26 June 2007
Some of my Antietam boys are much better known for action elsewhere. One such celebrity was Henry Reed Rathbone (1 July 1837 ‚Äú 14 August 1911). He’s at the far left in this famous scene from 1865:
At the fatal shot
[i]nstantly, Major Rathbone sprang upon the assassin. Booth dropped the derringer, broke from Rathbone’s grasp, and lunged at him with a large knife. Rathbone parried the blow, but received a deep wound in his left arm above the elbow. Booth placed one hand on the balustrade, to the left of the center pillar, raised his other arm to strike at the advancing Rathbone, and vaulted over the railing. Rathbone again seized Booth but only caught his clothing…
Henry had been born in Albany, New York to wealthy businessman and one-time Mayor (1838-41) Jared L. Rathbone. Sometime after Jared’s death, his widow Pauline married State Supreme Court Justice Ira Harris, and Harris’ daughter Clara (1834-1883) became Henry’s step-sister.
Henry graduated from his step-father’s alma mater Union College, Schenectady, in 1857, and the University Law School, Albany, then briefly practiced in Albany. He’d also held office in the State Militia before the War. In 1861 Judge Harris — friend to the new President — was himself elected US Senator from New York.
Clearly Henry was a privileged and well established young man.
At the outbreak of the Civil War he was given a commission as Captain in the 12th US Infantry, I’d guess partly because of his militia experience, but I should think mostly due to his political connections. He was on recruiting duty for the first year, raising a company for the Regiment in New York until March 1862. He joined his unit at Yorktown, on the Peninsula Campaign, presumably in command of a Company.
He was at Antietam as “acting field officer” (Major-like?) and in command of Company C of the Regiment’s First Battalion (see Captain Blunt’s report). The Battalion saw some light action on the west bank [map] of the Antietam across the Middle Bridge on September 17th.
Captain Rathbone remained with his unit to Fredericksburg in December, but from February 1863 to March 1864 he was away from the front on “special duty” at Washington City on the staff of the Military Governor. He then got an assignment to General Burnside’s staff in the field as Aide-de-Camp and Commissary of Musters for the IX Army Corps. He saw action with that Corps at the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor and on to the siege of Petersburg.
After the Crater debacle, and for the rest of the War, he was on headquarters duty in Washington in the Disbursing branch under the Provost Marshal. He was promoted Major of US Volunteers in March 1865.
This brings the Major up to the famous event with which I introduced him above: the shooting of the President at Ford’s Theater in Washington on 14 April 1865.
Weak from blood loss that night, Henry was treated for the knife wounds and taken home, while his future wife Clara sat the night with Mary Lincoln.
Henry recovered and returned to serve two further years in the Army at Washington, resigning in July 1867 to marry Clara. She and Henry had three children; one, son Henry (1870 – 1928), was also a lawyer and later one-term US Representative from Illinois (1923-28).
In 1882, President Chester Arthur appointed Rathbone US Consul to Hanover (Germany), whence removed Henry, Clara, and the children. On 23 December of the next year–apparently after a long fight with mental illness–Henry shot and killed Clara and tried to stab himself to death. He survived the suicide attempt, but spent the rest of his life in a German insane asylum, dying in 1911 at age 74.
Text describing Major Rathbone in the President’s Box and the photos of he and Clara above are from the US Park Service’s 1969 Handbook for Fords Theater. The original Brady photo of Henry is at the National Archives.
His education and military record is succinctly described in Guy Vernor Henry‘s Military Record of Civilian Appointments in the United States Army, New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1873; also available online. His commission as Captain, 12 US Infantry is confirmed in the General Orders of the War Department, 1861.
An 1869 letter of Rathbone’s on War Department letterhead indicates he was working then for the Adjutant General “In charge Enrollment Branch” with War-era personnel records.
Thomas Mallon’s 1995 novel Henry and Clara mentions Henry’s step-brother William H Harris was Colonel, 4th US Artillery at First Bull Run. I can’t find him. Harry?
Added 6/27: Image below of WH Harris, considerably post-War. Scan thanks to Harry Smeltzer, who found it in the 1896 USMA Reunion book.