Black and white photograph of the exterior of Ford's Theatre and the rest of 10th street as it looked in the 19th century.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“Honor to Our Soldiers”: Civil War Veteran William Withers, Jr. and the Song that was Never Sung

4 min read

Editor’s Note: As we honor our nation’s soldiers in observance of Veterans Day in November, we remember the soldiers who fought to preserve the Union 150 years ago. This month’s Museum Feature highlights a patriotic musical tribute to soldiers from the Ford’s Theatre collection, as well as the Civil War veteran who made this music possible.

On April 14, 1865, the city of Washington was in a particularly patriotic mood as it continued to celebrate the anticipated end of the Civil War. At Ford’s Theatre, the audience cheered on President Lincoln as he arrived for the 1,000th performance of Our American Cousin. When the distinguished guest appeared, the performance stopped and the conductor William Withers, Jr. led the orchestra in a rendition of “Hail to the Chief,” welcoming the president to the theatre.

A violin played in the orchestra the night of Abraham Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theatre.
This violin was played by a musician who was seated in the orchestra pit during the April 14, 1865 performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. The orchestra was conducted by William Withers. Artifact photo by Carol Highsmith.

A noted violinist, professor and conductor, William Withers, Jr., grew up in a musical household. His father and several of his brothers all had musical careers, and they performed together in the Withers’ Brass Band before the war. During the war, Withers served as a musician in the 62nd Pennsylvania Infantry Regimental Band. After being discharged, he was employed by Ford’s Theatre as the leader of the orchestra.

In the weeks leading up to the end of the war, Withers had composed a patriotic song to accompany “Honor to Our Soldiers,” a poem written by Henry B. Phillips, a well-known actor and the acting manager for Our American Cousin. Originally, the song’s premiere was planned for April 15, during Jeannie Gourlay’s benefit performance of The Octoroon at Ford’s Theatre. When the Lincolns reserved the state box at the theatre on the morning of April 14, it was determined that “Honor to Our Soldiers” would be performed a day early for the honored guests.

Before this last-minute change was announced, printer Henry Polkinhorn had already started printing playbills for that evening’s performance. One of these original playbills can be seen in the Ford’s Theatre Museum, but another version also exists. After the printer was notified of the addition of the song, he amended the playbill to include the inaugural performance of the “Patriotic Song and Chorus” that honored the nation’s soldiers. It would be performed for the man who saw the nation through the war.

Pencil written sheet music by William Withers' for his new piece, "Honor to our Soldiers."
Whithers’ hand written sheet music for “Honor to our Soldiers.”

“Honor to Our Soldiers” was to be sung by the entire company of Our American Cousin, and would be led by actress Laura Keene on piano. However, the night was interrupted by an unthinkable act—one not part of the play—and the song was never sung.

Around intermission, Withers went backstage to speak with the stage manager and inquire about the costumes the cast would wear during the premiere of the national song. Still backstage at the beginning of the third act, Withers heard a pistol shot but did not recognize the sound as part of the performance. Confused and uncertain about what had happened, Withers was suddenly confronted by a fleeing John Wilkes Booth, an actor with whom he was acquainted. Withers, as he recounted in his testimony, was “paralyzed.”“I did not know what was the matter…As he ran, I could not get out of his way, so he hit me on the leg, and turned me round, and made two cuts at me, one in the neck and one on the side.”

What started as a patriotic, celebratory evening turned into a night of anguish for a still-grieving country. The patriotic song honoring our fallen soldiers who fought gallantly to keep our nation as one would never be performed that night. Today, the lyrics of this song resonate and transcend the courageous actions of our ancestors who fought to preserve the Union 150 years ago. The words of the song that was never sung honor all soldiers and their heroic service to our country: After his run-in with Booth’s dagger, Withers was incapacitated. Knocked to the floor, a stunned Withers watched helplessly as Booth escaped through the back door of the theatre, fleeing the crime scene and entering history.

Honor to our soldiers, Our nation’s greatest pride, Who, neath our Starry Banner’s folds, Have fought, have bled and died; They’re nature’s noblest handiwork– No King so proud as they. God bless the heroes of the land, And cheer them on their way.

In these poetic words from the Ford’s Theatre archive, we find a fitting memorial to all soldiers who have served and continue to serve. Even though the music was silenced that night by the murderous act of John Wilkes Booth, the words will forever resonate with a nation that has endured. Let them be preserved and remembered for prosperity, as an honor to our soldiers.

Elena Popchock is former Exhibitions Intern at Ford’s Theatre.

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Elena Popchock is former Exhibitions Intern at Ford’s Theatre.

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