The Black Heavens: Abraham Lincoln and Death by Brian R. Dirck

The Black Heavens: Abraham Lincoln and Death by Brian R. Dirck

Author:Brian R. Dirck
Language: eng
Format: epub
Tags: Biography & Autobiography, Presidents & Heads of State, History, United States, 19th Century, Social Science, Death & Dying
ISBN: 9780809337033
Publisher: SIU Press
Published: 2019-02-06T00:00:00+00:00

Let dogs delight to bark and bite,

I have no taste for war;

My joy is not in fire and fight,

In cannon’s roar and bullet’s flight,

And nasty pools of gore.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Let others fight, let others fall,

Let others wear the bays,

But of the military ball

Let me alone adorn the festive hall

Where brass and buttons blaze.12

The dead could give an extra edge to the blame assigned by the president’s critics to his (real and perceived) mistakes. For the Bull Run defeat, “Abraham Lincoln alone is responsible,” argued one Democratic newspaper, which also stated, with no apparent sense of contradiction, that the “awful responsibility” for what had occurred rested with numerous Republican Party leaders, all of whom had pressured the Union army into premature action and had gotten men killed. “When we publish the cold record of names of those that have futilely perished in battle recently,” explained a Democratic newspaper, “it seems to us that each one, though mute in death, speaks to those dear to him, imploring that they ask themselves whether these calamities were not the result of a delusion and a political deception practiced by [Republican] fanatical leaders.”13

In the early months of his presidency, Lincoln struggled to find an effective response. He did not do much to harness the energy of those whose assessment of the war, sobered by the battlefield dead, involved a stiffening of the spine and renewed resolve to do their duty. He made no public calls to revenge the dead, and he did not try to shame anyone to enlist in the face of those first casualty lists. His direct encounters with wartime death—primarily Elmer Ellsworth and Edward Baker—were more personal than anything else, of a piece with the private mourning he experienced when Willie and Eddy died or, going even further back, the deaths of his mother, sister, and Ann Rutledge. He understood the need to mourn these deaths with public propriety, keeping his grief hidden away and only occasionally allowing it to surface, and he also understood the need to keep Mary’s grief behind closed doors as much as possible.

But none of this translated, at least early in the war, into an understanding that death during such a massive civil war was essentially a public matter. Battlefields were a public square, a grim sort of polis, and as president and commander in chief, Lincoln occupied a prime role in shaping how the war dead would be understood and the meaning of their sacrifice articulated in this public realm. The battlefield had flipped the ordinary order of death. Eddy and Willie, Edward Baker and Elmer Ellsworth—these were private losses with a public dimension. But battlefields were at their core public deaths, which then filtered down into the homes and hearts of ordinary Americans. They required a new understanding, a new paradigm.

Lincoln did not fully grasp this, at least not right away. His first major address to the


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