Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Abraham Lincoln by Mary A. Hamilton
The Story of Abraham Lincoln by  Mary A. Hamilton

"O Captain! My Captain!"

No one had suffered more deeply during the war than the President. His purpose never faltered. Even at the moment when success seemed farthest distant, his resolve stood firm; cost what it might the Union must be preserved. When almost every other man despaired of the Northern cause, Lincoln's invincible faith in the right and justice of their purpose sustained his country.

To attain that purpose thousands of lives had to be sacrificed; but the purpose was worth the loss of thousands of lives. Yet Lincoln's heart bled for every one them.

All day long he received visits from, distracted relations, mothers and wives asking him to pardon their sons or husbands in prison as deserters or captured from the enemy; asking for tidings of their beloved ones at the front. His generals complained that he undermined the discipline of the army by pardoning what he called his "leg" cases—cases where men had run away before the enemy. "If Almighty God gives a man a cowardly pair of legs, how can he help their running away with him?" said Lincoln.

The story of William Scott is a case which shows the way in which Lincoln used to act. William Scott was a young boy from a Northern farm, who, after marching for forty-eight hours without sleep, offered to stand on guard duty for a sick comrade. Worn out, he fell asleep, and was condemned to be shot for being sleep on duty in face of the enemy. Lincoln made it his custom to visit all the divisions of his army in turns, and, as it happened, two days before the execution he was with the division in which Scott was, and heard of the case. He went to see the boy, and talked to him about his him and his mother. As he was leaving the prison tent he put hands on the lad's shoulders, and said—

"My boy, you are not going to be shot to-morrow . . . . I am going to trust you and send you back to your regiment. But I have been put to a great deal of trouble on your account. I have come here from Washington, where I had a great deal to do. Now what I want to know is, how are you going to pay my bill?"

Willie did not know what to say: perhaps he could get his friends to help him, he said at last.

"No," said Lincoln, "friends cannot pay it; only one man in the world can pay it, and that is William Scott. If from this day on William Scott does his duty, my bill is paid."

William Scott never forgot these words. Just before his death in one of the later battles of the war, he asked his comrades to tell President Lincoln that he had never forgotten what he had said.

All the time, people who did not know the President threw on his shoulders all the blame for the long continuance of the war. Until the last year of the war, the newspapers abused him continually. The horrible loss of life in Grant's last campaign was laid to his charge. Only those who came to the President to ask his help in their own suffering, understood what his suffering was; he suffered with each of them—he suffered with the South as well as the North. After Antietam, he had said, "I shall not live to see the end; this war is killing me." The crushing burden he had borne so long and patiently had bent even his strong shoulders.

But it had not been borne in vain. The time seemed at last to have come when all America would understand how much they owed to the patient endurance of the President. And there was work still to be done which needed all his wisdom. The South was conquered. It had to be made one with the North. The pride of the conquerors had to be curbed, the bitterness of the conquered softened.

Lincoln returned form Richmond to Washington, in his heart the profound resolve "to bind up the nation's wounds" as he, and only he, could do it.

April 14 was Good Friday, and a day of deep thankfulness in the North. In the morning Lincoln held a Cabinet meeting, at which General Grant was present. The question of reconstruction, of making one whole out of the divided halves, was discussed. Some of the Cabinet were anxious to wreak vengeance on the South, to execute the leaders of the rebellion. Such was not Lincoln's view.

"Enough lives have been sacrificed. We must extinguish our resentments if we expect harmony and union."

His noble patriotism could still say to the South, "We are not enemies, but friends." His life was now even more precious to the South than to the North.

After the Cabinet meeting, Lincoln spent some time in talking with his son Robert, who had returned from the field with General Grant, under whom he had served as a captain. In the afternoon he went for a drive with Mrs. Lincoln. His mood was calm and happy: for the first time for four years he could look forward peacefully to the future, and to the great tasks still before him.

