“Four score and seven years ago” – actually, seven score and ten – Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Long held to be America’s greatest president, he was also a gifted speechwriter.
On 14 April 1865, a few days after the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln was shot by the actor John Wilkes Booth while attending a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. Lincoln died early the following morning. Decades after it had been demolished, the interior of the theatre was reconstructed and today contains three ghostly witness of that fateful night: the sofa that stood at the back of the box, the cane chair on which Mrs. Lincoln perched, and a portrait of George Washington. The upholstered rocking chair on which Lincoln was sitting can be seen at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Lincoln was the first American president to be assassinated and his death had a profound and long-lasting impact on the United States. Over three weeks, millions of Americans participated in a nationwide pageant of grief, including a state funeral, and the 1,700-mile westward journey of a funeral train from Washington, through New York, to Springfield, Illinois, where he was buried.
When the poet Walt Whitman heard the news, he sought solace at his mother’s New York home, where fragrant lilacs were coming into bloom. He was profoundly affected by the death of Lincoln and made it the subject of two of his most highly regarded poems, “O Captain! My Captain” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”. One of the stanzas from “Lilacs” imagines the funeral cortege:
“Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.”
Whitman and Lincoln never met, yet they are both strongly present in the American imagination. Lincoln had certainly read Whitman’s first book of poems, “Leaves of Grass”, and was so entranced that after half an hour he started over, reading it aloud to his colleagues. Another anecdote has Lincoln gazing out a White House window, spotting the hale, bearded Whitman walking by, and exclaiming, “Well, he looks like a man.”
Lincoln, who penned his own speeches, was adept at turning a phrase or two. For an address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on 19 November 1863, he wrote these resounding words:
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but… we highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Almost two years later, in a eulogy on the slain president, Senator Charles Sumner said that Lincoln was mistaken if he thought that the events would be forgotten. Rather, Sumner remarked, “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.”
On the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, we remember the man and what he stood for, his failings as well as his achievements, and the “lilac with heart-shaped leaves” symbolizing the return of spring.