Union Notables

John Hartranft    class of 1853



John Hartranft

Civil War hero, governor of Pennsylvania, presidential candidate and key figure in the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination: all of these terms apply to John Hartranft of Union’s Class of 1853.

Hartranft was born December 16, 1830, in Pennsylvania and briefly attended Marshall College before entering Union in September, 1850, where he joined Sigma Phi. He finished his coursework in civil engineering in the fall of 1852, and graduated the following spring.  Hartranft worked as a railroad engineer before switching to law and politics. His first political post was deputy sheriff of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, which he won in 1854, the year he married Sallie Sebring. He joined the Norris Rifles militia company in 1857 and was elected lieutenant, and later captain. In 1859, Hartranft was appointed lieutenant colonel in the state militia. With the onset of the Civil War, after Fort Sumter, Hartranft responded to Lincoln’s call for ninety day troops by raising the 4th Pennsylvania, which elected him colonel. The regiment’s term ended on July 20, 1861, one day before the battle of First Bull Run.  He pleaded with his regiment to fight, but to no avail. Instead, Hartranft volunteered as a staff officer for General William B. Franklin, fighting the battle in that capacity. Franklin wrote of Hartranft, “His services were exceedingly valuable to me, and he distinguished himself in his attempts to rally the regiments which had been thrown into confusion.” For this he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

The following year, in 1862,  Hartranft raised a new three-year regiment for  service, the 51st Pennsylvania, and fought at Roanoke Island, Second Bull Run, and South Mountain. At Antietam, after three earlier charges had failed, Hartranft and the 51st stormed the Burnside Bridge, with the 51st New York under Colonel Robert B. Potter, a member of the Union Class of 1849, taking it from defenders commanded by Robert Toombs, Class of 1828. Promoted to brigade and division command, Hartranft fought at Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, Knoxville, and the 1864 campaign in Virginia. On March 25 1865, his division retook Fort Stedman, after a Confederate attack captured it and threatened to lift the Siege of Petersburg. His commander wrote, “Great praise is due to Hartranft for the skill displayed in handling his division, which behaved with great gallantry.”  After Appomattox he was appointed provost marshal of Washington D.C. and supervised the trial of the conspirators in the assassination of President Lincoln, giving the command to execute the four who received death sentences, including one woman, Mary Surratt.

After the war, Hartranft was elected auditor general of Pennsylvania in 1865, and re-elected in 1868. He was then nominated for Governor of Pennsylvania in 1872 and won a close race, in which his opponents tried to tar him as a “hangman” and “woman-killer” for his role in the execution of Surratt, though he had been known for treating her kindly while she was in his custody. Hartranft was re-elected to a second term in 1875. He supported giving African Americans voting rights and fought special interests in state politics. Nominated for President as a  favorite son candidate in 1876, Hartranft received  seventy-one votes on the fourth ballot at the Republican convention before fading. He supported working class rights but opposed violence; after the Molly Maguire disturbances in the state’s coal mines, he refused to pardon twenty Mollies who had been sentenced to death. He called out troops to put down riots after a railroad strike in 1877. He later served as postmaster of Philadelphia and as a member of the Cherokee Indian Commission. Outside of politics, he was commander-in-chief (per the Smithsonian)of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1875 until his death, represented Pennsylvania at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889, and was President of the Board of Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. 

Hartranft died on October 17, 1889. A statue of him stands in front of the Pennsylvania state capital building. His eulogist said of him, “Great in warfare, he also excelled in civil life. He was not rich, but no temptations of opportunity or necessity could swerve him from his high integrity.”