Death of the Commander and Chief: A Narrative History of the Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln from the Viewpoint of Major Henry Rathbone

Martyr of Liberty, courtesy of the Library of Congress
Martyr of Liberty, courtesy of the Library of Congress

15th and H Street. Good Friday, April 14, 1865. About eight o’clock. Five days since the war ended. Major Henry R. Rathbone stares amorously into the eyes of his beloved fiancée, Clara Harris, as they await their carriage. She is the daughter of the respected Senator Ira Harris of Albany and is also his stepsister.[1] He knows that Clara also cares for her dear friend and fellow opera lover, First Lady Mary Lincoln. Clara often describes her relationship with Mary Lincoln as being, “very intimate…we have been constantly in the habit of driving and going to the opera and theater together.”[2] It is no surprise that Mrs. Lincoln has invited Ms. Harris and Major Rathbone to join her and her husband, President Abraham Lincoln, to watch the play, “Our American Cousin,” in lieu of General U.S. Grant and his wife. Little does Major Henry Rathbone know that what was intended to be an enjoyable evening at the theater for the ecstatic presidential party will turn into a shocking assassination of the Commander and Chief.

The atmosphere in the carriage is inebriated on the joy of the war ending. As Major Rathbone, being an Albany aristocrat, holds the door for Ms. Harris to enter the carriage, the First Lady warmly greets her. Closing the door respectfully, Major Rathbone greets his Commander and Chief with a hearty salute and a handshake. Ms. Harris describes the Lincolns as acting in, “the gayest spirits.”[3] While the First Lady and Ms. Harris gossip on her marriage plans with Major Rathbone, the two gentleman smile, “chatting on our way,” about the President’s recent trip to Richmond and the end of the war.[4] Major Rathbone idolizes the Commander and Chief, as he receives him, “with the greatest enthusiasm.”[5] Surely, the officer thinks, a good evening is in store, as the carriage halts in front of Fords Theater.

The crowd at the theater welcomes the presidential party with excitement during the beginning of the play. As the party enters from the front of the theater to the rear of the dress circle to get to the box seat, the audience notices President Lincoln.[6] Rathbone notices, “the actors stopped playing, the band struck up ‘Hail to the Chief,’ and the audience rose and received him with vociferous cheering.”[7] He hears the applause for the president and smiles. He thinks to himself that under Lincoln’s oversight the Union has been preserved and Southern treachery has been punished. The major is caught up in the optimism around him, for soon he will wed his sweet fiancé Clara and continue to serve his nation under the benevolent leadership of Abraham Lincoln. When the party reaches the box, decorated with American flags and a portrait of George Washington, the president sits in a comfortable arm chair closest to the door and his wife sits next to him by a pillar.[8] Next to the pillar is a seat for Clara and a sofa for Major Rathbone.[9]  As the officer sits, he spies the president sweating. Major Rathbone speculates to himself that president nervous, but what could Abe Lincoln be contemplating? Is he thinking of the future of the country or what to do with all the freedmen? The officer observes the president get up and take off his overcoat.[10] He is merely warm. The gentleman from Albany chides himself for his momentary fretting about the distant future, for now he is content to be here in the presidential box with his sweetheart.

Our American Cousin" Playbill, courtesy of the Library of Congress
Our American Cousin” Playbill, courtesy of the Library of Congress

The party is engrossed with the play, “Our American Cousin.” Clara cannot help but to point out all the actors on the stage from the playbill. Rathbone grins as she points out Harry Hawk as Asa Trenchard, John Dyott as Able Murcott, and even the renowned producer Laura Keene.[11] Rathbone glances at his own playbill and realizes there is a “Patriotic Song and Chorus: ‘Honor to Our Soldiers’.”[12] As Clara drones on, he reads over the lines, “Honor to our soldiers, Our nation’s greatest pride, Who, neath our Starry Banner’s folds, Have fought, have bled, have died.”[13] The Major is grateful now that the war is over, there will be no more fighting, no more bleeding, and no more dying. He is snapped back to reality by the president laughing at a joke in the play. Lincoln then tells his wife he did the same exact country bumpkin antics when he was splitting rails and trying to sail down the Sangamon on a flatboat.[14] Major Rathbone then, “intently observ[es] the proceedings on the upon with his back towards the door.”[15] It is the third act, second scene, and the officer is engrossed by the marvelous performance of Harry Hawk.[16] Major Rathbone cannot draw himself away from the action and from his optimism about the future.

