U.S Civil History╽Eyewitness Account of Abraham Lincoln’s Shooting & Death

Abraham Lincoln died on April 15th, 1865. He was shot while sitting in the presidential box of the Ford’s Theater located in Washington while sitting with Mary Todd Lincoln, Clara Harris, and Henry Rathbone. Lincoln was watching a popular comedy play titled Our American Cousin when John Wilkes Booth entered the theater and shot Lincoln.

In today’s post I will be sharing an eyewitness account of the shooting by Major Henry Rathbone, who was sitting in the theater box with Lincoln, when the president was shot. The day had begun fairly normal and pleasant for Lincoln because Robert E. Lee had surrendered days before and the civil war was officially ending. Everything was looking up; however, John Wilkes Booth had other ideas in mind. The paper had announced that the Lincolns would be attending Ford’s Theater. Ulysess Grant was also suppose to attend the play but unfortunately had to send his regards that morning because he and his wife would be unable to attend.

The Lincoln’s arrived after the show had already begun so they quickly swept up the stairs with Rathbone and his fiance Clara Harris. The play stopped so the song “Hail To The Chief” could be played amid cheers from the crowd for Lincoln’s arrival. During the play the guard meant to be at the box’s door left his post to slip to the saloon next door for a quick drink. While the third act played on, Booth Wilkes stepped into the box and shot Lincoln. Henry Rathbone wrestled with Booth and gained a slash wound to his open arm when Booth jumped and fell from the box onto the stage breaking his left shin. Mary Lincoln was shrieking and both Clara Harrison and Rathbone were yelling for someone to stop the shooter. John Wilkes Booth managed to escape out a back door.

Major Henry Rathbone, sat with the Lincolns in their theater box and later testified at the official inquiry into the assassination. We join his story as he and his fiancé accompany the Lincolns to the theater. . .

“I heard the discharge of a pistol behind me”

“On the evening of the 14th of April last, at about twenty minutes past 8 o’ clock, I, in company with Miss Harris, left my residence at the corner of Fifteenth and H Streets, and joined the President and Mrs. Lincoln, and went with them, in their carriage, to Ford’s Theater, on Tenth Street. On reaching the theater, when the presence of the President became known, the actors stopped playing, the band struck up “Hail to the Chief,” and the audience rose and received him with vociferous cheering. The party proceeded along in the rear of the dress-circle and entered the box that had been set apart for their reception. On entering the box, there was a large arm-chair that was placed nearest the audience, farthest from the stage, which the President took and occupied during the whole of the evening, with one exception, when he got up to put on his coat, and returned and sat down again.

When the second scene of the third act was being performed, and while I was intently observing the proceedings upon the stage, with my back toward the door, I heard the discharge of a pistol behind me, and, looking round, saw through the smoke a man between the door and the President. The distance from the door to where the President sat was about four feet. At the same time I heard the man shout some word, which I thought was ‘Freedom!’ I instantly sprang toward him and seized him. He wrested himself from my grasp, and made a violent thrust at my breast with a large knife. I parried the blow by striking it up, and received a wound several inches deep in my left arm …. The man rushed to the front of the box, and I endeavored to seize him again, but only caught his clothes as he was leaping over the railing of the box. The clothes, as I believe, were torn in the attempt to hold him. As he went over upon the stage, I cried out, ‘Stop that man.’ I then turned to the President; his position was not changed; his head was slightly bent forward and his eyes were closed. I saw that he was unconscious, and, supposing him mortally wounded, rushed to the door for the purpose of calling medical aid.

On reaching the outer door of the passage way, I found it barred by a heavy piece of plank, one end of which was secured in the wall, and the other resting against the door. It had been so securely fastened that it required considerable force to remove it. This wedge or bar was about four feet from the floor. Persons upon the outside were beating against the door for the purpose of entering. I removed the bar, and the door was opened. Several persons, who represented themselves as surgeons, were allowed to enter. I saw there Colonel Crawford, and requested him to prevent other persons from entering the box.

I then returned to the box, and found the surgeons examining the President’s person. They had not yet discovered the wound. As soon as it was discovered, it was determined to remove him from the theater. He was carried out, and I then proceeded to assist Mrs. Lincoln, who was intensely excited, to leave the theater. On reaching the head of the stairs, I requested Major Potter to aid me in assisting Mrs. Lincoln across the street to the house where the President was being conveyed. . .

In a review of the transactions, it is my confident belief that the time which elapsed between the discharge of the pistol and the time when the assassin leaped from the box did not exceed thirty seconds. Neither Mrs. Lincoln nor Miss Harris had left their seats.”


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Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch, the bestselling authors of The First Conspiracy, which covers the secret plot against George Washington, now turn their attention to a little-known, but true story about a failed assassination attempt on the sixteenth president in The Lincoln Conspiracy. Everyone knows the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, but few are aware of the original conspiracy to kill him four years earlier in 1861, literally on his way to Washington, D.C., for his first inauguration.

The conspirators were part of a pro-Southern secret society that didn’t want an antislavery President in the White House. They planned an elaborate scheme to assassinate the brand new President in Baltimore as Lincoln’s inauguration train passed through en route to the Capitol. The plot was investigated by famed detective Allan Pinkerton, who infiltrated the group with undercover agents, including one of the first female private detectives in American. Had the assassination succeeded, there would have been no Lincoln Presidency, and the course of the Civil War and American history would have forever been altered.





22 thoughts on “U.S Civil History╽Eyewitness Account of Abraham Lincoln’s Shooting & Death

  1. That was interesting. Thanks!

    Here’s an interesting rabbit hole for you to go down. Most will recall that John Wilkes Booth was an actor. Largely unknown is that he was from an acting family. His elder brother, Edwin, was at the time becoming a quite famous tragedian. Can you imagine being on the cusp of fame… and then your brother shoots the president?!?

    I wrote a bit about Edwin, based on some of his letters published in The Pocket University Guide tp Daily Reading (1925).

    I imagine posting a link to my blog post would kick this into your spam folder. If you want to check it out go to bigfoodetc DOT com, and search for “Booth” (June 7, 2020).

    Liked by 2 people

      • However, folks have short memories. Perhaps his vision of reconstruction would not have been well received and thus ended up not being the esteemed president history has awarded him.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Some time ago I read a story about a young man who saw Lincoln’s body many years after the assassination. What was interesting to me is that he appeared well preserved to the young man who saw him.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for following my toy soldier and history blog. I enjoyed reading your Abe Lincoln piece – it reminded me of a short 1950s TV clip from early American TV popular on YouTube of a very old man whose claim to fame was to have been there that night in the theatre when Lincoln was shot.

    Liked by 2 people

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