“Saying a Friendly Word to Each Wounded Man”

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The inspection we made of the hospitals, on the afternoon of April 8th, was to show us war scenes under a different aspect, and Mr. Lincoln in a light altogether new. In the most salubrious portion of the vast plains where the encampments were located a large area had been reserved for ambulances. These were organized according to a plan as simple as it was logical. Each army corps had its separate ambulance space. This consisted of a large rectangle of ground divided by open corridors placed at equal distances from one another. Between these corridors stood a row of tents or of frame huts, each of which was capable of containing about twenty wounded. One side of these corridors was given up to officers, the other to privates. At the centre of each rectangle of ground was located a pharmacy, a kitchen, and that which Americans consider as always essential – a post-office. Those who have visited one of these tents or of these frame huts have seen them all. A Bible and newspapers were to be found on nearly every bed. The Christian Commission had distributed in each tent Bible verses printed in large type, and these had been hung on the walls.

Our visit began with the hospitals of the Fifth Corps. Mr. Lincoln went from one bed to another, saying a friendly word to each wounded man, or at least giving him a handshake. It was principally the Fifth Corps’s mounted infantry which had been in battle under Sheridan during the preceding days ; it had fought incessantly from Petersburg to Burkesville, over a distance of more than a hundred miles, and the enemy’s fire had made cruel havoc in its ranks. The greater number of wounds were located in the abdominal regions, and were therefore of a serious character, and caused much suffering.

During these moments, when physical torture makes one nearly lose all self-control, the American displays a sort of stoicism which has nothing of affectation. A control, nearly absolute, over himself is the distinctive trait of his nature ; it manifests itself in all phases of his life – in the depth of the wilderness, as well as upon the field of battle. His life is an incessant struggle, and when he falls in that struggle in which his life is at stake, he will suffer without complaining, for by complaining he would deem that he is lowering himself. Strange men they are, whom many approach and cannot understand, but who explain to him who does understand them the true greatness of their land.
Following Mr. Lincoln in this long review of the wounded, we reached a bed on which lay a dying man ; he was a captain, aged twenty-four years, who had been noticed for his bravery. Two of his friends were near him ; one held his hand, while the other read a passage from the Bible in a low voice. Mr. Lincoln walked over to him and took hold of his other hand, which rested on the bed. We formed a circle around him, and every one of us remained silent. Presently the dying man half-opened his eyes ; a faint smile passed over his lips. It was then that his pulse ceased beating.

Our visit to the ambulances lasted over five hours. We inspected, with Mr. Lincoln, that of each corps. As we were visiting the wounded of the Ninth Corps, passing before the kitchen, one of the surgeons who accompanied us invited me to enter. In the midst of five or six servants stood a woman whose dress barely distinguished her from them, and who seemed to share the same labor they performed. On seeing her the surgeon went to her, spoke with marks of profound respect, and presented me. Soon after she left us a moment to give an order ; then the officer said to me : “ Miss G belongs to one of the wealthiest families of Massachusetts ; when the war broke out, she gave up all comforts of life in order to devote herself to the following of those regiments which New England sent over to join the army. Since then she has lived with us, and her occupation has been to tend the wounded.”

Just then Miss G came back, and when I expressed to her the particular admiration which that sort of heroism awakened in me, “There is nothing peculiar in that,” she answered. “You are not aware then, that nearly all our regiments are accompanied by women who share camp life in order to minister to the suffering soldiers. You would have found them in the Tennessee campaign, at the siege of Vicksburg, and as far as the Bed River, just as you see me at the Potomac encampments.” Before me was standing one of the most perfect types of New England womanhood. It was my first acquaintance with these women, whom I have often since had occasion to study ; women in whom it may be said that the Puritan flame lighted some two hundred and fifty years ago still continues burning ; who, in the performance of deeds most heroic, remain stiff and proud ; who sustain themselves by efforts of stoical fortitude, and not by the more tender feelings of charity ; who accomplish by a yearning of the mind what women of other countries would accomplish by a yearning of the heart ; who aspire to command admiration, rather than to awaken gratitude ; women, in short, whom the wounded must thank, but whom he cannot bless.

Finding Mr. Lincoln near by, I spoke to him of my encounter, and we returned together to the kitchen. Miss G- urged the President to enter into what she was pleased to call her room, and invited us to enter with him. It was a small room adjoining the kitchen, in which was a soldier’s bed, a table which stood on four rustic legs, and several tree-stumps in lieu of chairs.