BANG. Major Rathbone knows this sound from his army training. It is, “the discharge of a pistol.”[17] He struggles to see through the smoke, but can make out the figure of a man in the threshold of the doorway.[18] The specter shouts, “Freedom!”[19] The Major’s first instinct is to, “spr[i]ng towards him and to seize him.”[20] But the man produces a large knife.[21] A bowie? A dirk perhaps? Things are moving too quickly for the officer to notice. Slash! Dodge! Parry! The shooter – now the knife man – brings the dagger down, but Rathbone deflects it. But the man is too skilled and the Major, “reciev[es] a wound several inches deep in his left arm between the elbow and the shoulder”[22] The stabber jumps out of the box as the audience struggles to understand the magnitude of what is happening. Rathbone tries to get their attention by, “cr[ying] out in a loud voice ‘Stop that man’.”[23] As he unconsciously puts his right arm on his stab wound, he glances around the presidential box. He notices the president’s, “position [is] not changed.”[24] He looks at his fiancée, whose “dress is saturated with blood; my hands and face were covered.”[25] He wants to tend to her, but is duty bound to look after his great captain, Abraham Lincoln. He observes that the president is, “unconscious and, supposing him mortally wounded, rush[es] to the door for the purpose of calling medical aid.”[26] The door is jammed![27] Rathbone struggles to open the door and after a great effort, succeeds.[28] He realizes that the president needs medical attention and allows several surgeons to enter.[29] He then sees a fellow officer, Colonel Crawford, and “request[es] him to prevent other persons from entering the box.”[30] Major Rathbone then checks on Clara, and notes she is traumatized, but physically unharmed. His optimism for a brighter future has been clouded by an unexpected pessimism in the president’s coming death.

Booth's Knife, courtesy of the Library of Congress
Booth’s Knife, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Major Rathbone is determined to stay with the president until the bitter end. The surgeons found the wound on the president and, “determin[e] to remove him from the Theatre.”[31] After hearing the announcement of the surgeons, Rathbone tells Clara to go home, as he is trying to assist Mrs. Lincoln, “who [is] intensely excited.”[32] He is intent to get himself and her to the house where the surgeons are taking the president.[33] The Major is beginning to feel the loss of blood impacting him: his feet are heavy, he is bleeding profusely, and the corner of his vision is becoming black and fuzzy. He calls over to another office, Major Potter, “to aid him in assisting Mrs. Lincoln across the street to the house which the President as being conveyed.”[34] They make it to the house. Major Rathbone stumbles in and, “seat[s] himself in the hall and soon after faint[s] away.”[35] It is a dreamless unconsciousness, filled with no dreams of his love Clara or of Lincoln leading the nation into a euphoric post-war era. It is merely blackness. Rathbone is revived to hear the words of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “Now he belongs to the ages.”[36] The president is dead.

Major Rathbone tries to make sense of the evening as he takes a carriage ride back to 15th and H Street. He is, and will ever be, a haunted man. Ghosts of the evening flash in front of him: The President laughing at his own joke, the knife coming at him, the blood on Clara, the president, slouched over, never to rise again. How had such a pleasant, hopeful evening become such a calamity? He stares down at the blood from his arm, now smeared onto his hands and his very soul. The poem from the playbill resonates in his mind: “Our nation’s greatest pride, Who, neath our Starry Banner’s folds, Have fought, have bled, have died.”[37] Rathbone cries. Despite winning peace, Liconln, the Commander in Chief, is the nation’s greatest pride, who will be buried neath our Starry Banner’s folds, who has fought, has bled, and has died.

