It’s April 14, and on this day in 1865 Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater. His death the next morning stunned a nation that was still in the euphoria of Lee’s surrender to Grant less than a week earlier at Appomattox Court House.
Because we know how the story ended, it’s hard for us to appreciate what it must have been like to be stuck there in the middle of it. Lee had already concluded before Appomattox that the Confederacy could not win, and Richmond had already fallen, but the Confederacy still had armies in the field and their orders from Jefferson Davis were to keep fighting. And fight they did — one of the armies kept fighting until June. Prolonged guerilla fighting was the scenario favored by Davis, and it was a very real possibility.
Many in the north favored harsh terms for the south anyway, and needed little encouragement. Fortunately, Lincoln’s almost obsessive insistence on doing everything possible to promote post-war reconciliation with the south was well known to men like Grant and Sherman, and they continued to carry out his vision even after his death. Without the powerful moral authority of his memory, things might have turned out much worse.
With gratitude for the life of Abraham Lincoln, we observe the occasion with a trip to the Poetry Corner, to reacquaint ourselves with Walt Whitman’s reflections on Lincoln’s death.
O Captain! My Captain!
by Walt Whitman (1817-1892)
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack,the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up — for you the flag is flung — for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths- for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.