David C. Henley: AbrahamLincoln had a close friend in Worthington
Soon, we will be observing the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, a strong supporter of Nevada statehood and confidante of Nevada’s first congressman.
In fact, Lincoln and Congressman Henry G. Worthington, both Republicans, were such good friends Worthington turned down a chance to be at Lincoln’s side that fateful evening of April 14, 1865, when he was gunned down by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.
Lincoln and Worthington earlier that day had held an hour-long private chat at the White House, at which time Lincoln invited Worthington to join him and his wife at Ford’s Theater that night to see the British comedy “Our American Cousin.” But Worthington begged off, telling the president he had important congressional matters to attend to.
After Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head at 10:13 p.m., the president was carried to a bedroom in a private house across the street from the theater in downtown Washington, D.C. Among those visiting Lincoln as he lay in a coma was Worthington, who had hailed Lincoln’s signing of the proclamation declaring Nevada’s statehood a year earlier and had cast one of the two key votes which gave a constitutional majority to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution that outlawed slavery.
The following day, April 15, Worthington was present when Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. at the age of 56.
Worthington’s long-standing friendship with Lincoln was affirmed when he was chosen one of the 12 U.S. senators and congressmen to serve as honorary pallbearers at Lincoln’s funeral, and the Nevada congressman walked beside the horse-drawn hearse that carried the president’s body from the White House to the U.S. Capitol Building, where it lay in state. Among the pallbearers was General and future president Ulysses S. Grant, who had accepted the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee earlier that month, the historic event that ended the Civil War.
Worthington also attended Lincoln’s burial at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Ill., Lincoln’s home town.
Who, then, was Henry Gaither Worthington, who despite his important ties to Lincoln and the American West, has received meager reference in Nevada and U.S. history books?
Born Feb. 9, 1828, in Cumberland, Md., and the son of a stagecoach line operator, Worthington studied law in Maryland and moved to Tuolumne County in Northern California in the mid-1850s where he practiced law and was elected a state court judge. He then traveled to Mexico and Central America to join expeditions led by adventurer William Walker which unsuccessfully attempted to set up independent nations populated and run by expatriate American colonists.
After Walker was executed by a government firing squad in Honduras, Worthington fled back to the U.S., opened a law office in San Francisco and was elected to the California State Assembly.
After serving one term in the California legislature, Worthington moved once again, this time to Austin, where he set up a law office, became politically active and was elected attorney general of Nevada at the state’s first constitutional convention held in Carson City at the end of 1863, a year before Nevada became the 36th state.
On Nov. 8, 1864 — just nine days after Nevada achieved statehood — Worthington was elected the state’s first congressman, winning 9,776 votes to 6,552 won by Democrat A.C. Bradford. But after serving only one term in Washington, Worthington was defeated in the next Nevada primary election by Republican D.R. Ashley, who went on to defeat Democrat H.K. Mitchell in the 1866 general election.
Two years later, Worthington was back in the news… appointed U.S. ambassador to Uruguay and Argentina by President Andrew Johnson. But he served only two years in these posts, and moved to Nebraska where he ran, unsuccessfully, for U.S. senator.
Then there was yet another move … this time to South Carolina, where he was appointed a district judge by President Grant and a major general in the State Militia by the governor of South Carolina.
By the late 1890s, Worthington was back in Washington, D.C., where he died on July 29, 1909, at the age of 81. He was buried there in the Congressional Cemetery.
In 2000, several articles written by this columnist that appeared in the Lahontan Valley News and the Nevada Appeal revealed Worthington’s grave, just a few feet from that of FBI Director John Edgar Hoover, bore no headstone.
Upon learning this, Nevada U.S. Senator Richard H. Bryan raised funds for a headstone and several months later it was installed above Worthington’s grave site during a ceremony attended by approximately 100 including senators Bryan and Harry Reid, Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, diplomats from the Uruguayan and Argentine embassies, Craig Van Note, representative of the Western Military History Assn., and my wife and myself.
While speaking at the dedication, Sen. Bryan disclosed he was born at Washington’s Garfield Hospital in 1937, the same hospital where Worthington died 28 years earlier.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.