William Roedel Rathvon
, CSB, (December 31 1854
– March 2 1939
), sometimes incorrectly referred to as William V. Rathvon
, is the only known eye-witness to Abraham Lincoln
's Gettysburg Address
, of the over 10,000 witnesses, to have left an audio recording of his impressions of that experience in 1938, one year before his death. A graduate of Franklin and Marshall College
in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
, and a successful businessman, he became a practitioner of Christian Science
healing, served as a public lecturer, Church treasurer and director of The First Church of Christ, Scientist
in Boston, Massachusetts
. He was treasurer from 1911 until he was elected to the Church's Board of Directors from 1918 until his death in 1939.
Rathvon was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
, in 1854 where he attended grammar school and college. His mother had met his father while attending the Lutheran College in Gettysburg and her entire family, the Forneys, resided in and around Gettysburg.
Rathvon hears Lincoln at Gettysburg
On November 19
, four months after the historic Battle of Gettysburg
in Pennsylvania, a crowd of more than 10,000 gathered at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
, for the dedication of the National Cemetery to the soldiers who had fallen in what is widely acknowledged as the greatest battle of the Civil War (in terms of the total number of troops engaged and casualties on both sides, the intensity of the fighting, and the strategic and emotional significance of the outcome) as well as the point at which the war turned in favor of the Union and permanently against the Confederacy; in fact, during Pickett's Charge (the battle's culminating action - save for Lee's retreat on 4 July
, 1863 - which occurred on the 3rd day of the battle, 3 July
, 1863), a small group of soldiers under the command of General Lewis "Lo" Armistead
("Lo" short for Lothario
, "the Lover," a jestful nickname
used by Armistead's colleagues who had known him at West Point
or from other early-career encounters) actually succeeded in penetrating Union lines and turning around one artillery piece for a brief moment at bend called "the Angle" in the stone wall that the defenders were using for cover before being swarmed and overrun by Union defenders who killed, wounded, or captured almost all of the men that had reached that point, including Armistead, and had re-taken the artillery piece that had been turned around; that moment is perceived to be the pinnacle of the South's success and is referred to as the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy
," in acknowledgement of both for its physical achievement (i.e., the furthest North/East, towards Washington, D.C., that the South succeeded in reaching) as well as its representation of the closest that the South ever came in its goal of sustained independence from the Union via military victory. Among those thousands was nine-year-old William Rathvon, who with his family had traveled from nearby Lancaster to hear President Lincoln speak.
In 30 minute recording, Rathvon describes searching the battlefield for souvenirs with his friends and finding Confederate muskets thrown into the bottom of a creek. He also describes the experiences of his relatives during the battle, including his uncle’s farm being used as the headquarters for Confederate General Richard Ewell and his grandmother hiding Union soldiers from capture by Southern troops.
Like most people that came to Gettysburg, the Rathvon family was aware that the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln was going to make some remarks. The family went to the town square where the procession was to form to go out to the cemetery that had not been completed yet. At the head of the procession rode Abraham Lincoln on a gray horse preceded by a military band that was the first the young boy had ever seen. Rathvon describes Lincoln as so tall and with such long legs that they went almost to the ground. Rathvon describes a long eloquent speech given by Edward Everett of Massachusetts whom Rathvon accurately described as the "most finished orator of the day," Lincoln stepped forward and in a manner that Rathvon described as "serious, almost a sadness gave his brief address." During the delivery, along with some other boys, young Rathvon wiggled his way forward through the crowd until he stood within 15 feet of Mr. Lincoln and looked up into what he described as Lincoln's "serious face." Rathvon recalls honestly that although he listened "intently to every word the president uttered and heard it clearly, he explains, "boylike, I could not recall any of it afterwards." But he explains that if anyone said anything disparging about "honest Abe," there would have been a "junior battle of Gettysburg." In the recording Rathvon speaks of Lincoln's speech allegorically "echoing through the hills."
