy, Sweden, Hamburg, Spain, Prussia, and Chile. He took the ministers and some of their attaches on a brief sight seeing trip to show the ministers the wonderful resources the northern states possessed and to persuade them that backing the Union in the Civil War would be to their respective government’s benefit. Donaldson was asked to come along on this trip with Seward. One place Seward and Donaldson took the ministers was Trenton Falls in New York. At least two pictures were taken of the party at Trenton Falls.
In the first image Secretary Seward is seated on the rock with a large hat in his hand while in the second one he is the rightmost standing figure. These images also capture assistant messenger James Donaldson who is the leftmost standing figure in both images:
After visiting Trenton Falls, the group would make their way to Seward’s home in Auburn, New York (which is now a museum) where the summit continued. After the end of the summit, Seward and Donaldson returned to the Secretary’s home in Washington, D.C.
By 1865, James Donaldson was 48 years old and had been working for the State Department for over 12 years. On April 5, William Seward was injured in Washington, D.C., when he was forced to jump out of a runaway carriage. The incident resulted in Seward receiving a broken arm, a broken jaw, and a concussion. After this accident, Seward would be bed-ridden as he slowly recovered. While Seward would be assigned two army nurses to look after him during his recovery, the whole Seward household took turns keeping an eye on the Secretary. James Donaldson, practically one of the family members by now, took his turn tending to his boss.
By the afternoon of April 14th, Seward was feeling better. James Donaldson had been with the Secretary that afternoon but was informed by him that he need not stay into the night. Donaldson obediently heeded his boss’ words but informed the family that he would return to attend the Secretary early the next morning. With that Donaldson departed the Seward home.
We all know what happened next. That night, at around 10:15 pm, Lewis Powell, one of John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators, entered the Seward home intent on murdering Secretary Seward.
While Powell failed to enact a fatal blow to the Secretary he did manage to injure five of the home’s occupants. The Secretary and two of his sons were wounded, as was the army nurse who was attending him that evening, and one of Donaldson’s coworkers, lead State Department messenger Emerick Hansell. Donaldson quickly made his reappearance to the Seward home and witnessed the carnage. With so many others already occupying the rooms with the Secretary and his sons, Donaldson made his way to the room where Hansell had been placed. His friend and coworker was suffering a deep stab wound to the spine and was not expected to live.
Fanny Seward, the Secretary’s daughter, recounted in her diary Donaldson’s reaction to what he saw:
In the middle of the room sat Donaldson, his face buried in his hands—crying aloud, like a child. I touched his shoulder & said— “Donaldson, you were not hurt?”
“No Miss Fanny” he said— “I wasn’t here. If I had been here this wouldn’t have happened. If I had been here I’d have been a dead man. Oh, why wasn’t I here?”
Miraculously, none of the wounds inflected by Lewis Powell on April 14th proved to be fatal and all five of the injured persons would recover to various degrees. The Secretary’s recovery, however, was not a swift one. The damage caused by Powell’s blade exacerbated Seward’s broken jaw. A new type of splint had to be designed and installed to help heal the wounds. It would not be until October of 1865 that the various apparatuses were all removed from Seward’s mouth and jaw.
During this long period of convalescence, James Donaldson was extremely attentive to his boss. Perhaps Donaldson felt survivor’s guilt at being one of the few men who escaped injury on April 14th because he was lucky enough to have been absent from the house. Regardless of the reason, Donaldson was his boss’ constant companion during his recovery.
In August of 1865, the grateful friends of William Seward decided to reward James Donaldson for his continued helpfulness to the wounded Secretary by presenting him with a gift:
It was for his unceasing devotion to his boss that Donaldson was gifted $1,000 from grateful citizens. Such gifts of appreciation would continue for others who were affected by the attempt on Seward’s life. In 1871, Private George Robinson, the army nurse who was stabbed while attempting the protect the Secretary, was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal and $5,000 for his bravery. In 1876, Donaldson’s coworker, messenger Emerick Hansell, was given $2,000 for the pain and suffering he received the night Lewis Powell dropped in.
In addition to the funds, Donaldson also found that he had been commissioned as a Justice of the Peace by President Andrew Johnson himself. It does not appear that Donaldson immediately took up this role of Justice of the Peace but, instead, continued in his capacity as an assistant messenger to Secretary Seward and the State Department.
Donaldson continued under the employ of Seward throughout Andrew Johnson’s presidency, and likely could have remained at his position even after Seward’s term as Secretary of State ended. Seward was, after all, the fourth Secretary of State Donaldson had worked under. However, Donaldson had bonded so much with Seward that he likely did not want to serve anyone else after him. James Donaldson resigned as a state department messenger on March 4, 1869. Frederick Seward later wrote:
“Seward’s messenger and attendant, Donaldson, resigned his place in the department on the same day as his chief. In reply to his affectionate farewell letter, Seward wrote that he had reserved for his last official act, a recognition of his long and faithful service.”
After leaving the employment of the State Department, James Donaldson took up the job that he had been granted in 1865 and became a Justice of the Peace. He also found himself employment as a crier of the court.
Donaldson’s friendship with Seward continued despite Seward having moved back to his home in Auburn. In 1871, the D.C. newspapers carried a story about Donaldson having recently traveled to visit with his old boss, who himself had just returned from a grand journey across Asia and Europe.
Though there is no record of it, it seems very likely that James Donaldson would have attended the funeral of William Seward when the statesman died on October 10, 1872. At the very least, Donaldson must have recalled his former boss and the bond the two had forged after that dark night in April, 1865
James Donaldson would outlive William Seward by fourteen years, dying on December 3, 1886.
There’s no question that James Donaldson is one of the little people when it comes to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. His connection to the event can be summarized as “he was lucky enough not to be present at the Seward house on the night Lewis Powell attacked and he afterwards cared for Seward during the Secretary’s recovery.” However, despite his small role in the drama of 1865, James Donaldson’s actions demonstrate a great deal of humanity. Like the nation, he wept at the blood that had been shed. He pined to know why such a tragedy had occurred and why he had been spared. Then, after the initial shock and sadness abated, Donaldson picked himself up and worked hard to help another. If nothing else, James Donaldson represents the plethora of decent men and women who tried to make things better after one of the greatest tragedies in our nation.
Trent Falls photographs – Library of Congress
Newspaper extracts – GenealogyBank.com
Fanny Seward’s diary from the University of Rochester
Seward at Washington as Senator and Secretary of State (1861 – 1872) by Frederick W. Seward