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Major Henry Rathbone's Life After Lincoln's Assassination
On the night of April 14, 1865, the people who were in the company of the Lincolns that night at Ford's Theater would witness a close-up of the first president to be assassinated. The people there were Major Henry Reed Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris (daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris) and about a thousand others. As a result of this event, Rathbone’s life would take a dramatic and tragic turn years later because he almost lost his own life that night. He blamed himself for not being able to stop John Wilkes Booth from carrying out his deadly intention.
The Early Years
Henry was born on July 1, 1837 to Pauline and Jared Rathbone in Albany, New York. His father was a wealthy businessman and mayor of Albany from 1838 until his resignation in 1841. After his father’s death, his mother married Supreme Court Justice Ira Harris. It was here where he met his stepsister Clara Harris who in time will become his love interest, even though they were related by marriage.
Henry received his higher education from Union College in Schenectady, New York where he graduated in 1857 with a law degree. He later practiced law for a few years in Albany.
The War Years
Henry joined the army and was commissioned as Captain right at the beginning of his military career. He was responsible for raising a regiment from New York. He later joined this regiment during the Peninsular Campaign (April 4 to July 1, 1862). His regiment fought battles at Antietam under General Burnside, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and the Siege of Petersburg. For the rest of the war he served in Washington in the Disbursing branch under the Provost Marshal and eventually was promoted to rank of Major in 1865.
The Night of The Assassination
After John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln, Rathbone made a futile attempt to stop him. He received a long open wound in his forearm from Booth’s knife. Booth escaped and was captured two weeks later. During the night in all of the confusion, Rathbone bled profusely from his wound and eventually became unconscious in the hallway outside of the bedroom where Lincoln is dying. No one is aware of what is happening to him until Clara Harris finally pulls a physician to his side. If Clara had not intervene at that moment Rathbone probably would had died during the night before Lincoln.
Rathbone went on to serve two additional years in the army after he recovered from the injury he sustained from the attack. He resigned from the army to marry Clara Harris on July 11, 1867 and out of the marriage three children were born.
The Tragic Ending
Rathbone never got over the attack on Lincoln that night. He always felt he was responsible for Lincoln’s death. He moved his family to Germany after he was appointed U.S. Consul to Hanover, Germany in 1882. His mental health gradually began to deteriorate over the years after Lincoln’s assassination.
His mental illness ultimately causes him to murder his wife on December 23, 1883, and he tried to commit suicide after killing her by stabbing himself. He also attempted to kill his children but they were removed from him and sent back to their uncle, William Harris, in the United States. The authorities sent him to an asylum for the criminally insane for the rest of his life until he died in 1911 and later buried next to his wife in a city cemetery. In the end their graves were destroyed in 1952 due to neglect. The grave site was never maintained from the time his wife was buried.
In retrospect, had Rathbone stopped John Wilkes Booth before that fatal shot in the booth that night; his life probably would had taken a different turn altogether. He would had been an instant hero and celebrity. The history of the United States probably would had taken a different direction also. After the attack, he tried to lead a normal life for his family and himself but he could never let go of the thought that he could have saved the life of one the greatest president of the United States.
© 2010 Melvin Porter