In the evening he went to the theatre with his wife and two young friends: the play was "Our American Cousin." The President was fond of the theatre—it was ore of his few recreations: his appearance on this night was something of a public ceremony; therefore, although he was tired when evening came, he went because he knew that many people would be disappointed if he did not. The President had a box to the left of the stage. Suddenly, about the middle of the last act, a man appeared at the back of the box, a knife in one hand and a pistol in the other, put the pistol to the President's head and fired; then wounding Major Rathbone, the only other man in the box, with his knife, he vaulted on to the stage. As he leapt his spur caught the flag hanging from the box and he fell, breaking his leg. Nevertheless he rose instantly, and brandishing his knife and crying, "Sic scalper tyrannis!"—"The South is avenged!" fled across the stage and out of sight.

The horrified audience was thunderstruck. The President lay quite still: the bullet had passed right through his head. The wound was mortal. He was carried to a house across the street, where he lay, quite unconscious, till the morning, surrounded by his friends, their faces as pale and haggard as his own. About seven, "a look of unspeakable peace came upon his worn features." Stanton, the War Secretary, rose from his knees by his side, saying, " Now he belongs to the ages."

There was profound sorrow through the whole of America; sorrow that checked all rejoicings over the victory of the North. Thus, indirectly, Lincoln's death helped the reconciliation between North and South, though nothing could counterbalance the loss of his wise guidance.

Washington was shrouded in black: even the poorest inhabitants showing their sorrow in their dress. The body was taken to Springfield, Illinois, to be buried; and all the towns on the way showed their deep mourning and respect. Now, and not till now, did Americans begin to understand what a man they had lost.

"He knew to bide his time,

And can his fame abide,

Still patient in his simple faith sublime

Till the wise years decide.

Great captains with their guns and drums

Disturb our judgment for the hour,

But at last silence comes:

These all are gone, and, standing like a tower,

Our children shall behold his fame,

The kindly, earnest, brave, far-seeing man,

Sagacious, patient, dreading praise, not blame,

New birth of our new soil, the first American."

So James Russell Lowell wrote of Lincoln when the celebration of Independence Day in the year of his death revived the vivid sense of loss.

The passage of years have only made clearer how great he was. Perfectly simple, perfectly sincere, he thought out for himself an ideal, and spent the whole of his life and all his strength in pursuing it.

He loved America, not because it was powerful and strong, but because it had been based on a great idea—the idea of liberty: his work for America was to realise that idea. He never thought of his own personal success: he wanted to be President because he saw a great work to be done and believed that he could do it. He never became rich: his own tastes remained entirely simple. He was said to have worn the same top-hat all his life.

The first thing that struck any one about Lincoln was his extraordinary appearance. He always dressed in black, with a big black tie, very often untied, or in the wrong place: his clothes looked as if they had been made to fit some one else, and had never been new. His feet were enormous; so were his hands, covered on state occasions with white kid gloves.

In cold weather he used to wear a large grey shawl instead of an overcoat. One day, before he was made President, some friends were discussing Lincoln and Douglas, and comparing their heights. When Lincoln came into the room some one asked him, "How long ought a man's legs to be?"

"Long enough to reach from his body to the ground," said Lincoln coolly.

Lincoln might look uncouth or even grotesque, but he did not look weak: he was the most striking figure wherever he went. No one who saw him often, no one who went to him in trouble, or to ask his advice, thought long of his appearance. Those who had once felt the sympathy of his wonderful, sad eyes, thought of that only. Those who really knew him, knew him to be the best man they had ever met.

Lincoln was often profoundly sad, and then suddenly boisterously gay. He enjoyed a joke or a funny story immensely: he often used to shock thoughtless people by telling some comic story on what they thought an unsuitable occasion; but he told it so well that however much they might disapprove they were generally forced to laugh.

Always rather a dreamer, he was fond of poetry. He knew long passages of Shakespeare by heart, especially Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard III. The Bible he had known from his childhood; of Burns he was very fond.

Lincoln's rise to power, as even so short an account as this will have shown you, was not due to any extraordinary good fortune or any advantages at start. He taught himself all that he knew; he made himself what he was.

It was his character more than anything else that made him great. His early struggles had taught him that self-reliance which enabled him to persevere in a course which he thought right in spite of opposition, disloyalty, and abuse; they taught him the toleration which made him slow to judge others, generous to praise them, little apt to expect them to understand or praise him. He stood alone.

Not till he had gone did his people realise how much he had given them; how much they had lost in him. He gave them, indeed, the most priceless gift a patriot can give his country—the example of sincere, devoted, and unselfish service.

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