Some of my Antietam boys are much better known for action elsewhere. One such celebrity was Henry Reed Rathbone (1 July 1837 – August 1911). He’s at the far left in this famous scene from 1865:

Currier & Ives: Lincoln shot at Ford's Theater (1865)click to see larger image
Currier & Ives–Assassination of President Lincoln (1865, US Library of Congress)

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.

Henry and Clara (Harris) Rathbone (c. 1865, US Park Service)
Henry and Clara Harris Rathbone (c. 1865, US Park Service)

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.

See more about Henry and Clara and maybe Rathbone vandalism from Union College.

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.

WH Harris

5 Responses to “Witness to murder: Henry R Rathbone”

  1. Harry says:


    You are a sick and twisted S.O.B. to do this to me after midnight!

    Harris' Cullum # is 1940. He was a graduate of the four-year class of 1861 (June). Upon graduation, he was appointed Bvt. 2nd Lt. of Ordnance, and Cullum says he commanded a section of artillery at BR1, but not which battery. Cullum also notes that he was the son of Ira Harris, late US Senator form New York.

    I found 1/4 of his cadet photograph of him here: The notes with this scrap of photo say he was with Company A, 2nd Arty in July 1861. That was Tidball's battery. (It seems to have been pretty common for 1861 grads to latch on to staff or arty positions as the army took the field that summer and no official record of their attachments exist.) Tidball did not file a report, and Harris is not listed in the index of the recent biography of Tidball. Barry mentions a Harris in his report:

    “Where all did so well it would be invidious to make distinctions, and I therefore simply give the names of all the officers engaged: viz: Major Hunt, Captains Carlisle, Ayres, Griffin, Tidball, and Arnold; Lieutenants Platt, Thompson, Ransom, Webb, Barriger, Greene, Edwards, Dresser, Wilson, Throckmorton, Cushing, Harris, Butler, Fuller, Lyford, Hill, Benjamin, Babbitt, Hains, Ames, Hasbrouck, Kensel, Harrison, Reed, Barlow, Noyes, Kirby, and Elderkin.”

    Lots of 1861ers in that list.

    The report of Lt. Oliver Green, in command of Battery G, 2nd US (Davies' Brigade in Miles' Division), reads:

    “My officers, Lieutenants Cushing, Harris, and Butler, were coolly and assiduously attentive to their duties during the day.”

    Heitman says Harris died 11/6/1895. The 1885 USMA reunion book lists him as living at 490 Euclid Ave, Cleveland, OH. His necrology is in the 1896 volume, pages 86-91, featuring a full page photo that I emailed to you separately.

    Can I go to bed now?

  2. Brian says:

    Thanks very much Harry. So Harris was not exactly a Colonel at BR1. Poetic license, I guess.

    A reasonable person wouldn’t be up so late reading blogs–let alone digging for artillerymen–but rather, wait for the morning like most folk. Nothing reasonable about any of this, though :)

  3. Another Order Up and Some Assorted Sides « Bull Runnings says:

    […] Another Order Up and Some Assorted Sides Look under PAGES on the sidebar to the right.‚àö√ᬨ‚Ć You'll see I've added another OOB, this time one for Union artillery at the battle.‚àö√ᬨ‚Ć‚àö√ᬨ‚ĆI’ll get the Confederate arty up tomorrow.‚àö√ᬨ‚Ć I want to thank Ranger Jim Burgess, Museum Specialist at Manassas, for providing the basis for these red-leg OOB’s.‚àö√ᬨ‚Ć As with the full OOBs, I’ll update these as more information becomes available.‚àö√ᬨ‚Ć I'm also going to try to get caught up on official reports by posting those written by the subjects of the biographical sketches I've already posted ‚Äö√Ñ√∫ for example, Tyler and Sherman.‚àö√ᬨ‚Ć I'll get Ayres's sketch up this weekend, along with‚àö√ᬨ‚Ća bit on some very interesting trivia concerning his gravesite in Arlington.‚àö√ᬨ‚Ć One other post will cover some info I posted over at Behind Antietam on the Web.‚àö√ᬨ‚Ć So tune in over the weekend. […]

  4. Tour Marm says:

    Very tragic ending for all.

    I was under the impression that despite his wound from Booth, said to be from the shoulder to elbow down to the bone, that he mustered the strength to remove the piece of wood Booth had wedged into the door that separated the audience from the room that led to the box. This allowed the surgeon in.

    There were also reports that Mrs. Lincoln, who was hysterical, kept pulling on his wounded arm.

    Are these true to your knowledge?

  5. behind AotW » Blog Archive » Lt Jonas R Davis says:

    […] note: Davis was mustered as First Lieutenant of the 21st Massachusetts in February 1864 by Captain H.R. Rathbone, 12th United States Infantry. Rathbone, then a Major, and his fiancé were in the President’s […]

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