As the country commemorates the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln this week, few communities can claim a more compelling or tragic connection to that April night in 1865 than Schenectady.
Henry Rathbone, an 1857 graduate of Union College and a major in the Union Army, was in the presidential box and was knifed by John Wilkes Booth after Booth mortally shot the president in the back of the head.
Rathbone and his fiancee, Clara Harris, had accompanied the president and his wife to Ford’s Theater to see a production of “Our American Cousin.” Also sitting in the audience that night watching the events as they happened was Schenectady native and Union College student Charles Lewis. A captain in the Union army, Lewis recounted the tragedy in his diary.
Their stories and others are on display at Union College’s Nott Memorial and the Mabee Farm State Historic Site in Rotterdam Junction.
At Union, an exhibit, “Profound and Poignant: Union College’s Connections to the Civil War Era,” tells the sad story of Rathbone’s mental decline after the Civil War and how he murdered his wife in 1883 and unsuccessfully attempted suicide.
Lewis had a much happier life, surviving until 1905. His diary and a piece of cloth stained with Lincoln’s blood will be on display this month at the Mabee Farm’s Franchere Center.
In his 1994 historical novel, “Henry and Clara,” author Thomas Mallon suggests Rathbone never recovered from that tragic night at Ford’s Theater, the wound being more emotional than physical. Thomas Werner, a retired chemistry professor at Union who curated the exhibit with history professor Andrea Foroughi, says that’s probably not far from the truth.
“Even though it’s a novel, the book is a source of truth, and it appears that Rathbone never got over the fact that he couldn’t prevent the Lincoln assassination,” said Werner. “It’s unlikely that he could have, but who knows? But what happened that night bothered him for the rest of his life, and he became mentally ill.”
Along with Rathbone, an Albany native, other prominent Union alumni played key roles in the war. William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, was a Union graduate, as was his counterpart in the Confederacy, Robert Toombs. Henry Halleck, the top-ranking general for a time in the Union Army, was also a Union College man.
“Union College was a very important institution of learning in the 19th century, so it’s really not a surprise that so many notable people like Seward and Toombs and others played prominent roles during the war,” said Foroughi. “Their stories are very interesting, but I’m a social historian, and our exhibit includes many men that I didn’t know that much about. Researching them and filling out their stories was a lot of fun.”
The Lewis diary, kept at the Efner History Center in Schenectady’s City Hall and on loan to the historical society, is actually from 1879, when Lewis copied the entries from his original journal.
On April 14, 1865, he wrote: “It is near midnight, and I have just come in from seeing enacted a tragedy which will ring down through the ages ‘Till time shall be no more,’ the assassination at Ford’s Theater of Abraham Lincoln, the president of the United States.”
Historical society curator Mary Zawacki said Lewis began writing his diary in earnest after being wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia in 1863. He was just 18 and a student at Union when he joined the Army a year earlier.
“He progressed quickly through the ranks, and we think he started writing his diary after he was wounded at Chancellorsville,” said Zawacki. “He had the time to write because he was recovering from his wound. The diary indicates what was significant and meaningful to a young man from Schenectady during that time, a young man who was obviously facing things that were new to him and very scary. It’s a very personal connection to what was happening at the national scale.”
The small piece of fabric with Lincoln’s blood was probably one of many sold to collectors soon after the assassination, according to Zawacki.
“The provenance of the item is pretty reliable, and it was quite common back then for these little tiny pieces to be cut and sold as relics,” she said. “It was probably part of the linen or a pillow case from Lincoln’s death bed, or part of a towel that was used to stop the bleeding.”
Among the other Lincoln events this week will be a free evening program at the Duanesburg Reformed Presbyterian Church at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Catherine Ritchey of Glenville, a descendant of the Hanks family (Lincoln’s mother was Nancy Hanks), will present a short talk about Lincoln’s life and death.
“My mother’s maiden name was Hanks, and growing up, we all knew the story about Lincoln,” said Ritchey. “We had some great aunts that were genealogists, and they had the family line all figured out way back then without the Internet.”
Following Ritchey’s presentation, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Kenneth A. McHeard, will offer a eulogy for Lincoln.
On April 25, the Capital District Civil War Round Table will host a special commemorative stamp cancellation at 1 p.m. at the Schenectady Post Office on Jay Street. The image of Lincoln was drawn by group member Art Henningston.
“April 26 was when Lincoln’s funeral train rolled through Schenectady on its way to Springfield, Illinois,” said Matt George, a spokesman for the organization. “From what I’ve read, the train didn’t stop in Schenectady, but it slowed down, and there were soldiers on each side of the tracks. People gathered in large numbers to watch the train roll through Schenectady.”
Officials at the state Capitol in Albany are also making plans to commemorate the stop by Lincoln’s funeral train in Albany. While the train arrived April 25 at 10:55 p.m., the president’s casket was taken from its rail car the next day and put in a funeral procession through the streets of Albany. By 4 p.m., it was back on the train and heading west to Schenectady.
Due to a lack of funding, plans by Illinois officials to stage a re-enactment of Lincoln’s funeral train, with a replica train taking the same route as 150 years ago, have been canceled.