Tag Archives: abraham lincoln

Last Full Measure of Devotion: I Discover a Personal Lincoln

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial, NPS photo

Sheltered in the warmth of a Detroit library’s archives on a blustery fall evening, I happened upon a clue to  Abraham Lincoln’s political artistry.   Having often visited Washington, I have met the  marble Lincoln seated at the Memorial, his presence like  an ancient oracle  looking out toward the reflecting pool, his famous words etched on the walls, and a steady stream of tourists looking up to a revered, if distant, figure. The setting last Thursday allowed me a more personal insight.

Reblogging this in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday

The archivist led our small group into an alcove where the library kept fragile materials.  A letter on yellowed paper, too frail to be touched, rested on a display table. Written in a forceful, cursive hand, the note  was dated October 11 in the first year of the Civil War.  The writer sought the aid of the Secretary of War.  The signature at the bottom read, Abraham Lincoln.

At first glance, the letter’s content seemed   mundane. Lincoln was asking the Secretary of War to assign two junior army officers to a general named Sherman. Never having seen one of Lincoln’s letters up close, I mused over this bit of history.   For me, there was a sense of the past looking over my shoulder.

Walking out of the alcove, I found myself imagining the story that might lie behind the letter. I pictured Lincoln in the White House with his young son, Tad, playing nearby.  A  Congressman from a Midwest prairie district, fortified for the occasion by a prior visit to nearby Willard’s bar, asks the president for a favor for two constituents.    Perhaps one had been a small town lawyer and the other a local politician; now they were  officers in the  Union Army.  Did I mention that Lincoln is a Republican and the Congressman a Democrat?  Lincoln listens intently, turning over the Congressman’s request in his mind.  Rather than committing himself, Lincoln tells a droll story, and the two men share a hearty laugh.  Today, this scene would be impossible,, but in 1861, politics worked in just this fashion.

Abraham Lincoln mastered the political arts as a lifelong endeavor, beginning with many years spent brokering deals in the fractious Illinois legislature.  His shrewdness and deft touch have never been equaled in American history.   Lincoln’s strengths met the ultimate test in the  Civil War, where military triumphs required a sturdy foundation of political success.   In the North, popular support for the war remained problematic, from the opening shots at Fort Sumter to the last bugles at Appomattox Court House.  Lincoln faced a precarious high wire balancing act during his presidency.

Rancorous partisan strife marked politics in Lincoln’s time.  Yet, if  Democrats deserted the war effort, the Union cause would be lost. One key to their support was the appointment of prominent Democrats, sometimes woefully unqualified as officers, to positions in the Army.  Lincoln knew that such concessions to political reality were unavoidable, though no one felt the resulting loss of life more deeply than he did.  Fortunately, he eventually found the commanders he needed to win the war.

Lincoln’s simple words in a faded letter remain with me as I write this.  Certainly, his speeches deserve to be enshrined in our country’s memory, yet it should not be forgotten that he was first and always a politician of great sensitivity and finely honed persuasive ability.  He could reach out to an opponent, arrange a deal, and reach a compromise—all the while keeping his eyes on the prize.  Such is the legacy that Lincoln left us, if we would only learn from his bequest.

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Love and the Terrible Swift Sword

antietam

Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland
NPS photo

 

Fine art, like great leaders, appeals to the better angels of our nature, to borrow Lincoln’s words.  The 1989 film, Glory, touches its audience  in that way, while exploring the story of the 54th Massachusetts, the first Union Army regiment  made up of black soldiers.  This is history told from the ground up, beckoning  the audience  to come closer, inviting them to feel as the characters do.

A simple quality makes Glory unique as a war film: love.  As the story unfolds, the focus never strays from the bonds between the men, and between a leader and his troops.  In the course of campaigns, soldiers often  develop affection for their commander, but in Glory the formula is altered: the  young, idealistic colonel  grows up as he learns to first appreciate and then love his men.

Captain Robert Gould Shaw, 23 year-old son of upper crust Boston parents with Abolitionist sympathies, sees the landscape turn red at the battle of Antietam.  Returning home on leave, he is feted at a sumptuous banquet.  The guest list includes the Governor and the great black leader, Frederick Douglass.  Governor Andrews promotes Shaw (Matthew Broderick) to Colonel of a regiment to be recruited solely from free black men and former slaves.

After seeing slaves fleeing the South, Shaw had written to his mother: “We fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written.”  Yet, as their commanding officer, he finds that these men are strangers to him.  He cannot breach the distance between them, and the former slaves appear to his eyes as if enshrouded in a fog.

A turning point for Shaw occurs early in the film.  The Confederate government in Virginia declares it will consider black men captured in Union blue and their white officers as being engaged in servile insurrection, subject to summary execution.  Shaw informs the assembled men of the grim news and offers to accept any soldier’s resignation.  The next morning, to Shaw’s astonishment, the men stand as one in defiance of the slave master government’s no quarter threat.  The young colonel recognizes he is in the presence of extraordinary courage.  He no longer sees his troops dimly, but begins to see them face to face.

Shaw is helped in his growing appreciation by the regiment’s sage, Sergeant Rawlins, played by Morgan Freeman.  The older man mentors his colonel in the subtleties of human nature, while he acts as a father figure to the soldiers.  Learning from  Rawlins’ tutelage,  Shaw comes to realize that he also must fight the condescending, racist Army upper echelon to gain recognition for his men as worthy soldiers.

While their colonel is maturing, the soldiers are growing in self-confidence and pride.  The culmination of the men’s transformation takes place as they gather around a campfire on the eve of battle.  They invoke their religious tradition to steel their hearts,  as they testify to their faith in God and their faith in each other.  Choking with emotion, a fiery soldier played by Denzel Washington says, “I love the 54th.”  After pausing, he says,  “It don’t much matter what happens tomorrow,  Because we’re men now, ain’t we!”  The chorus responds, “Yessir!” and “Amen.”

The next morning, with cannon shot arcing toward the fort they are to storm, the men of the 54th stand in their ranks, ready to give the last full measure of their devotion.  Colonel Shaw faces them expectantly in a communication of shared courage and love.  The emotion is there for the viewer to touch.