Education and career
Rathvon attended Franklin and Marshall College
in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
from 1870–73. By the early 90s he was in Colorado
working as a successful businessman. In 1893, Rathvon joined the Christian Science Church
in Chicago, Illinois
. He attended the Massachusetts Metaphysical College's
primary class in 1903 and returned for the normal (teachers) class in 1907. From 1908-1910 he was a corresponding secretary to Mary Baker Eddy
. He remained active in the Christian Science church from that time on until his death holding a number of positions: member of the Christian Science Board of Lectureship (1911–18); editor, director, and treasurer of the Mother Church of Christian Scientists (1918); and trustee in the Christian Science Benevolent Association and the Christian Science Pleasant View Home Association. He was an author in the periodicals of the Church including the Christian Science Journal
and Christian Science Sentinel
. He was a lecturer on Christian Science travelling extensively and taught classes on the subject to a large association of students until his death in Brookline, Massachusetts
Marriage and family
Rathvon was married three times. In 1877 he married Lillie K. Stauffer and they had one son. Lillie Rathvon died in 1880 and in 1883 he married Ella J. Stauffer. She died in 1923 and two years later he married Lora C. Woodbury. William Rathvon died on March 2
Rathvon's recorded reminicences of Lincoln's Address
As a public lecturer on Christian Science and one of the five top people in the church as a director, Rathvon would have had excellent access to the top quality recording devices of his time. In fact, Mr. Rathvon's reminiscences were recorded on February 12
at the Boston studios of radio station WRUL
; hence the quality of the 78rpm record.
The term "long lost," really doesn't apply, as the Rathvon audio recollections had been known by an extremely small circle of individuals ever since he made them in 1938. To Rathvon, they were actually incidental to what he felt were his more important church-work responsibilities. He made the recording for historical posterity. He, himself, never promoted them, or even promoted the idea that he had made them nor sold them. Why did he make them? He seems to have wanted to preserve them for posterity and it is interesting to note that he died the following year, 1939. As tens of thousands of people heard the Gettysburg address and even as late as 1900, significant people in Lincoln's life, the Civil War Federal Army and even Lincoln's private secretary, John Hay, were still very active in government as Secretary of State under McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, for most of Rathvon's life, there were literally thousands of witnesses to the event. Consequently, in the years leading up to the 1930s, it probably didn't occur to him to attept to preserve his recollections for posterity. But with improvements in and access to the recording technology by the late 30s, and his advancing age, it was no surprise, that making a recording happened only a year before his death. Clearly, his position as one of five managers of his church kept him fully occupied right up to his death.
Preserving the recording
As a Christian Science Church-authorized teacher of Christian Science, Rathvon like all Christian Science teachers was required to organize an association of his students for whose training and support his was a lifelong commitment and for whom he was required hold an annual reunion at which time he was also required to give an annual address. Also, for the sake of student independence and the avoidance of a conflict of interest, teachers of Christian Science do not directly control their own associations. Instead, the association of students organizes itself and elects its own board of directors. This is also done so that the work of the association of students can continue well after the death of the original Christian Science teacher. Thus, as is the case of typical Christian Science teachers, their associations usually survive them and continue to meet annually, each year selecting a replacement annual speaker. Surviving for many years after his decease, after Rathvon died in 1939, his association of students continued to distribute copies of this recording for many years. Some recordings invariably ended up in the estates of deceased students whose families lost sight of their origin as a half century might have passed and the family typically had no information on the original source of the recording. The recording that was sent to National Public Radio was just such a recording and the family had lost track of the story behind it. All the family knew was that they had in their possession a recording by some man named Rathvon who "claimed" to have heard Lincoln give his Gettysburg Address. While one Rathvon relative, Ruth T. Carney contributed her copy of the recording to the historical Longyear Museum
, knowing something of the history behind it, others in possession of the recording have no background information at all. Hence the recording continues surface from time to time and to be "rediscovered."
Rathvon's recording resurfaces
In the late 1990s, a copy of Rathvon's recording was sent to National Public Radio
," during their "Quest for Sound" project. NPR aired it after doing some background research and continues to air it around Lincoln's birthday.
After more than half a century, Rathvon's audio recollections remain a moving testimony to Lincoln's transcendent effect on his fellow countrymen and the love which so many ardent unionists held for him.