In April, it will have been 150 years since the end of the Civil War (or for you Southerners, The War of Northern Aggression) and the assassination of our 16th p r e s i d e n t , Abraham Lincoln. While none of us was around at that time to see these events unfold in person, it is fair to say that much of what we do know is from any number of eyewitness accounts from the day, scholarly articles or personal correspondence.
I have been a devoted Lincolnphile, and collector of Lincolnalia, since I was a wee eight years old. My parents had decided that it would be fun to road trip from Toledo, OH to Springfield, IL to visit my aging Aunt Frances in lieu of actually doing something fun and exciting for summer vacation. Little did I know that this trip to the Land of Lincoln would change my life forever.
While in Springfield, and in an effort to escape the doilie-laden mausoleum that was my Aunt’s home, we went to see the adult home of Abraham Lincoln, which is now a museum and open to the public. As a kid, you learn mostly about historical figures from teachings, but they live only in your imagination.
To walk through a home where Mr. Lincoln once lived and ate and slept was incredibly exciting. It was hard for me to fully comprehend and then, to see his tomb, where he was laid to rest next to his wife Mary Todd, well, that just blew my mind. He became incredibly real to me, more than a historical figure living in the two dimensions of a text book. I had seen the bed in which he slept, the desk where he worked and the clothes he once wore.
Abraham Lincoln became vividly real to me, even though he had been dead more than 100 years at that point. It was all I could talk about for the next few days and I am sure that Aunt Frances was glad to have us head back to Ohio given my chatterbox tendencies. From that day forward, imbued by the tour and the things I had seen while on it, I vowed to put my hands on anything and everything Albraham Lincoln that I could find, or read or experience.
Since then, I have been to Ford’s Theatre and the Peterson Boarding House in DC many times. I have visited the Old Soldier’s Home outside the city where Lincoln spent more than a quarter of his presidency. I have stood in the same footprint where Lincoln was believed to have delivered the most important and remembered of his speeches, the Gettysburg Address, in eastern Pennsylvania.
But none compare to the magnitude of the Lincoln Memorial. I have been there more than a dozen times and visit at least once a year, usually during our Washington DC flyin for the chamber. My routine is always the same. I climb the 57 steps exactly at the center of the staircase so that I can begin to see Lincoln’s imposing figure (even while seated), face to face, the higher I go.
When I reach the top, I stop and take a deep breath (as I endeavor to catch my own). I have seen the Lincoln Memorial many times, but each experience is different. I always prefer to visit when it is dark and cold, mostly because it keeps people moving, yet allows me the opportunity to linger. I stand right in front of the president, note the immense size of his feet and hands and wonder what it must have been like to live in this great country in the 1860s.
Once I finish staring upward, I then cross the great hall to where the second inaugural is chiseled deep into the marble façade. I find my favorite line, With malice toward none, with charity for all, and stare hard, letting it burn deep into my retinas. I then float to the other side, with the words still visible in my eyelids, to view the Gettysburg Address.
This speech, 272 words in length, is one of the most famous ever delivered by anyone, let alone by a president as revered as Lincoln and on such a hallowed ground. And here, too, I find the words that resonate most… The last full measure of devotion.This, of course, makes me cry.
So, there I stand, quietly behind a massive column, eyes moist, wondering what could have been had Lincoln completed a second (or possibly more) term and continued to lead with the passion and compassion that has been so well documented.
Then, it is a cross back to the middle, a fleeting glance up into the president’s massive white-stoned face and then down 57 square steps in silence, my eyes drying in the cold, crisp air.
Until next year, Mr. President…150 years and counting!