The curious case of Robert Lincoln

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

Clockwise from the top left: Edwin Booth, Robert Lincoln, William McKinley and James Garfield (11-B-1052, 111-B-1317, 111-SC-96204, 111-B-2743)

On the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, his son Robert Lincoln was supposed to attend American Cousin with his parents but was exhausted from a long carriage ride. He remained at home. When Robert heard the news of his father’s attack later that night, he rushed to the Peterson House and was at his father’s bedside when he passed. It was the farthest Lincoln would be from any presidential assassination to occur in his lifetime, and just one event in a string of strange coincidences.

Robert Lincoln was the Lincoln’s first son, and the only one to survive past his teenage years. Despite surviving his adolescence, Robert was nearly killed on a train platform in 1863 or 1864. He was moving between train cars at the Jersey City train depot when he slipped and was nearly crushed between the heavy cars. Just as he fell, a man reached out and grabbed him by the coat. Robert recognized the man immediately. “That was a narrow escape, Mr. Booth,” he said, according to an account in Century Magazine. The man was the actor Edwin Booth, brother to John Wilkes Booth. He was traveling with John T. Ford, the owner of Ford’s Theatre.

Following his father’s assassination, Robert followed in Abraham’s footsteps, first by studying the law, and finally by entering politics. In 1877, he was offered the position of Assistant Secretary of State but declined. Later he accepted the appointment as James Garfield’s Secretary of War. It was in this capacity on July 2, 1881, that Lincoln was walking with Garfield at the 6th St train station in Washington, DC, when disgruntled Charles J. Guiteau approached the President and shot him.

After serving as the Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Lincoln accepted a position as the president of the Pullman Palace Car Company. As the son of a popular President, and a successful businessman in his own regard, Lincoln attended the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901, at President McKinley’s invitation. When Leon F. Czolgosz shot the President, Lincoln was pulling into the station. He immediately went to the hospital where McKinley had been taken and visited the mortally wounded President. McKinley died six days later.

Lincoln felt cursed. He had witnessed one murder and been close at hand for two others. Worse still, he was plagued by the fact that his father’s attacker had approached from behind. Had Robert attended Ford’s Theatre that night, John Wilkes Booth would have had to get past Robert to take the fatal shot.

When Theodore Roosevelt assumed the Presidency, Lincoln wrote him. “I do not congratulate you for I have seen too much of the seamy side of the Presidential Robe to think of it as a desirable garment.” Later, he was invited to the White House as a figurehead of the Republican Party. He declined and swore he would never step foot in the White House again. “I am not going and they’d better not invite me,” he said, “because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.”

For more curious and little known bits of history related to the Civil War and its key players, be sure to check out part two of Discovering the Civil War in Washington, DC. The second part of the exhibit opens November 10.

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