April 14, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
As a military historian I have over the years come to respect Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War. As an American historian I admire his astitute political skills. When I lived in Washington, I often took visitors to the great marble temple that honors Lincoln with the huge seated sculpture by Daniel Chester French, a leading American sculptor of the day. For many it is a moving experience.
Indeed the place that Lincoln holds in the hearts of Americans is simply stated on the wall behind him:
IN THIS TEMPLE
AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE
FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION
THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
IS ENSHRINED FOREVER
But that is not that Lincoln that touches me, that Lincoln is–and was–found elsewhere.
I first encountered that Lincoln in a one-room school in 1952. On the wall was a framed black and white photograph. In it, Lincoln sat in a chair and looked calmly out at the room. In second grade, I knew very little about him other than he had been a president of the United States and that we got his birthday off. What he did or why he did it would later be revealed to me.
I encountered him again in 1962. Then, as a high school student, I found him on a great battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This was a place where more than 50,000 men lay dead, dying, or wounded. In this place, Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, recast the war not just as a crusade to save the Union, but instead as “a new birth of freedom.” The war for him had become a Second American Revolution to fill the promises of equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence.
In 1970 I next found him in a tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois. There Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln were finally put to rest. When he was first buried there was an attempt to steal the body and in 1902 it was buried under several feet of concrete. There was something about the tomb. It was not the great marble Washington temple, but the burial-place of an ordinary man. It was where people had come for 105 years to pay their respects. It was where a crowd that had been noisy upon entering, suddenly fell silent as if people had come to mourn a family member.
Later about 1985, I found him again at Ford’s Theater in Washington. On April 14, 1865, nearly 150 years ago, five days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the actor John Wilkes Booth, hoping to avenge the South, shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He escaped, later to be killed himself while fleeing federal troops. After being dark for more than 100 years, the theater was renovated and reopened for public performances. When we lived in Washington, we attended several plays there. Some times they were musical, some times they were serious. But it didn’t matter as no matter what was on the stage, my eyes were inevitably drawn to the flag-draped box above the stage. It was a truly eerie experience to be in that theater where one of the great tragedies of American history had occurred. It was and is hard to explain. It was as if Lincoln were there.
Then he was gone, back to the hallowed battlefield, to the marble temple in Washington, to the tomb in Springfield, and in the end back to the photo on that wall in a one room school so long ago.