By Joan Brown Wettingfeld
On Feb. 12 of this year, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln, of whom President Theodore Roosevelt once wrote, “If there is not the war, you don’t get a great general. If there is not a great occasion, you don’t get a great statesman. If Lincoln had lived in a time of peace, no one would have known his name.” I find that a rather extreme position.
Lincoln died on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, five days after bringing the Union together, and his passing unleashed a national demonstration of grief that was not matched until the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He assumed, in his martyrdom, the stature of a legendary figure to those who loved him as well as to those who had been his opponents.
In Ann Pearsall Willet’s diary is an entry which documents the effect of the tragedy on the citizens of Bayside: “7th day, April 15, 1865: ‘This morning the sad, sad, news of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the attempted murder of Secretary Seward reached us. We were all shocked at the dreadful tidings. Uncle Jordan Wright came over this morning. He waited until the paper came, which confirmed what Mr. Franklin’s man told father.’ ”
She goes on to say on April 19: “No school today as it was set apart for the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. Everywhere there seems to be the same degree of sorrow. Very many of the houses in and about the neighborhood are draped in mourning.”
Though we are familiar with Lincoln’s career as a statesman and have read or listened to his eloquent prose in his Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address, most of us are unaware of the interesting facets of Lincoln’s character, which are revealed by his favorite sayings and songs and his love of poetry.
Among his favorite sayings we find:
• “He who does something at the head of one regiment will eclipse him who does nothing at the head of a hundred.”
• “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves and under a just God cannot retain it.”
• “When I am dead I wish my friends to remember that I always plucked a thistle and planted a rose when in my power.”
Though it is a littleâˆ’known fact that Lincoln loved poetry, one might surmise it from the beauty of his prose. He is, in fact, known to have written poetry. As a youngster, Lincoln wrote poems in his arithmetic book, it is said, one of which is quoted here:
Abraham Lincoln is my name
And with my pen I wrote the same
I wrote in both in haste and speed
And left it here for fools to read
When he returned to his boyhood home in Indiana in 1844, while he was campaigning for statesman Henry Clay, he wrote a poem that was prompted by his memories of the place and its people, which is called “My Childhood’s Home.”
One of the most interesting stories about Lincoln revolves around the most popular song of the Confederacy, which was written by a Northerner named Daniel Decatur Emmett.
The song Lincoln requested to be played at the first public function he attended after Appomattox was “Dixie.” The meaning of the title is a somewhat unsettled question, but most authorities agree the word refers back to the worthless $10 bills issued in New Orleans, which were called “dixies,” derived from the French “dix” (“ten”) printed on them.
Lincoln was grateful for the end of the war, but he was not jubilant. He was a man who sought to heal the wounds that divided the nation. His character is reflected in the things he chose to say, write and listen to in prose, poetry and song, and they add an important dimension to our understanding of the man.
Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.