- Historic Sites
John Wilkes Booth’s Other Victim
When William Withers, Jr., stepped up to the conductor’s podium at Ford’s Theatre that April evening, he believed the greatest triumph of his career was just a few minutes away
February/March 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 1
Attendance was disappointing for the first month, until Withers and Phillips came up with a plan to draw in soldiers passing through town on their way home from war. They engaged the famous actress and spy, Pauline Cushman, to star in her most popular play, A Union Spy: or Pauline of the Cumberland. The soldiers soon made up the largest portion of the audience—enthusiastically singing “Honor to Our Soldiers” along with Cushman every night—but after she left, business fell off. Theater patrons preferred the spectacular production of Uncle Tom ‘s Cabin at Leonard Grover’s National Theater, advertised as the coolest playhouse in town. Withers and Phillips presented their own version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to no avail.
On the final night of the season, July 5, 1865, a “Grand Complimentary Benefit” was given for Withers and Phillips by an appreciative cast and many prominent citizens, including the mayor. It was their way of saluting the men who had saved the ensemble from being thrown out of work simply because they had been performing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Withers struck up “Honor to Our Soldiers” for the last time, and the music passed into oblivion.
A manuscript copy of the song in Withers’s handwriting remained in his family for many years. When Ford’s Theatre was restored in 1968, Withers’s great-niece, Mrs. John Cimarosa, donated it to the new Lincoln Museum in the theater’s basement. However, the manuscript was consigned to National Park Service vaults, where it remained unseen and unheard for the next twenty-one years. This past spring, however, on the 125th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, the sheet music went on exhibit in the newly refurbished Lincoln Museum.
When the Park Service planned a musical tribute to Lincoln on the anniversary of his death, Frank Hebblethwaite, the site curator for Ford’s Theatre, suggested that “Honor to Our Soldiers” be included. A capacity crowd, some dressed in period costume, came to the theater on April 16 to hear the thirteen-piece Federal City Silver Cornet Band perform a program of Civil War music. When actors portraying the Lincolns and their theater party arrived (and took their seats in a box across from the one Lincoln had in fact occupied), the band struck up “Hail to the Chief,” just as Withers had the night of April 14, 1865.
Then, a few minutes later, the band finally played “Honor to Our Soldiers” for “Lincoln” for the first time, and the bearded man in the flagdraped box smiled and bowed to the bandleader in appreciation. William Withers would have been proud.