“The tragic splendor of his death, purging, illuminating all, throws round his form, his head, an aureole that will remain and will grow brighter through time, while history lives and love of country lasts. By many has this Union been helped. But if one name, one man, must be picked out—he, most of all, is the conservator of it, to the future.”
Walt Whitman, April 16, 1865 (the day after President Lincoln died)
By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Lincoln lay still those last nine hours.
His final night was in a narrow room in a boarding house across from the Ford Theater. The bed too small, his knees bent. As his personal silence began—a great gasp, a roar of dumb grief crossed the land.
A score and more of somber men crowded the small room—the fallen president a figure of spiritual comfort, even though many who kept the vigil were titans of war. They noted, oddly, how strong his long bare arms were. If he had one quip left if could have been, ”The better to hold our country with!”
Almost everyone held his words, words from our history, our documents, our declarations, the words from Gettysburg that changed a killing field into a birth place. Such a transformation may we hope for in our time and in our lives to this day.
At Hancock, Massachusetts, the Shakers, those people of the Second Coming, inscribed in their large ledger, in double-sized script, “President Lincoln has been killed.” They who gave him one of their handmade rocking chairs, and received a note of thanks, knew his godly views. They were a community of sacred visions. They would hold him.
Walt Whitman, one of Lincoln’s greatest champions, loved that word and used it eight times in his famous hymn of loss: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. In one instance, he wrote:
A moment I linger—for the lustrous star has detain’d me;
The star, my departing comrade, holds and detains me.
The fragrance of lilacs would remain an annual memory of the loss, Whitman wrote:
Yet the lilac, with mastering odor, holds me.
Walt Whitman challenged all of us to hold Abraham Lincoln’s memory and to wrestle with it—knowing that it would be a struggle. Whitman’s first use of “hold” in Lilacs issues that warning: “O cruel hands that hold me powerless!”
Whitman had spent years observing and thinking about Lincoln during the presidential years, which is why he was poised to commemorate his assassination with one of America’s greatest poems. Whitman said in a talk he often gave about Lincoln’s death, “For my part, I intend until my dying day, whenever the fourteenth or fifteenth of April comes, to annually gather a few friends and hold its tragic reminiscence.”
Now 150 years later, what might we “hold” in such a gathering of a few friends? How might we remember Lincoln and remember his tragic death?
I propose we hold such meetings this year. Whitman thought he was too close to the event to know what might eventually “filter” through to the American people from Lincoln and his murder. To hold such a time for talking with a few friends might raise some important ideas and feelings for us now as Americans and as people of spiritual life.
LET’S TALK …
Where shall we start? Here are three possibilities.
One. Historians tell us that John Wilkes Booth became the Confederate Killer because he had heard Lincoln’s recent speech on reconstruction and believed it meant what we now would call racial integration. Booth’s fury at the mere idea of equal association and legal status with blacks pushed him from kidnapping to murder, and from plan to impetuosity.
Is Lincoln’s death meaningfully associated with his increasingly open views on racial equality? What dangerous racial lines still divide us in America?
Two. Whitman tells us that huge numbers of singing, shouting Union soldiers marched up through North Carolina with General Sherman after Sherman’s defeat of Atlanta and march through the South. There “continued, inspiriting shouts…at intervals all day long…wild music…triumphant choruses…huge, strange cries…expressing youth, wildness, irrepressible strength…” until they heard word of President Lincoln’s assassination.
“Then no more shouts or yells for a week.” Hardly a word or laugh “…a hush and silence pervaded.”
Is there a truth in Lincoln’s death that muffles national triumphalism? Is there something about the spirit of military might that Lincoln’s death changes?
Three. There are two words often associated with Lincoln: humor and melancholy. He was being entertained at a funny play on the night of Good Friday when he was killed. He was laughing that night as he would often do. Yet of all the sorrowful times of his life nothing is quite as sorrowful as his death. Is there a balance in life between joy and sorrow, between success and failure, between a new birth of freedom and its tragic implications? Is there a balance we as a maturing nation are ready to hold?
These and other reminiscences of Lincoln could be part of an annual gathering held on the night of April fourteenth or in the day of April fifteenth—as Whitman called us to do. It would be an event as different as Christmas is from Easter, as Lincoln’s birthday is from the date of his death.
Care to read more?
- DUNCAN NEWCOMER is a scholar, teacher and author currently working on a new book: Quiet Fire—The Spiritual Life of Abraham Lincoln. Duncan also wrote many of the offerings recommended in our Abraham Lincoln Resource Page. You can learn more about Duncan’s work at his personal website.
- DISCUSSION STARTERS—If you are intrigued by Duncan’s invitation to spark discussions about President Lincoln, you’ll also want to read his 5 Tips about Preaching Abraham Lincoln. That earlier column lists five contemporary truths about Lincoln and his legacy.
- LINCOLN and AMERICAN VALUES—Lincoln also is a starting point in discussing American values, today. University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker, author of United America, recommends use of Duncan Newcomer’s overview, called Abraham Lincoln and visions of a United America.
- WALT WHITMAN—You’ll also want to read the full version of Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d and Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain!—both about the loss of Lincoln.