In the immediate aftermath of the shooting of James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881, the president’s longtime friend Almon F. Rockwell penned an impassioned line about the tragedy in his diary: “Let this pernicious day stand aye accursed in the calendar!”
Rockwell was at Garfield’s side when the president died 79 days later, on September 19, 1881. It was an experience the Army lieutenant colonel had endured once before: Sixteen years earlier, on April 15, 1865, he was among the roughly 25 people in the room when President Abraham Lincoln died. “It was the most dramatic and historic scene that I have ever witnessed,” wrote Rockwell, who was called to the president’s deathbed to assist Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s secretary of war, in his diary that morning. He later added in the margin “Except this Sept. 24, 1881!”—a reference to the day Garfield’s funeral train arrived in Cleveland, Ohio (his home state).
“[A]nd hence, by a singular coincidence, I am the only person in the world who saw the last struggles of these two celebrated Americans,” Rockwell told the St. Paul Daily Globe in 1888.
A prodigious diarist and conscientious writer, Rockwell’s contributions to American history have largely been overlooked. Most of his personal papers are housed at the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington, D.C., but two crucial record books covering the years 1863 to 1867 are missing from the collection. Held in private hands for decades, these diaries and other heirlooms recently came into the author’s possession via a Rockwell family friend who, in turn, received them from Rockwell’s grandson. The journals, which will eventually be donated to the LOC, could help separate truth from myth in the story of Lincoln’s final moments. They also shed more light on Rockwell’s 30-year friendship with Garfield.
“In his diary, Rockwell recorded valuable observations of the scene … during Abraham Lincoln’s final hours. His account adds to the contemporary evidence of who was present in the room, and what was, or was not, said at the time of Lincoln’s death,” says Michelle A. Krowl, the Civil War and Reconstruction specialist in the LOC’s Manuscript Division, in an email. “That Rockwell returned to the 1865 entries to add marginalia relating to the assassination of his friend, President James A. Garfield, is a testament to the lingering personal impact of being present at the deathbeds of two assassinated presidents.”
Rockwell was born in Gilbertsville, New York, in 1835. At age 17, he enrolled at Williams College, where he met Garfield, then a young man from Ohio. After graduating from Williams, Rockwell studied medicine and became a licensed physician. He practiced in New York before enlisting in the Army upon the outbreak of the Civil War. In October 1861, he joined the staff of General Don Carlos Buell as a first lieutenant and aide-de-camp, ultimately seeing action across the conflict’s western front, including at Fort Donelson, Nashville, Shiloh and Corinth. At Shiloh, Rockwell ran into Garfield—then a brigadier general and brigade commander—and the two reconnected.
By 1863, Rockwell had been assigned to the adjutant general’s department in Washington, where he was tasked with organizing and outfitting new regiments of Black soldiers. Garfield moved to the nation’s capital that same year after resigning his military commission and winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Together again, the friends and their families became especially close. The Rockwell and Garfield children were constant companions during those years; their fathers often visited each other and attended baseball games together.
As Garfield’s political career began, Rockwell climbed up in the Army’s ranks. By the time the Civil War drew to a close in April 1865, he’d been promoted to lieutenant colonel.
Rockwell was at home with his wife and children on the night of April 14 when an Army messenger arrived, informing him that President Lincoln had been shot at Ford’s Theatre. The lieutenant colonel was ordered to report to the Petersen House, across the street from Ford’s, where the wounded president had been moved. He remained in the small boarding house room until Lincoln’s corpse was taken to the White House the following morning.
Rockwell recounted his memories of that night a few times before his own death 38 years later, in 1903. But he never shared the April 15 diary entry, which is reprinted here for the first time:
April 15, 1865 — The week which closes today has been unquestionably the most momentous and eventful one in American history (written in the margin: Except this Sept. 24, 1881!). Immediately preceded by the capture of Richmond and Petersburg, it was ushered in by the coming victory of the war, viz., the surrender of Gen. Lee and his army, Monday the 10th. Tuesday the 11th and Thursday the 13th Washington was magnificently illuminated. Friday (Good Friday, the anniversary of the martyrdom of the son of God) witnessed a “deed without a name.” The President of the United States was foully assassinated at Ford’s Theater, at about 10:30 p.m. by John Wilkes Booth – a “man damned to everlasting fame,” (written in margin: July 2, 1881, Let this pernicious day stand aye accursed in the calendar!) while William H. Seward, the secretary of state, and four members of his family were ruthlessly struck down and nearly murdered.
