For our family vacation this year, I wanted to go east to see some American history first hand. My husband was game with that, so we loaded our 6 year old son, Isaac, into the car and made a seven day journey from our home in Fort Wayne, IN to the eastern part of the U.S. We went to eight places in seven days; we saw lots of history. Gettysberg, Antietam, Ford’s Theater, Mount Vernon, and more; it really was an education.
It was time to head over to one of my most anticipated destinations, Ford’s Theater, where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. After visiting Gettysberg and Antietam, it was a natural end to our first hand Civil War education.
After waiting in a long, sweaty line behind about 20 buses worth of school groups, we made our way inside the theater and settled into a balcony seat, directly across from the theatre box where Lincoln was shot. A woman dressed in period attire came out on the stage of this still active theatre and a hush came over the crowd. She told a story that I am generally familiar with, but also shared some new details.
Major Henry Rathbone, who along with his fiancée (and later, wife) Clara Harris, was in the President’s box that night, tried to apprehend John Wilkes Booth after he shot Lincoln. Despite Rathbone’s attempt, Booth stabbed him many times and escaped. After the assassination, everyone was attending to Lincoln and Major Rathbone nearly bled to death. Rathbone never recovered from what he saw that night and his mental health began to seriously deteriorate. He became increasingly violent, eventually murdered his wife Clara, and then tried to commit suicide. After the murder of his wife, he was held in a prison for the criminally insane. Today, we would probably diagnose Rathbone with PTSD, but there was no help for him then
Another interesting aspect was the theory about how Booth broke his leg. Throughout history, people have believed that Booth broke his leg at Ford’s when he jumped out of the presidential box and onto the stage. However, historians now believe he may have broken it later when he fell off his horse on the way out of town that night. Some believe that due to eyewitness accounts from that night, Booth’s hurried exit from the stage proves that he couldn’t have broken his calf at that moment.
All of this is just details when compared to the backdrop of tragedy that occurred that night. How would our country have been different if Lincoln had survived that night? Would the civil rights movement have occurred earlier? Alternately, what if there had been no Lincoln at all? When would slavery finally have ended? What would the U.S. be today if not for our 16th president?
We will never know the answers to these questions. We do know that Lincoln was one of our greatest presidents and shaped our country into what it is today.
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