Biographies & Memoirs

Part Two

THE IDES OF DEATH

Lincoln’s most famous profile

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

MONDAY, APRIL 10, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

NIGHT

It seems like the entire town is drunk. Lee’s Confederate army has surrendered. In the Union capital whiskey is chugged straight out of the bottle, church bells toll, pistols are fired into the air, fireworks explode, newsboys hawk final editions chock-full of details from Appomattox, brass bands play, church hymns are sung, thirty-five U.S. flags are hoisted, and army howitzers launch an astonishing five-hundred-gun salute, which shatters windows for miles around the city.

The war is done! After four long years, and more than 600,000 dead altogether, euphoria now floats through the air like an opiate.

Complete strangers clasp one another’s hands like long-lost friends. They rub shoulders in taverns, restaurants, cathouses, and the impromptu glow of blazing streetside bonfires. Revelers march from one place to the next, passing the flask, aimless and amazed. Sooner or later it becomes obvious that their passion needs a purpose—or, at the very least, a focus. The human mass snakes toward the White House, handheld torches lighting the way. The people of Washington, D.C., overcome by news of the war’s end, hope to glimpse their president on this historic night. Perhaps, if they are very lucky, he will give one of the speeches for which he has become so famous.

The nation’s capital is not yet the cosmopolitan city it will become. The streets are mostly dirt and mud. It is not uncommon for traffic to stop as farmers drive cattle to market. Open spaces have been military staging areas during the war, with the camp followers and soldiers’ businesses such a designation implies. The Tiber Creek and its adjacent canal are open sewers, a breeding ground for typhus, cholera, and dysentery. The vile stench is made worse by the Central Market’s butchers, fond of heaving freshly cleaved carcasses into the rancid waters each morning. This might not be a problem, were it not for the Tiber being located a stone’s throw from the Capitol Building, that beautiful unfinished idea that towers above the city like an allegory for the nation itself.

To Lincoln, the Capitol is the most important structure in Washington. During the war, even when resources were limited and manpower was desperately needed on the battlefields, he refused to halt construction. Its signature element, the dome, was fitted into place just over a year ago. Inside, scaffolding still climbs up the curved walls of the unfinished rotunda. Workmen mingle with the Union soldiers who have used the Capitol as a barracks, sleeping on the sandstone floors and waking each morning to the aroma of baking bread, thanks to the cadre of bakers in the basement turning out sixty thousand loaves each day for shipment to distant battlefields.

The Capitol was an obvious artillery target during the war, so the gas lamps atop the dome remained unlit for the duration. Now they blaze. The Capitol glows above the frenzied crowds like some great torch of freedom, a wondrous reminder that Lincoln’s common refrain of “the Union must go on” has, indeed, come to pass.

So it is fitting that on the night the Capitol dome is lit, the crowd of more than two thousand staggers to an unruly halt on the grass outside the White House’s front door, waiting for Lincoln to show himself from the windows of the second-floor residence. When Lincoln doesn’t appear right away, they cry out for him. At first it’s just a few random shouts. Then a consensus. Soon they roar as one: “Lincoln,” the people cry. “Speech.”

The crowd is crazy to touch President Lincoln, to see him, to hear his voice. They continue calling out to him, the chant getting louder until the sound is deafening.

But Lincoln is in no mood to speak. The president sends a messenger out to the people, letting them know he is not up to it tonight. That only makes the crowd cheer louder. Lincoln tries to mollify them by going to a window, pulling back a curtain, and waving. Upon seeing the president, the crowd explodes. Men hoist their caps and umbrellas and women wave their handkerchiefs.

Still, Lincoln does not give a speech.

The crowd doesn’t leave. He goes to the window a second time, hoping his appearance will send them on their way. To his utter amazement, twelve-year-old Tad Lincoln is now down on the grass with all those people, running through the crowd with a captured rebel battle flag. The people laugh good-naturedly at the stunned look on Lincoln’s face, then cheer him as he steps alone from the front door of the White House to retrieve his young boy. It will be impossible for him to escape without saying a word or two. Lincoln has no protection as he wades into the crowd to get Tad.

The president returns inside the White House, even as the folks remain in the front yard.

Lincoln, at heart, is a showman. He reappears at the second-floor window, smiling and holding up a hand in acknowledgment. “I am very greatly rejoiced to find that an occasion has occurred so pleasurable that the people cannot restrain themselves,” he jokes, knowing that the crowd will respond by cheering even louder.

They do.

The president is tired, having hardly been able to sleep, due to a series of dreadful nightmares and anxiety over the struggles still to come. He sees the bonfires and the lanterns, and basks in the ovation, feeling the fatigue slip away. He hears the hurrahs, along with again the single loud cry in unison of “Speech.”

Lincoln sighs inwardly. He has waited so long for this moment, and yet he must hold back. These words cannot be delivered impulsively. Nor can he hope to be bathed in applause after they are spoken.

The people need to hear the truth, even though that’s not what they want to hear. The crowd wants retribution, not reconciliation; they want grand and eloquent words. Inspirational words. Fortifying words. Even boastful words. They will tell their children’s children about the night after the war was won, the night they heard the great Abraham Lincoln frame the victory in the most beautiful and poetic way possible.

They wish, in other words, to witness history.

Lincoln would like to indulge them. But the sentiments are half-formed and the words not yet written. Instead of telling the crowd what’s on his mind—how the thrill about the war’s end that filled his heart just yesterday is being replaced by weariness at the prospect of the hard work to come—Lincoln smiles that easy grin for which he is so well known. If you want to hear a speech, Lincoln yells to the crowd, please come back tomorrow night.

There is no malice in his tone, no undercurrent of sarcasm born of the many years of public ridicule. The veteran politician works his audience with professional ease. His unamplified voice carries powerfully through the chill night air.

Spying the Navy Yard brass band taking shelter under the White House eaves, he calls out a request: “I always thought that ‘Dixie’ was one of the best tunes I ever heard. Our adversaries over the way, I know, have attempted to appropriate it. But I insist that yesterday we fairly captured it.

“It is now our property,” he informs the crowd, then directs the band to “favor us with a performance.”

As the musicians strike up the Confederate anthem, and the crowd sings and claps to that old familiar rhythm, Lincoln slips back into the White House and starts writing the last speech he will ever give.

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