About 12 midnight I received orders to report to the secretary of war, at no. 453 10th Street, opposite Ford’s Theater, where the President of the United States lay dying. I remained there until 8 o’clock in the morning, being one of twenty-five persons who witnessed the death of the President. It was the most dramatic and historic scene that I have ever witnessed. The president was unconscious and uttered not a word from the moment he was shot. The grief of Mrs. Lincoln was piteous and agonizing. The closing scene was indescribably impressive. About the bedside of the dying president was grouped the Cabinet, with the exception of Mr. Seward, Generals Halleck and Meigs, Surgeon General Barnes, Surgeon Crane, etc., Robert Lincoln, Major Hay, private secretary, Cols. Vincent, Pelouza, Senators Sumner, Howard, etc., and myself. When the Surgeon General at 7:22 a.m. April 15, 1865, said: “The President of the United States is dead,” and the Rev. Dr. Gurley, the pastor of the church of which Mr. Lincoln was an attendant, who was standing by the bedside, said, “Let us pray,” old grey-headed statesman and Cabinet ministers, Generals, and others bent their knees and sobbed like children. Mrs. Lincoln was not present at the closing scene. She visited the president five or six times during the night. The house in which the President died was a plain brick tenement house, of three stories, and basement. The room was about 9x15 feet, and at the end of the house on the first floor. It contained a single window only.
For reasons that remain unclear, Rockwell’s observations were all but left out of the narrative. His presence at the president’s deathbed wasn’t exactly a secret: In June 1866, he posed for a portrait included in Alonzo Chappel’s massive oil painting The Last Hours of Lincoln, which showed every person in the room (at one time or another) that night. But while Rockwell kept detailed private records of his life, he rarely spoke publicly about his experiences. Key exceptions included an 1888 interview with the St. Paul Daily Globe and an 1890 article published in the Century magazine. Titled “At the Death-bed of President Lincoln,” the latter served as a rebuttal to the president’s biographers and former secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, who had published a list of people present when Lincoln died that failed to mention Rockwell.
The lieutenant colonel’s response briefly described his experiences that night and included a sketch of the room and its occupants. He noted, “I was so deeply impressed, that during the half-hour preceding the announcement of General Barnes, ‘The President is dead,’ I gave my most intense attention to the occurrences of which I made the most careful record at the earliest moment on the morning of April 15.” Correcting their previous oversight, Nicolay and Hay included Rockwell’s death-room sketch in their landmark ten-volume biography of Lincoln, which was published later that year.
More recent historians and writers have all but ignored Rockwell’s presence in the Petersen House, his recollections and the detailed diagram he drew. It can only be guessed at as to why. But it may be the simple fact of Rockwell’s modesty and lack of obtruding himself into every article and book written about Lincoln—as many people did—that led his recollections to be overlooked. W. Emerson Reck’s 1987 book A. Lincoln: His Last 24 Hours resurrected Rockwell’s contributions, but virtually every book about Lincoln’s death since then has left the lieutenant colonel out of the story.
Also intriguing is what’s missing from Rockwell’s April 15 diary entry and his 1888 newspaper interview. Speaking with the St. Paul Daily Globe, the Army officer said:
President Lincoln was lying unconscious on the bed in the second story front room, with Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes holding his wrist and noting the pulsations, while Surgeon Crane, USA, stood next to him holding a watch, as our party entered the chamber. It was a sight never to be forgotten. … All night long the anxious faces by the bedside regarded with solicitude the dying man, whose respiration was labored and prolonged, in some instances fully three minutes, although they seemed like hours. … Appreciating the fact that such a gathering would some day prove of historical importance, I made a note of the group around the bedside at the time President Lincoln died.
