Thursday, November 15, 2018

A Presidential Moment

Back on 31 January this year I posted the following story about Abraham Lincoln: 
In 1984 author Gore Vidal published Lincoln: A Novel, a historical novel that is part of the Narratives of Empire series. Set during the American Civil War, the novel describes the presidency of Abraham Lincoln through the eyes of several historical figures, including presidential secretary John Hay, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Secretary of State William H. Seward, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, his daughter Kate Chase, U.S. Representative Elihu B. Washburne, and conspirators John Wilkes Booth and David Herold. The novel's emphasis is on the president's political and personal struggles, and not the battles of the Civil War. Though Lincoln is the focus, the book is never narrated from his point of view (with the exception of several paragraphs describing a dream Lincoln had shortly before his death). Vidal's portrait is drawn from contemporary diaries, memoirs, letters, newspaper accounts, and the biographical writings of Hay and John Nicolay, Lincoln's secretaries; and is buttressed by the work of both 19th- and 20th-century historians. Although written as a novel, historians acknowledge that the novel has been exceptionally researched.

The novel contains a passage that is poignant, moving and a suitable inclusion in this continuing series of greatest replies and responses.


Before the battle of Gettysburg Lincoln went to the front and passed a large tent that was a facility for Confederate wounded. Over the protests of security, Lincoln insisted on entering the tent of unpleasant sights, smells and sounds to see the young wounded Southern soldiers, any one of whom would no doubt have liked the opportunity to kill him.

When the colonel started to call the men to attention, the President stopped him with a gesture. Then Lincoln walked the length of the room, very slowly, looking to left and right, with his dreamy smile. At the end of the room, he turned and faced the wounded men; then, slowly, he removed his hat. All eyes that could see now saw him, and recognised him.

When Lincoln spoke, the famous trumpet-voice was muted; even intimate. ‘I am Abraham Lincoln.’ There was a long collective sigh of wonder and of tension and of…..? Washburne [a Congressman and friend] had never heard a sound quite like it. ‘I know that you have fought gallantly for what you believe in, and for that I honour you, and for your wounds so honourably gained. I feel no anger in my heart toward you; and trust you feel none for me. That is why I am here. That is why I am willing to take the hand, in friendship, of any man among you.’

The same long sigh, like a rising wind, began, and still no one spoke. Then a man on crutches approached the President and, in perfect silence, shook his hand. Others came forward, one by one; and each took Lincoln’s hand; and to each he murmured something that the man alone could hear.

At the end, as Lincoln made his way between the beds, stopping to talk to those who could not move, half of the men were in tears, as was Washburne himself.

In the last bed by the door, a young officer turned his back on the President, who touched his shoulder and murmured, ‘My son, we shall all be the same at the end.’ Then the President was gone. 

A few days ago I came across a related item, a newspaper account of Lincoln’s visit to the confederate hospital. I admit to feeling moved . . . 


Lincoln’s Poignant Visit to Confederate Wounded 

October 4, 1862. Lincoln spent most of the first week of October with the Army of the Potomac in Maryland. In the morning of October 4, he visited wounded soldiers near Antietam. A Baltimore newspaper reported on his visit to wounded Confederate soldiers: 
Passing through one of the hospitals devoted exclusively to Confederate sick and wounded, President Lincoln’s attention was drawn to a young Georgian — a fine noble looking youth — stretched upon a humble cot. He was pale, emaciated and anxious, far from kindred and home, vibrating, as it were, between life and death. Every stranger that entered [was] caught in his restless eyes, in hope of their being some relative or friend. President Lincoln observed this youthful soldier, approached and spoke, asking him if he suffered much pain. ‘I do,’ was the reply. ‘I have lost a leg, and feel I am sinking from exhaustion.’ ‘Would you,’ said Mr. Lincoln, ‘shake hands with me if I were to tell you who I am?’ The response was affirmative. ‘There should,’ remarked the young Georgian, ‘be no enemies in this place.’ Then said the distinguished visitor, ‘I am Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States.’ The young sufferer raised his head, looking amazed, and freely extended his hand, which Mr. Lincoln took and pressed tenderly for some time. 

President Lincoln with Allan Pinkerton (left) and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand (right) on October 3, 1862 in Antietam, Md. 


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