Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Abraham Lincoln: a Bicentennial

The number of books, articles, columns, novels, and stories written about Abraham Lincoln could fill a large arena. Considering the fact that two days from now America will celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth the challenge that confronts this writer is what can I write about Lincoln which hasn’t been written before?

Instead I would like to define Abraham Lincoln in a series of vignettes. The first vignette happened on April 7, 1865. Lee’s army was in full retreat and racing towards its rendezvous with destiny at Appomattox Courthouse. Two huge Union Army columns were converging on Lee from the North and South, trapping him. One of the column leaders, General Phil Sheridan sent a telegraph to Ulysses S. Grant saying, “If the thing is pressed. I think Lee will surrender.” Lincoln, who for years had monitored all cable traffic sent by the Union armies, did a rare and extraordinary thing: he telegraphed Sheridan and Grant both saying, “Let the thing be pressed. “

Lincoln’s cable is a terse testament to the iron will which sustained not only him but a divided nation which suffered through four horrific, bloody years of Civil War. Throughout those four years Lincoln had to repeatedly give orders which resulted in tens of thousands of brave men on both sides to go to their deaths. Throughout those four years Lincoln repeatedly struggled and implored the vast majority of his generals to let the thing be pressed so as to bring this war to a quick, decisive, victorious conclusion only to be denied because many of his commanders were too timid, too incompetent or too unwilling to push until the Confederacy gave in. It wasn’t until 1864 when he found Grant, Sheridan, and William Tecumseh Sherman that he found commanders with the same steely resolve to let the thing be pressed. For too long Lincoln had seen defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. He was determined not to let it happen again. That was why he sent the cable to Sheridan and Grant, imploring action. (Not that they needed it. Both generals were just as eager to end the war as Lincoln was).

Two days later Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse.

The second vignette happened days after Lee’s surrender. Washington, D.C. was alit with torches of celebration over the restoration of the Union. Lincoln, having spoken so often during the war now wanted to speak in a time of peace. Lincoln stood in a window of the White House while a huge crowd gathered below anxious to hear what he had to say. Lincoln spoke to the crowds in his inimitable way and, in the course of his speech, asked the assembled throng a rhetorical question, “What shall we do with the rebels?”

The crowd, wearied by the long war, thirsting for revenge cried out, “Hang them! Hang them! Hang them!”

It was then Lincoln’s young son, Tad, who had been sitting at his feet inside the White House while his father spoke, cried out to his father, “No, Pa! We must hang onto them!” Lincoln, who weeks before had told the nation, “With malice towards none and charity for all” looked down at his young son, smiled, and said for the crowd to hear, “that’s exactly right, son, we must hang onto them.”

That magnanimity of spirit came from a moral code which had been forged and sharpened by a lifetime of hard work, sacrifice, heartbreak, disappointment, and struggle. It was that moral code that allowed Lincoln to overcome disunion, public vituperation, military defeat, and potential political ruination in the course of restoring the sacred oneness of America and to allow this country to once more proceed on its unfinished quest to form a more perfect union. Eighty years later Winston Churchill defined the moral code as being “In war: resolution. In defeat: defiance. In victory: magnanimity. In peace: good will.”

That is why we honor Abraham Lincoln today.

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