Bibliography

“Major Rathbone Dying in Asylum: Was Wounded by John Wilkes Booth After the Assassin Shot President Lincoln.” The New York Times, August 31, 1910, 9. Accessed September 23, 2013. http://0-search.proquest.com.sciron.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/news/docview/97058840/140B1AE828E2867261E/17?accountid=3355.

“Rathbone Ends Long List of Lincoln Party Tragedies: All Who Were With the President When He Was Assassinated Met Death in Some Unusual or Tragic Manner.” The New York Times, September 4, 1910, 3. Accessed September 23, 2013. http://0-search.proquest.com.sciron.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/97113334/pageviewPDF?accountid=3355.

Demos, John. The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Good, Timothy S., ed. We Saw Lincoln Shot; One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Library of Congress. “Knife and Sheath: Horn-handled dagger used by John Wilkes Booth to stab Major Henry Rathbone after shooting Abraham Lincoln.” Artifact in the museum collection, National Park Service, Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, Washington, D.C. Accessed September 23, 2013. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010630693/.

Library of Congress. “Our American Cousin,” April 14, 1865. Playbill. Alfred Whital Stern Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Accessed September 23, 2013. http://myloc.gov/Exhibitions/lincoln/hebelongstotheages/ExhibitObjects/OurAmericanCousin.aspx?Enlarge=true&ImageId=9f919a4b-2f63-4022-868a-5384f915b78d%3afe22b805-477b-48fe-9b53-487e4de25eb8%3a66&PersistentId=1%3a9f919a4b-2f63-4022-868a-5384f915b78d%3a11&ReturnUrl=%2fExhibitions%2flincoln%2fhebelongstotheages%2fExhibitObjects%2fOurAmericanCousin.aspx.

Masur, Louis P. 1831: Year of Eclipse. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

National Park Service. “Edwin M. Stanton.” Person. Accessed September 23, 2013. http://www.nps.gov/resources/person.htm?id=214.

Special to The New York Times. “Major Rathbone Dies: Was Wounded by John Wilkes Booth After Assassin Shot President Lincoln.” The New York Times, August 16, 1911, 7. Accessed September 23, 2013. http://0-search.proquest.com.sciron.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/news/docview/97221817/140B1AE828E2867261E/15?accountid=3355.


[1] Clara Harris, letter, April 29, 1865. In We Saw Lincoln Shot; One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts, ed. By Timothy S. Good (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995), 69.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 70.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Clara Harris, letter, April 29, 1865. In We Saw Lincoln Shot, 70.

[6] Henry R. Rathbone, affidavit, April 15, 1865. In We Saw Lincoln Shot; One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts, ed. By Timothy S. Good (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995), 42.

[7] Henry R. Rathbone, court account, May 15, 1865, In We Saw Lincoln Shot; One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts, ed. By Timothy S. Good (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995), 75.

[8] Henry R. Rathbone, affidavit, April 15, 1865. In We Saw Lincoln Shot, 42.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Library of Congress. “Our American Cousin,” April 14, 1865. Playbill. Alfred Whital Stern Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Louis P. Masur, 1831: Year of Eclipse, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), 176.

[15] Henry R. Rathbone, affidavit, April 15, 1865. In We Saw Lincoln Shot, 42.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Henry R. Rathbone, affidavit, April 15, 1865. In We Saw Lincoln Shot, 42.

[19] Ibid., p. 43.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., p. 44.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Clara Harris, letter, April 29, 1865. In We Saw Lincoln Shot, 70.

[26] Henry R. Rathbone, affidavit, April 15, 1865. In We Saw Lincoln Shot, 43.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Henry R. Rathbone, affidavit, April 15, 1865. In We Saw Lincoln Shot, 43.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] National Park Service, “Edwin M. Stanton,” Person, accessed September 23, 2013, http://www.nps.gov/resources/person.htm?id=214.

[37]   Library of Congress. “Our American Cousin,” April 14, 1865. Playbill.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s