The final version of my book, “Abraham Lincoln-An Uncommon, Common Man,” does not include this encounter between Robert Lincoln, eldest son of Abraham Lincoln, and Edwin Booth, the older brother of Lincoln’s assassin. However, it is a fascinating irony of the times and deserves a brief narration.
In an odd coincidence, Robert Lincoln was once saved from possible serious injury or even death by Edwin Booth, who was the country’s most famous actor. Edwin’s brother, John Wilkes Booth, who was also an actor but with lesser talent and public recognition, would later murder Robert’s father, President Abraham Lincoln.
The incident took place on a train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey and, while neither man could later remember the exact date, it took place in early 1864, about a year before the President’s assassination in April 1865. Robert Lincoln wrote the following explanation of the encounter:
“The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance to the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move and, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer 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.”
However, it seems that while Robert recognized Edwin and profusely, and nervously, thanked him, Robert evidently failed to introduce himself; not surprising considering his emotional state immediately following the harrowing escape.
After Edwin’s swift rescue actions, but before Abraham Lincoln’s death, Robert was in the Union Army serving as an officer on the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant. Robert recalled the events in a conversation with a fellow officer, Colonel Adam Badeau, who happened to be a friend of Edwin Booth. Colonel Badeau then sent a letter to Edwin, recounting Robert’s story and complimenting the actor for his heroism. Booth later said he remembered that the young man very graciously thanked him but the two separated before being introduced. Until Colonel Badeau’s letter arrived, Edwin had been unaware that the man whose life he had saved on the train platform was the President’s son. Presumably at the request of Colonel Babeau, General Grant also sent a letter to Edwin stating his appreciation for Edwin’s selfless actions.
Following John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of the President, the family and friends of Edwin said that the opportune encounter and quick response to save Robert was of great comfort to Edwin who, while not overly political, had supported the Union cause and admired President Lincoln.
Robert had earlier graduated from Harvard and, after the War ended in 1865, he left the Army and began a legal career. Although he was never a politician, Robert went on to become the Secretary of War under President James Garfield, then became the Ambassador to Great Britain under President Benjamin Harrison, and later a successful railroad executive. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
This is a fine example of the old proverb, “A life saved should become a life well lived!”
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