The Ill-Fated Saga of Lincoln's Bodyguards

Story Stream
recent articles

A century and a half ago, news didn’t travel instantaneously, as it does today; word of Abraham Lincoln’s death was still rippling out across the country on April 17, 1865. Reactions were tempered by one’s politics, and by trepidations about what it would mean. Southern sympathizers covered their windows in black crepe out of feelings of guilt, but also out of fear: expressing joy at Lincoln’s demise could get you arrested -- or even killed.

In San Francisco, Gen. Irvin McDowell issued an order dripping with outrage at “persons so utterly infamous as to exult over the assassination of the President.” The order termed such people “virtual accessories” to murder and warned that they would be arrested. Any newspaper that violated the order was subject to seizure.

Also 150 years ago today, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and his huge army remained in the field. This lethal force was in North Carolina marching toward a Confederate army under the command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston.

Sherman was boarding a train to go meet Johnston under a flag of truce when a frantic telegraph operator relayed a message from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton revealing Lincoln’s assassination as well as an attack on Secretary of State William Seward, part of a conspiracy that likely included plans to kill other principals in the federal government, including possibly Ulysses S. Grant.

Sherman implied later in his memoirs that if news of what had happened in Washington reached his troops before the rebels surrendered, a frightful slaughter might have ensued. He swore the telegraph operator to secrecy, and went to meet Gen. Johnston.

As they met that day, Sherman dismissed their adjutants to another room and handed the fateful telegram he’d received to his Southern counterpart. Carefully gauging Johnston’s reaction to Lincoln’s murder, Sherman was satisfied with what he saw and heard.

“The perspiration came out in large drops on his forehead, and he did not attempt to conceal his distress,” Sherman wrote. “He denounced the act as a disgrace to the age, and hoped I did not charge it to the Confederate Government. I told him I could not believe that he or General Lee, or the officers of the Confederate army, could possibly be privy to acts of assassination; but I would not say as much for Jeff Davis.”

Johnston immediately began negotiating not only the surrender of his army, but all Confederate forces still in the field.

By this time, Grant had heard the news and returned to the capital from New Jersey, where he had been visiting family. If Grant felt any fear for his own life, he did not show it. Guilt was closer to the mark: He and his wife, Julia, had been invited by join the Lincolns at Ford’s Theatre, but they declined. The reason they cited was that they wanted to visit their son, but Julia Grant’s coolness toward Mary Todd Lincoln may have been a factor as well.

In any event, Grant was not there when John Wilkes Booth entered the president’s box. “Grant always regretted leaving,” Grant biographer Geoffrey Perret wrote. “He blamed himself for not going to Ford’s Theatre that night. Grant was certain that he would have heard Booth open the door to Lincoln’s Box and been able to get his body between Booth’s derringer and the seated President.”

Perhaps so. Grant had proved by April 1865 to be exceedingly able, and was no longer a person routinely underestimated by others. But Booth had concocted his plan after hearing that Lincoln and Grant were attending the play that night. Lincoln’s assassin had developed his sinister plot believing that Grant would be present -- and he carried a large knife in addition to his pistol.

What about the others entrusted with protecting the president? Where were they?

The first line of defense, if you want to call it that, was a trained bodyguard on the Metropolitan Police Force named John Frederick Parker. This man -- let’s put it simply -- was a clown. He’d been disciplined for one transgression after another since joining the force. He was often drunk on duty, frequently shirked his post, and was chronically late. He was three hours late for his shift the night Lincoln was killed, in fact, but was at Ford’s Theatre when the president and first lady arrived.

Unfortunately, when Booth entered the presidential box, Parker was either sitting below watching the play or in the Star Saloon next door. His exact whereabouts are unknown because, incredibly, no great public clamor ever attended this AWOL policeman. Mrs. Lincoln never forgot him, though. When Parker drew White House protective duty a few days later, Lincoln’s widow nearly lost it.

“So you are on guard tonight,” she screamed upon seeing him. “On guard in the White House after helping to murder the president?”

This assessment struck Parker as overly harsh, and he sniveled in response to Mrs. Lincoln’s opprobrium. In truth, it’s hard to believe that this hapless flatfoot would have been any match for John Wilkes Booth, but the same cannot be said for Ward Hill Lamon. This strapping man, Lincoln’s loyal friend and former law partner, was sometimes described as “Herculean.” Alarmed by Lincoln’s inattentiveness to his own security, Lamon appointed himself Lincoln’s bodyguard and at least once slept on the floor outside the president’s quarters. But Lincoln had dispatched him on an errand to Richmond, and he was not in the city when the president was ambushed that night.

“As God is my judge,” he lamented later. “I believe if I had been in the city, it would not have happened.”

This seems more likely than the thought that John Parker, or even Gen. Grant, could have saved Lincoln. But it must be remembered than another Army officer was present in the president’s box, a younger man than Grant. His name was Henry Rathbone, and he was the escort of Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln’s younger friend.

But he, too, was caught unawares because Booth entered the box silently and quickly during a time of applause in the play. Maj. Rathbone didn’t confront Booth until after he’d heard the shot, and then was stabbed for his troubles. He is the one who shouted for the audience to stop Booth, but even here he was too late.

Rathbone went on to marry young Clara and the couple had three children, but his failure that night haunted him the rest of his life. Today we would say he was beset by post-traumatic stress syndrome, and maybe schizophrenia. Whatever the medical diagnoses, on Christmas Eve 1883, while living in Germany, he stalked Clara in their home, fatally shooting her in the head and then wounding himself with his knife. It was a sad and macabre replay of the events on April 1865.

The blood on Clara’s dress that so upset the first lady that night was most likely Henry Rathbone’s, not Lincoln’s. After he and Clara helped Mrs. Lincoln across the street to the boardinghouse where the president lay mortally wounded, Rathbone himself passed out from his wounds.

It was not the first time his health had suffered in defense of his country. The place names of the battles he fought in -- Richmond, Antietam, Fredericksburg -- were known to all Americans, and twice Rathbone was sidelined with fever and other symptoms that Army physicians associated with malaria.

“His bodily health, never robust, suffered impairment from … fever in 1862,” wrote his private doctor. After the tragedy in 1883, Rathbone was confined to a Germany insane asylum while American journalists tried to piece together his descent into madness.

His lawyers and doctors pinpointed the beginning of his deteriorating mental state to the night at Ford’s Theatre.

“The scene always haunted his mind,” his attorney told the Washington Star.

“He never was thoroughly himself after that night,” Dr. G.W. Pope told reporters. “I have no hesitation in affirming that the dreaded tragedy… laid the seeds of that homicidal mania.”

But that wasn’t the end of the story, even for this star-crossed family. Clara Rathbone had been worried that her husband would hurt their three children, and German authorities came to believe that she had steered Henry away from their bedroom and into her own room the night she was killed.

Among those possibly spared, then, was Henry Riggs Rathbone, their oldest son, born in 1870 on Lincoln’s birthday. After their mother’s slaying and their father’s incarceration, the children were brought back to the United States by family members. Riggs, as he was known, attended Phillips Academy, Yale College, and law school at the University of Wisconsin.

He became a lawyer in Chicago and, like Lincoln, a Republican congressman from Illinois. His five-year tenure on Capitol Hill was notable mainly for his efforts, successful only long after his own death in 1928, to preserve Ford’s Theatre as a museum and memorial to the martyred president, who on an April evening in 1865, accompanied a young couple to a play.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Show commentsHide Comments