While the conversation was in progress I noticed a book lying on a small table at the bedside. Finally I deciphered its name. It was a Bible. Its well-worn pages testified that it had been often read. Possibly Miss G sought in it, from preference, those texts where the Almighty is represented as marching along with the chosen people, mingling, so to speak, its cause with His own, and crushing down His enemies by acts of His omnipotence. She had doubtless seen in such descriptions a faithful reproduction of the American people, imagining that same God stretching out His protecting hand over the Federal armies, and, in such a religious view, she had derived a firmer conviction in the holiness of the Northern cause, and in its final triumph. She observed the sort of curiosity which the sight of that book stirred in me, and spoke of it to Mr. Lincoln. “That is not my only book,” she added ; “here is another I found in the pocket of a German soldier who died a few days ago.” We looked at the book. It, too, had been often read. The title was : “How to Make One’s Way in the World.” Strange subject for this poor German to meditate; he who, dreaming of wealth, perhaps of liberty, had come to Virginia to die!

It was in the midst of these scenes, so varied in their character, that Mr. Lincoln revealed himself to me. Amid the many incidents that filled these few days, I was able to study him at leisure ; a study easy enough to make, indeed, for Mr. Lincoln would have scorned that sort of art which consists in showing one’s self to a looker-on in a carefully-prepared light. At this stage of my narrative I wish to explain how I have understood him.

I have seen many attempts at portraits of Mr. Lincoln, many photographs ; neither his portraits nor his photographs have reproduced, or are likely ever to reproduce, the complete expression of his face ; still more will they fail in the reproduction of his mental physiognomy.

He was very tall, but his bearing was almost peculiar ; the habit of always carrying one shoulder higher than the other might at first sight make him seem slightly deformed. He had also a defect common to many Americans – his shoulders were too sloping for his height. But his arms were strong and his complexion sunburned, like that of a man who has spent his youth in the open air, exposed to all inclemencies of the weather and to all hardships of manual labor; his gestures were vigorous and supple, revealing great physical strength and an extraordinary energy for resisting privation and fatigue.

Nothing seemed to lend harmony to the decided lines of his face; yet his wide and high forehead, his gray-brown eyes sunken under thick eyebrows, and as though encircled by deep and dark wrinkles, his nose straight and pronounced, his lips at the same time thick and delicate, together with the furrows that ran across his cheeks and chin, formed an ensemble which, although strange, was certainly powerful. It denoted remarkable intelligence, great strength of penetration, tenacity of will, and elevated instincts.

His early life had left ineffaceable marks upon the former rail-splitter, and the powerful President of the United States made no efforts of bad taste to conceal what he had been under what he had become. That simplicity gave him perfect ease. To be sure, he had not the manners of the world, but he was so perfectly natural that it would have been impossible I shall not say to be surprised at his manners, but to notice them at all.

After a moment’s inspection, Mr. Lincoln left with you a sort of impression of vague and deep sadness. It is not too much to say that it was rare to converse with him a while without feeling something poignant. Every time I have endeavored to describe this impression, words, nay, the very ideas, have failed me. And, strange to say, Mr. Lincoln was quite humorous, although one could always detect a bit of irony in his humor. He would relate anecdotes, seeking always to bring the point out clearly. He willingly laughed either at what was being said to him, or at what he said himself. But all of a sudden he would retire within himself ; then he would close his eyes, and all his features would at once bespeak a kind of sadness as indescribable as it was deep. After a while, as though it were by an effort of his will, he would shake off this mysterious weight under which he seemed bowed ; his generous and open disposition would again reappear. In one evening I happened to count over twenty of these alternations and contrasts. Was this sadness caused by the warnings and threats in the midst of which Mr. Lincoln lived? by those letters which, soon after, were found carefully classified on his table under the general heading of “Assassination Letters?” I am inclined to think not. No one more than he possessed that confident audacity so common among Americans, and which cannot be termed courage, because it is not the result of determination.

Was it owing to the constant anxieties of his first years in office? to the civil war scenes cruelly disturbing the peaceful soul of this descendant of Quakers?

These questions remain unanswered for me, and will probably never be answered at all.

