Union College and the Lincoln assassination

Publication Date

The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and its aftermath directly involved five Union alumni, and indirectly several others. Their stories are part of the year-long exhibit Profound & Poignant: Union College Connections to the Civil War Era in the Nott Memorial. The last issue of this magazine focused on the Civil War; here, we cover Union connections to the Lincoln assassination.

Henry Rathbone, class of 1857

One of the last people to talk with President Abraham Lincoln was Major Henry Rathbone, Class of 1857.

Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, were favorites in Washington’s social circles. Clara was the daughter from the first marriage of Ira Harris, Class of 1824, a state senator and friend of the president. Ira Harris was also Henry’s stepfather; he had married Rathbone’s widowed mother and enrolled him at Union in 1854. Henry himself was a decorated veteran of several Civil War battles.

Henry and Clara were last-minute guests of the Lincolns at Ford’s Theatre the evening of Good Friday, April 14, 1865. Several other couples—including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and his wife—had declined the Lincolns’ invitation to see Our American Cousin.

This illustration depicts the knife attack on William H. Seward and an injured Frederick Seward knocked to the floor. It appeared in The Assassination and History of the Conspiracy (1865). Courtesy of OpenLibrary.org

Henry and Clara were seated with the Lincolns in Box Number Seven, chatting amiably with the president and first lady as the play began. Near the end of the second act, John Wilkes Booth made his way up the stairs toward the Lincoln box to commit what poet Walt Whitman would later call “one simple, fierce deed.”

Rathbone tried to grab John Wilkes Booth after the assassin fired his Derringer at the back of Lincoln’s head. In the struggle, Booth used a knife to deeply slash Rathbone’s left arm, then jumped to the stage and escaped. Henry, though seriously injured, helped Clara escort Mrs. Lincoln across the street to the Peterson house, where the wounded president had been taken.

Among those who witnessed Lincoln’s assassination was Charles Lewis (Class of 1864), a member of the 119th New York Regiment who kept a diary of his experiences during the Civil War; and Robert Fuller (1863), a medical student visiting Washington.

The president would be dead by the next morning, leaving Rathbone to wonder for the rest of his life if he could have prevented the tragedy.

Henry and Clara later married, had three children and moved to Europe where Henry pursued a diplomatic career. But more tragedy was to come. After years of worsening headaches, Henry had a personality change and grew paranoid of Clara leaving him. In an episode on Christmas morning 1883, he stabbed Clara to death and tried to commit suicide. He recovered but in 1885 was judged insane and committed to an asylum in Germany. He would live there until his death in 1911, the last survivor of Box Number Seven at Ford’s Theatre.

William Henry Seward, class of 1820

As Booth was barging into the Lincoln box, another drama was unfolding just six blocks to the west of Ford’s Theatre in a house overlooking Lafayette Park.

Inside was Secretary of State William Henry Seward, Class of 1820, in bed recovering from an April 5 carriage accident that left him with a broken jaw and a fractured right arm.

He must have been buoyed by a visit on April 9 from Lincoln, who brought news that the Civil War was near an end. (Earlier that day, Lee had surrendered to Grant, news that would reach Washington on April 10.) Lincoln’s visit was the last time the political allies and close friends would see each other.

Standing on the gallows and sheltered from the intense sun under an umbrella, General John F. Hartranft reads the orders of execution for each of the convicted Lincoln assassination conspirators. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

By April 14, Seward had made progress. Earlier that day, he had eaten his first real meal since the accident, a soft-cooked egg. That evening, family members had read to him and he was resting comfortably.

At about 10 p.m., Lewis Powell, a Confederate veteran and co-conspirator of Booth, arrived at the home saying he had medicine for Seward and was ordered to bring it directly to his bedside. When confronted by Seward’s son, Frederick (Class of 1849), Powell leveled a revolver at the assistant secretary of state. The gun misfired, but he struck Frederick with it, breaking his skull.

Powell approached Seward’s room, fighting off Seward’s daughter, Fanny, and slashing a nurse, George Robinson, in the forehead.

Once at Seward’s bedside, he plunged the knife downward at Seward, slashing his face and neck. According to Seward biographer Walter Stahr, Powell would have been more effective if he had stabbed Seward’s abdomen and caused an infection. The author also suggests that a brace on Seward’s jaw may have deflected Powell’s blows, and that Seward, placed by doctors with his broken right arm off the bed, was able roll from Powell’s reach.

After struggling more with Robinson and Seward’s older son, Augustus, stabbing both, Powell fled down the stairs and left.

Lincoln Biographer Noah Brooks (Washington in Lincoln’s Time) writes that on April 20, after Seward asked to have his bed moved near the window, he caught sight of the war department flag at half-staff. “The President is dead,” Seward announced to an attendant. “If he had been alive, he would have been the first to call on me; but he has not been here, nor has he sent to know how I am, and there’s the flag at half-mast.” Seward, according to Brooks, “lay in silence, the great tears coursing down his gashed cheeks, and the dreadful truth sinking into his mind.”

Although scarred on his face and neck from Powell’s attack, Seward would recover and continue as secretary of state under Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. He retired from politics after the election of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868, a year after he had negotiated the purchase of Alaska. Seward died in 1872 at the age of 71.

Phineas Gurley, class of 1837

Phineas Gurley (Class of 1837) was a spiritual adviser to Lincoln and his family. Gurley’s link to the president was fortified in 1862 when he ministered to the Lincoln family after the death of their son, Willie, and then presided over Willie’s funeral service. The president also appreciated that Gurley preached the gospel rather than politics, a topic he heard enough about from others. Pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and chaplain of the Senate in 1859, Gurley and his wife were frequent guests of the Lincolns at the White House. He was with the president in his final hours and officiated at his funeral and graveside service. Of the evening of April 14, he wrote, “I felt as though I had been engaged all night in a terrible Battle and had just strength enough to drag myself off the field."

Other Union alumni with connections to the Lincoln assassination and its aftermath were:

Henry Halleck (1837), U.S. Army general-in-chief from 1862 to 1864, attended the Lincoln death vigil and served as a pallbearer for the president. (He was profiled in the winter issue of Union College).

John Hartranft (1853), a medal of honor recipient for his actions at Bull Run, was special provost marshal during the trial and execution of the four Booth co-conspirators. He conducted the hangings of the co-conspirators, including the reading of the execution orders to each of the four individuals.

Austin Andrew Yates (1854) commanded the soldiers who carried out the execution of the co-conspirators on July 7, 1865. A year earlier, Yates helped lead Lincoln away from sniper fire during a visit to Fort Stevens.