February/March 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 1
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
April 14, 1865, was an important day for William Withers, Jr. He was the orchestra leader at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and that evening he was going to perform his song “Honor to Our Soldiers” for Abraham Lincoln. The President had accepted an invitation by the management of the theater to see the actress Laura Keene in Our American Cousin; Keene herself was to lead the audience and cast in singing Withers’s tribute to Lincoln.
“I was to achieve one of the greatest successes of my life,” Withers remembered. “Hours before theatre time, people began to gather around the main entrance, and I stood for a while outside the stage door watching the crowds.” Then, before going to the music room, he stepped next door to Taltaval’s saloon, an actor’s bar.
The first person he met as he entered was John Wilkes Booth. “He was standing at the bar in his shirt-sleeves, his coat thrown over one arm and his hat in his hand. There were several men with him, and they were laughing and joking … somebody laughed and said, ‘Oh, Booth will never be as great an actor as his father.’ I happened to be looking directly into Booth’s face when this remark was passed, and I remember seeing an inscrutable smile flit across it. He looked back … saying, ‘When I leave the stage for good, I will be the most famous man in America.’ This meant nothing to me at the time, but I remembered it afterward. I left the party and hurried to the music room; it was almost time for the overture to begin.”
Before long the President appeared. Withers gave the sign for the orchestra to play “Hail to the Chief.” “At the end of the first act, when my song was to be sung, I was called to the speaking tube by our stage manager, J. B. Wright. He asked me to play my entr’acte music because Miss Keene was not ready to assist in my song, but probably would be at the end of the second act.” But the second act ended with Laura Keene still not prepared to sing the song. ”... I was vexed by this,” said Withers, “and went behind the scenes to find out why my extra feature had been slighted. To reach the stage, I had to take an underground passage to a narrow stairway in the rear of the building.”
The stage manager told Withers that Laura Keene was nervous about performing Withers’s big number. The best he could do was to have the song presented at the conclusion of the play, when, Withers well knew, there would be no one left to hear it. “Then I got disgusted with the whole affair and started back for the rear stairway.” Withers had just started down when he heard a pistol shot. “I knew no firearms were used in the play and I thought some accident had happened.
“I heard the sound of something falling out on the stage, followed by jumps crossing the floor.” It was Booth running down the narrow passage-way toward Withers, carrying a knife.
”‘Let me pass!’ Booth kept repeating. I was willing to let him do so, but he kept pushing and shoving me backward in such a hysterical manner that I couldn’t set out of his way.
“He made a rush at me. As he jumped forward we collided and his waving dagger cut a gash through the left side of my coat.” Withers, dumbfounded, made no move to defend himself. “Booth’s arms were waving, and again the dagger cut into my clothes, this time on my shoulder, inflicting a slight flesh wound in my neck. The man was growing frantic at the delay. Every minute was precious to him.
”‘Damn you!’ he cried, and gave me a tremendous shove, knocking me sprawling to the floor.” Booth rushed for the stage door. “As I lay there on the floor, I wondered in a vague sort of way what I had done to Booth that he should want to murder me.” Upon examining himself later, Withers discovered “to my amazement a six-inch wound, the scar of which I carry with me to this day.”
When telling the story in later years, Withers would show his audience the old black dress coat he had worn that night. Pointing to the rip in the garment where Booth had slashed him, he would say, “To this day, I can feel the blade cutting through to my shoulder. I call it the ‘Booth barometer,’ because every time the weather begins to fix itself for a northeast storm, that old wound starts to ache …. I can feel Booth’s hot breath in my face, and can see the pale countenance of the martyred president in the box.”
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered Ford’s Theatre closed immediately after Lincoln’s assassination. The members of Ford’s company found themselves out of work with more than two months remaining in the theater season. Withers came to their rescue.
He formed a partnership with Henry B. Phillips, a veteran character actor who had once been Ford’s business manager and stage manager and who, it should be noted, had written the words to “Honor to Our Soldiers” before Withers set it to music. The partners seized the moment, renting the vacant and recently over-hauled Washington Theater and hiring most of Ford’s staff. The box office opened on May 1, a little more than two weeks after the assassination. Not surprisingly, every night Withers led the audience and cast in singing “Honor to Our Soldiers” with a featured soloist, his fourteen-year-old sister, Charlotte.
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.