restricted access November 18: We Have Come to Dedicate (The Visitor)

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[ ∞≤≥ ] n o v e m b e r 1 8 We Have Come to Dedicate (The Visitor) On November 18, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg . Up on Cemetery Hill, a speakers’ platform stood ready. The digging of graves had been temporarily suspended. When Abraham Lincoln stepped o√ the train, the citizens of Gettysburg saw the most recognizable figure in America, and at the same time the most utterly strange. A London Times reporter said you could not pass the president on the street without taking notice. He was self-conscious about his face, which many people termed ugly, but which others said could be the handsomest face they had ever seen. ‘‘He made such an impression,’’ someone remembered. You were struck by the ugly, sad, dull strength and dignity of this tall man in wrongly fitting, rusty black. At nearly six-foot-four, Lincoln was one of the tallest men of his generation. (The average Civil War soldier was five-foot-seven.) But he looked even taller than he was. His hands and feet (size fourteen) were large, and his arms and legs extraordinarily long. His shoulders and chest were narrow. When he sat, he appeared no taller than anyone else except that his knees stuck up, as if he were sitting in a child’s chair. n o v e m b e r 1 8 [ ∞≤∂ ] He was unusually strong. Having spent his youth and early manhood at manual labor, the president could still pick up four hundred pounds, or hold a heavy axe out straight from the shoulder, gripping it with only his thumb and two fingers. He had always known his strength. When awakened from the ‘‘ugly, sad, dull’’ appearance he assumed in thought or repose, a ‘‘miracle’’ would take place. His amazingly mobile face would come to life, his eyes would light up, and he would be all expression and handsomeness. There is no photograph of this popular Lincoln, because to be photographed for a portrait in those days you had to freeze, head firmly against a brace, and wait for the plate to receive its full impression. No photograph, wrote Walt Whitman, gets the ‘‘subtle and indirect’’ expression of Abraham Lincoln. Another observer said that Lincoln’s face is ‘‘unfathomable’’; one ‘‘cannot understand’’ it. He was ‘‘the man nobody knows.’’ His closest associate, law partner William Herndon, once boasted that he knew his partner better than Lincoln knew himself; but he had to admit, finally, ‘‘I never fully knew and understood him.’’ He never revealed himself entirely to any one man, and therefore he will always to a certain extent remain enveloped in doubt. Even those who were with him through long years of hard study and under constantly varying circumstances can hardly say they knew him through and through. I always believed I could read him as thoroughly as any man, and yet he was so di√erent in many respects from any other one I ever met before or since that I cannot say I comprehended him. But some things about Abraham Lincoln struck everyone. ‘‘Lincoln’s melancholy never failed to impress any man who ever saw or knew him,’’ Herndon wrote. ‘‘The reader can hardly realize the extent of this peculiar tendency to gloom.’’ People in Gettysburg, watching as the tall man in the tall black hat came up the street to the Wills house, would have noticed this worn, melancholy expression, and along with it they might have remarked to each other upon the black mourning band around the hat. The president’s son had died in February 1862. The a√ectionate Willie had been like his father—quiet, studious, intelligent. His mother and father had been pushed to their limits by Willie’s death, and Lincoln, ultimately , had not been consoled. It seems altogether fitting that at Gettysburg , among the graves of the Republic, the president still mourned his own son. * * * w e h av e c o m e t o d e d i c at e ( t h e v i s i t o r ) [ ∞≤∑ ] There at the Foot of yonder nodding Beech That wreathes its old fantastic Roots so high, His listless Length at Noontide wou’d he stretch, And pore upon the Brook that babbles by. The Lincoln who steps forth in our imagination is partly a legendary figure. The homespun youth, barefoot, in blousy shirt, props himself on his elbows before the fire and reads perhaps those very lines from Gray...


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