Quoted in Marquis de Chambrun, “Personal Recollections of Mr. Lincoln,” Scribner’s (1893), p. 30

On the Monday before the assassination, when the President was on his return from Richmond, he stopped at City Point. Calling,upon the head surgeon at that place, Mr. Lincoln told him that he wished to visit all the hospitals under his charge, and shake hands with every soldier. The surgeon asked if he knew what he was undertaking, there being five or six thousand soldiers at that place, and it would be quite a tax upon his strength to visit all the wards and shake hands with every soldier. Mr. Lincoln answered with a smile, he’ guessed he was equal to the task; at any rate he would try, and go as far as he could; he should never, probably, see the boys again, and he wanted them to know that he appreciated what they had done for their country.’ 4″ Finding it useless to try to dissuade him, the surgeon began his rounds with the President, who walked from bed to bed, extending his hand to all, saying a few words of sympathy to some, making kind inquiries of others, and welcomed by all with the heartiest cordiality. ” As they passed along, they came to a ward in which lay a Rebel who had been wounded and was a prisoner. As the tall figure of the kindly visitor appeared in sight he was recognized by the Rebel soldier, who, raising himself on his elbow in bed, watched Mr. Lincoln as he approached, and extending his hand exclaimed, while tears ran down his cheeks:’ Mr. Lincoln, I have long wanted to see you, to ask your forgiveness for ever raising my hand against the old flag.’ Mr. Lincoln was moved to tears. He heartily shook the hand of the repentant Rebel, and assured him of his good-will, and with a few words of kind advice passed on. ” After some hours the tour of the various hospitals was made, and Mr. Lincoln returned with the surgeon to his office. They had scarcely entered, however, when a messenger came saying that one ward had been omitted, and’ the boys’ wanted to see the President. The surgeon, who was thoroughly tired, and knew Mr. Lincoln must be, tried to dissuade him from going; but the good man said he must go back; he would not knowingly omit one,’ the boys’ would be so disappointed. So he went with the messenger, accompanied by the surgeon, and shook hands with the gratified soldiers, and then returned again to the office. “The surgeon expressed the fear that the President’s arm would be lamed with so much hand shaking, saying that it certainly must ache. Mr. Lincoln smiled, and saying something about his’strong muscles,’ stepped out at the open door, took up a very large, heavy axe which lay there by a log of wood, and chopped vigorously for a few moments, sending the chips flying in all directions; and then, pausing, he extended his right arm to its full length, holding the axe out horizontally, without its even quivering as he held it. Strong men who looked on – men accustomed to manual labor – could not hold the same axe in that position for a moment, Returning to the office, he took a glass of lemonade, for he would take no stronger beverage; and while he was within, the chips he had chopped were gathered up and safely cared for by a hospital steward, because they were’the chips that Father Abraham chopped.’ In a few hours more the beloved President was at home in Washington; in a few days more he had passed away, and a bereaved nation was in mourning.” LXXI. Mr. Lincoln returned from Richmond with a heart-full purpose to issue immediately a proclamation for a day of National Thanksgiving. “Babylon ” had fallen, and with his own eyes, as from another- Pisgah, he had looked over into the promised land of Peace, – a land which, like his great prototype, his feet were not to tread! 

–Six months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln. The story of a picture. Page 288  By F. B. Carpenter.

    Such distractions could not forestall the afternoon’s grim task. Lincoln visited injured soldiers at City Point, moving “from one bed to another,” the marquis recalled, “saying a friendly word to each wounded man, or at least giving him a handshake.” At one bed, he held the hand of a twenty-four-year-old captain who had been cited for bravery. “The dying man half-opened his eyes; a faint smile passed over his lips. It was then that his pulse ceased beating.” Lincoln remained among the wounded for five hours and returned to the steamer depleted. “There has been war enough,” he said when the marquis inquired about troubles with France over Mexico, “during my second term there will be no more fighting.”

Years later, Chambrun remained intrigued by Lincoln’s temperament. On first impression, he “left with you with a sort of impression of vague and deep sadness.” Yet he “was quite humorous,” often telling hilarious stories and laughing uproariously. “But all of a sudden he would retire within himself; then he would close his eyes, and all his features would at once bespeak a kind of sadness as indescribable as it was deep. After a while, as though it were by an effort of his will, he would shake off this mysterious weight under which he seemed bowed; his generous and open disposition would again reappear.”

Lincoln’s bodyguard, William Crook, believed he understood something of the shifting moods that mystified the French aristocrat. He had observed that Lincoln seemed to absorb the horrors of the war into himself. In the course of the two-week trip, