Fanny Seward: A Life
by Trudy Krisher

Syracuse University Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-815-61041-0.
Reviewed by Susan Schoch
Posted on 03/30/2015

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: American Women in their Cultural/Historical Context

Trudy Krisher acknowledges that her father, who had a passion for the Civil War, prepared her for the task of writing about Fanny Seward. As a child, Krisher visited many Civil War battlefields and monuments with her family. She learned anecdotes and details about generals, their troops, and their battles. But it wasn't until she read Team of Rivals by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin that she began to learn about Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, and his daughter, Fanny (Frances Adeline Seward).

Now better known for his visionary efforts to complete the United States' purchase of the Alaska Territory (which was loudly criticized as "Seward's Folly"), William Seward had run hard against Lincoln for the Republican nomination in 1860. But when Seward lost the nomination to Lincoln, he campaigned hard on behalf of his former opponent, despite his deep disappointment. For his part, Lincoln recognized in Seward a man of integrity, and his appointment to Lincoln's cabinet proved to be a solid and important choice.

Like Lincoln, Seward was a doting father as well as a canny politician. He had three good sons, but his daughter was the apple of his eye, so he took teenaged Fanny and her friend along when he made a month-long campaign tour on Lincoln's behalf. This was just part of Fanny's remarkable exposure to important people and events, which she carefully noted in the diaries she kept from the age of fourteen until her untimely death just eight years later in 1866.

As Krisher studied the Seward family, she saw that bits of information about Fanny kept "peeping out" of other people's stories. She soon found she had a question that would not let her go. "What was it like to be the daughter of Lincoln's Secretary of State, so close to the anxieties—and dangers—of Civil War America?"

When Krisher read the microfilmed diaries, which have never been published in their entirety, she was captivated by Fanny and began to dig deeper to understand the girl and her experiences. Among those experiences, the most dramatic is surely Fanny's presence at the assassination attempt on her father, which was part of the plot that dealt Lincoln a fatal wound in Ford's Theater. But there is much more, including friendships with the Underground Railroad's Harriet Tubman and the humanitarian and activist Dorothea Dix. Fanny was well acquainted with the Union players in the unfolding drama of the Civil War, and as she grew into a young woman, developed a remarkably personal connection with many of them.

Fanny Seward camped on battlefields and worked in military hospitals. She saw terrible suffering and great heroism, and did her part to help. Yet she was a shy, sensitive, and awkward girl who rather slowly developed a more sophisticated understanding of the world around her. She was also a girl who loved to read and write, and though it would have been quite unusual in her time, Krisher believes that if she had lived she might well have gone on to a writing career. Certainly her diaries provide significant information, and though more of her writings might have been included in this biography, the quotations do give us hints of her intelligence, wit, and devotion to her family.

In telling Fanny's story, Trudy Krisher reveals the growth of a young American woman and puts it into a fascinating personal and historical context. The style reflects her experience as an author for young adults, yet she has created an engaging work for any reader interested in a fresh view of dramatic events in our national history. Fannie Seward: A Life deserves to be widely read, and Fanny Seward deserves to be remembered.

A prolific and award-winning author, Trudy Krisher is a retired professor from the Department of Liberal Arts, Communication, and Social Sciences at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. Among her other books are Spite Fences, Kinship, and Fallout. Learn more on her website.

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