William Henry Seward in the Civil War: Facts & History

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
William H. Seward was Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869. During the American Civil War, he was an important adviser to Abraham Lincoln and worked to keep foreign powers out of the war.


William H. Seward was one of the most accomplished and influential men to have never held the office of president. During the American Civil War, Seward was Secretary of State for President Abraham Lincoln. Seward wielded enormous influence over the course of the war and international affairs, assisting Lincoln on many key occasions. Let's learn more about this influential diplomat and Cabinet secretary.

Early Years

Born to an affluent family in New York in 1801, Seward's early years prepared him well for the greatness that waited in his future. He attended prestigious schools, such as Union College, and he became a lawyer at the age of twenty. He made Auburn, New York, his home and worked there for many years. In 1831, he was elected to the New York state Senate, beginning a long career in politics.

In 1838, with the help of close friend Thurlow Weed, an influential newspaper publisher and political figure, Seward was elected Governor of New York. Seward was a member of the Whig Party and believed in government support for social reforms and education. Also, like many other Whigs at that time, Seward was strongly anti-slavery, a position which would become a dominant part of his political career. In 1849, he entered upon the national stage when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. There, he railed against Southern slave owners, or what was seen as the Slave Power of the South. Seward opposed measures such as the Fugitive Slave Act and was a strong voice for anti-slavery factions and policies.

William H. Seward

Rising Republican

In the 1850s, with the rise of the Republican Party, Seward became a leading Republican. He opposed the expansion of slavery into new territories, which was the central position of his new party. In 1860, Seward was a leading figure in the Republican Party and was considered to be the leading candidate for the party's presidential nomination that year. Through a series of circumstances, Seward did not win the nomination. He was considered too radical on slavery issues by some and, thus, unlikely to have a national appeal. Instead, the nomination went to an Illinois lawyer and former U.S. Congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

When Lincoln was elected president in 1860, many of the Southern states began seceding from the Union. By early 1861, they had formed the Confederate States of America. To meet this challenge, Lincoln assembled a prestigious cabinet. He named Seward his Secretary of State. Seward would become one of Lincoln's closest advisers over the years to come. By May of 1861, 11 states had seceded and joined the Confederacy.

Secretary of State

When war between the Union and the Confederacy began in April of 1861, one of the best hopes for the young Confederacy was to garner diplomatic recognition from the major powers of Europe. Doing so could bring money and legitimacy to their cause. Seward would play a major role in dealing with Great Britain and other powers during the Civil War, attempting to keep them out of the conflict.

This effort came to a crisis in late 1861 when U.S. Navy forces stopped and boarded the RMS Trent, a British ship carrying Confederate diplomats to Great Britain. An outcry against the British erupted in the North, and Britain was angry at the violation of alleged British neutrality by boarding the foreign ship. This crisis is known as the Trent Affair. With Seward's help, the Confederate diplomats were allowed to go on their way and the Union government did not go to war with Britain as many in the North, South, and Britain wanted. Averting this crisis meant that the war against the South could continue unimpeded by a war with the British. Seward was instrumental in this accomplishment.

In 1862, Seward continued working with Great Britain when he negotiated the Lyons-Seward Treaty. This treaty effectively ended the Atlantic Slave Trade once and for all (the U.S. Congress had already abolished the slave trade in the United States early in the 19th century). The Lyons-Seward Treaty set strict measures governing slave ships and how they were to be dealt with. The treaty meant that the United States and Great Britain would work together to ensure that the slave trade no longer crossed the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

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