25 Apr 2022

History:

Lost Capitol Hill: Charles Forbes

I recently had the opportunity to go on a new tour of Congressional Cemetery that focused on the many people buried there with some degree of connection to the Lincoln assassination. While some of those whose graves we saw were well known to me, there were some that were entirely new. Most intriguing to me was Charles Forbes, whose grave is marked with a stately stone with the inscription:

Charles Forbes. Died October 11, 1895 aged 60. Margaret Forbes. Died October 26, 1881 aged 54. Charles Forbes served as personal attendant to President Lincoln 1861-1865. He accompanied the Lincolns to Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865, and he was seated just outside the box when the President was shot.

The Lincoln Group of Washington, 1983.

I had never heard of Forbes before, and as a member of Lincoln’s party on that fateful night, this made me wonder about the quality of my research. So, off I went to find out more about this man.

Charles Forbes was born in Ireland in 1836, according to his obituary in the Washington Post, which adds that he then “ran away from home and landed in this country, a mere lad, penniless and friendless.” After a few years in New York, he came to D.C., again according to the Post, during the Buchanan administration. He would later end up as a clerk in the Treasury Department.

Most sources – including an affadavit made and signed by Forbes many years later – indicate that Forbes was assigned to the White House early in the Lincoln administration. However, contemporary records show that he was not appointed to the Treasury department until January 1864, the same year he first appears in the city directory. Either way, he seems to have made good impression; a letter from Mary Lincoln to the assistant secretary of the Treasury, George R. Harrington, on April 18t, 1864, requests his services from that day until the following day. (That’s Harrington above) The Raab Collection, in selling this letter, posits that this was for Forbes to take care of Tad Lincoln, so that Mrs. Lincoln could accompany her husband to a speech in Baltimore. In the end, Mrs. Lincoln was held up at the White House, but the inference is that this was not the only time Forbes was used in this way.

The carriage in which Lincoln rode to the theatre on April 14, 1865, the night on which he would be assassinated. (Highsmith collection, LOC)

One story about him was set down by Thomas F. Pendel, long-time doorkeeper at the White House, in 1902. Forbes and Lincoln were on a carriage ride when the talk came to what sort of fruit the former knew from Ireland. Forbes listed a few, and Lincoln asked him if he had tasted any American fruit. When Forbes replied in the negative, Lincoln had the coachman stop under a Persimmon tree, detached an unripe fruit and handed it to Forbes. He bit into this notoriously astringent fruit and immediately spit it out, yelling “Mr. President, I am poisoned! I am poisoned!” The story was soon spread far and wide by the coachman who had witnessed the event.

This is pretty much the sum total known about Forbes before the assassination that he witnessed. More on that next week.


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