Source Newsroom: Union College
Newswise — Leading the Oscar race with 12 nominations, director Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Lincoln” has received praise from cultural and political critics alike. But the greatest applause is coming from Union College in Schenectady, NY. With more than 40 characters in the movie based on historical figures, Union College can claim one of the lead characters – William Henry Seward, played by David Strathairn – among its alumni.
Seward, Union College Class of 1820, served as Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State during the Civil War, following a stint as the governor of New York. He became the most trusted member of what acclaimed biographer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin called Lincoln’s “team of rivals.” Seward shaped Lincoln’s views of slavery, leading to the Emancipation Proclamation. He was the victim of a vicious attack by co-conspirators the night that Lincoln was assassinated. Among Seward’s many achievements as Secretary of State was the purchase of Alaska.
Seward wasn’t the only Union College alum whose life crossed paths with Abraham Lincoln, one of the most revered figures in American politics. A number of key members of his administrations were graduates of Union and other alumni are forever tied to him through their involvement in important events.
John Bigelow, Union Class of 1820, was appointed Consul at Paris by Lincoln in 1861. He progressed to Chargé d’Affaires, Envoy Extraordinary, and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Napoleon III. He became minster to France. Through his diplomatic efforts, Bigelow kept the French from supplying ships to the Confederacy. He discovered the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in manuscript form while in France and published it when he returned to the United States. He is generally regarded as a major force in the founding of the New York Public Library. The Union archives include significant correspondence between Bigelow and many notable contemporaries.
Nicknamed “Old Brains,” Henry Wager Halleck, Union Class of 1837, was appointed by Lincoln to serve as general-in-chief of all U.S. armies in 1862. He proved a cautious (many felt overly so) general and he was ultimately replaced by Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant. However, he was “promoted” to Chief of Staff of the Army. General Halleck served as a pall-bearer at Lincoln’s funeral.
Phineas Gurley, Union Class of 1837, was a classmate of Henry Halleck. Gurley studied at Princeton Theological Seminary and became pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. In that capacity, he was spiritual adviser to the Lincolns. After Lincoln was mortally wounded at the Ford Theatre, Rev. Dr. Gurley stayed at his bedside, announced his death to Mrs. Lincoln, and presided at his funeral at the White House and graveside in Springfield, Illinois.
William James Stillman, Union Class of 1848, served as Lincoln’s consul to Rome. Prior to entering diplomatic service, Stillman studied painting with Frederic Church and went to Europe where he was influenced by Turner, Rossetti, and Millais. After his diplomatic service, he covered Athens for the New York Times and took critically acclaimed photographs of the Acropolis. Copies of his photographs and other materials are housed in the Union archives.
Frederick William Seward, Union Class of 1849, was Assistant Secretary of State in the Lincoln Administration. He was the son of William Seward and defended his father during the attempt on his life. He continued to serve in the State Department under Presidents Andrew Johnson and Rutherford B. Hayes.
Major Henry Rathbone, Union Class of 1857, accompanied his fiancée, Clara Harris, (daughter of Union alumnus, Ira Harris) and President Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln to the Ford Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865. After John Wilkes Booth shot the President, Rathbone struggled with the assassin and was severely wounded in the arm and head. Major Rathbone recovered, he and Clara were married, and he was appointed U.S. Consul to Hanover, Germany.