The Surreal Life of Robert Lincoln

Robert Lincoln, eldest son of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln who was with him when he died, was also present at the scene of two other Presidential assassinations–and once had his life saved by a member of the Booth family.

Robert_Lincoln,_son_of_Abraham,_by_Mathew_Brady,_ca._1865

Robert Lincoln

Unlike Abraham Lincoln, who (at least according to the legend) grew up poor in a log cabin, Robert Lincoln was a child of privilege. The eldest son of Abraham Lincoln was born in August 1843 at the family home in Springfield, Illinois. His three younger brothers–Thomas, Edward and Willie–died young, and Robert was the only son to live to adulthood.

By the time Robert was a teenager, his father was already a successful lawyer and an ambitious politician, and Robert was sent to a prestigious private high school in New Hampshire, and, after his graduation in 1860, to Harvard Law School. That year, Abraham Lincoln was elected President, sparking the Civil War.

In 1863 or 1864 (the historical record is unclear), an odd incident happened to Robert Lincoln. While traveling from New York City to visit his family at the White House, he was waiting to board a train in Jersey City when he was accidentally pushed off the platform by the crowd and fell between the railroad car and the siding. He was grabbed by the shirt collar by an onlooker and pulled to safety. Lincoln immediately recognized the man who had saved him–it was the celebrated Shakespearian stage actor Edwin Booth, the brother of the equally famous stage actor, John Wilkes Booth. “Upon turning to thank my rescuer,” Lincoln later recalled, “I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.” Edwin Booth did not recognize the person he had saved, and was surprised when, a few months later, he received a letter thanking him for saving the life of the President’s eldest son.

Robert Lincoln spent most of the Civil War in Harvard, some say at the insistence of his mother Mary Todd Lincoln, who wanted to keep him out of the Army (and out of combat). The matter became something of a political controversy, and in February 1865, Robert Lincoln left Harvard, joined the Union Army, and was assigned as an adjutant to General Ulysses S Grant with the rank of Captain, where he remained far from the front lines. When General Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April, Robert Lincoln was present as a member of Grant’s personal junior staff.

On April 14, 1865, shortly after the end of the war, Robert was invited to accompany his parents to a performance of “Our American Cousin” that night, at nearby Ford’s Theater. But he declined, saying he was still tired from the trip to Washington. That night, Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Robert Lincoln was woken and hastily taken to the Petersen boarding house, across the street from Ford’s Theater, where the wounded President had been taken. Robert was with him when he died.

After the assassination, Robert Lincoln moved, with his mother and his younger brother Tad, to Chicago, where he resumed his law studies and passed the Chicago bar in 1867. Chicago was becoming the central transportation hub of the US, and Robert Lincoln soon became successful as a corporate lawyer for several railroad companies. His most important client was the Pullman Railroad Car Company.

In 1875, Robert had his mother, Mary, involuntarily committed to an insane asylum, and was appointed trustee of her assets. After Mary wrote a series of letters to friends and the press protesting her confinement, public opinion began to question Robert’s motives, and she was released from the sanitarium. They seldom spoke to each other afterwards.

By now, Robert Lincoln’s position as General Counsel of the Pullman Company had not only made him a wealthy man, but (along with his famous name) made him a prime candidate for political office. Several times, he was offered a place on the Republican Party ticket, but, being very shy in public, Robert did not want to run for office. In 1877, Lincoln was offered the post of Assistant Secretary of State by President Rutherford B Hayes, but declined. In 1880, though, he served as a delegate to the Republican Party National Convention, and the next year he was offered the post of Secretary of War by President James Garfield, and accepted. On July 2, 1881, Secretary of War Lincoln and President Garfield were at the Baltimore & Potomac train station in Washington DC, waiting for a train to New Jersey, when Garfield was approached by a Republican campaign worker, Charles Guiteau, who had been denied a patronage job in the new administration. As Lincoln watched, Guiteau pulled a pistol and shot Garfield twice in the back. Garfield died from infection 11 weeks later.

Lincoln served out his term as Secretary of War under the new President Chester Arthur, leaving in 1885. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Lincoln to the prestigious post as Ambassador to Great Britain, a position he kept until 1893, before returning to his law practice.

In 1897, when the President of the Pullman Company died, Robert Lincoln was named as his replacement, and in 1911 he came Chairman of the Board.

Although Robert Lincoln never again held political office, his position as the millionaire head of one of the US’s largest corporations meant that he still had friends in high places. On September 6, 1901, Lincoln was invited to join President William McKinley at the Pan-American Expo in Buffalo. Shortly after Lincoln arrived, McKinley was shot twice by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, and Lincoln, who was at the Expo but did not witness the shooting, was connected to his third Presidential assassination. For the rest of his life, Robert Lincoln refused any and all Presidential invitations, and is said to have declined one invitation by remarking dryly, “No, I’m not going, and they’d better not ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.”

In 1922, Robert Lincoln was an honored guest at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

He died in 1926. In his life, Robert Lincoln had always said that he lived in the shadow of his famous father–as a gesture, his wife decided to have him buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, rather than in the Lincoln family plot in Illinois, so he would finally have his own separate place.

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