Crucially, Rockwell does not record Secretary of War Edwin Stanton uttering his now-famous words about the dead president: “Now he belongs to the ages.” Whether Stanton said “ages” or “angels”—or whether he said anything at all—has long been debated by historians. But Rockwell’s diary and interview seem to bolster the opinion, most recently and impressively stated by Walter Stahr in his 2017 biography of Stanton, that the line was a poetic fiction created in 1890 by Hay and Nicolay.
After Lincoln’s assassination, Rockwell remained in the Army, reorganizing the Tenth Cavalry, a regiment for Black enlisted men, for postwar service. In December 1866, he attained an appointment as captain and assistant quartermaster that he had been seeking for five months, in large part due to the intervention of then-congressman Garfield. “God bless a friend!” Rockwell wrote in his diary. “The old General said to me: ‘I consider the tie of Friendship, in many places, stronger than the tie of Blood!’”
“In Rockwell’s diaries from the mid-1860s, unknown to historians until now, the bond of heart and head, the affection between [the two] is apparent for anyone to see,” says Alan E. Gephardt, a park ranger at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, who has paid particular attention to the pair’s friendship, in an email. “[The entries include] clear signs of affection between the two men, the examples of their intellectual compatibility, and the fact that Garfield incorporated a thought suggested by Rockwell in his inaugural address as president.”
During the 1870s, Rockwell served as quartermaster of various western army posts in Kansas, California and Oklahoma (then the Cherokee Nation). But a position as head of the Office of National Cemeteries brought him back to Washington, where he was reunited with Garfield, in 1880.
Running as the reluctant Republican nominee, Garfield narrowly won the 1880 presidential election and assumed office as the 20th commander in chief in March 1881. He quickly appointed his old friend Rockwell as superintendent of D.C.’s public buildings and grounds—an important position encompassing the White House and all of the city’s public parks. Rockwell was also responsible for introducing the president and first lady at all public functions.
Four months into Garfield’s term, on the morning of July 2, Rockwell was in the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station when disgruntled office seeker Charles Guiteau shot the president. Rockwell was checking baggage when he heard two sharp pistol blasts, followed by Secretary of State James G. Blaine’s cry of “Rockwell! Rockwell! Where is Rockwell?” At Guiteau’s murder trial, Rockwell recounted that he was at the president’s side within seconds. Garfield was lying on the floor of the station, and his face was so pale that Rockwell believed his friend’s death was imminent. The president, however, held on for 79 days before dying from his wounds.
The story of Garfield’s medical treatment, periodic convalescence, physical suffering and death has been told many times. Doctors desperate to save his life poked, prodded and examined the president, but the historical consensus is that their unsanitary practices ultimately killed him. Garfield’s strength and tenacity during this trying time is also part of his legacy. He sought to give his family and the nation comfort by retaining his courteous manners and sense of humor to the end, offering an example of “how to live grandly in the daily clutch of death,” as Rockwell later wrote.
Rockwell was constantly at his friend’s side, assisting both the president and the first family. He stayed in the White House and then accompanied his commander to the seaside at Elberon, New Jersey, where the surgeons hoped the fresh air would aid in the president’s recovery.
Two days before his death, Garfield had a brief conversation with Rockwell about his legacy. The lieutenant colonel used a pencil to record the exchange on the only paper he had handy, the back of a railway pass:
“Jarvis [Garfield’s nickname for Rockwell], will my name have any place in human history?”
“Yes, a grand one, but a grander place in human hearts.”
“I know the situation.”
“But you will have a longer work yet to perform.”
“No, my work is finished.”
Garfield died on September 19, surrounded by physicians, family and friends. The experience reminded Rockwell of the moment Lincoln died 16 years earlier, so the lieutenant colonel, as he had done once before, made a “careful survey of those in the room” and wrote it down. As Rockwell told the St. Paul Daily Globe in 1888, “Both presidents who thus fell in the prime of life were splendid physical specimens of manhood, but while President Lincoln’s end was apparently agonizing, that of President Garfield was as peaceful as if he were merely falling asleep.”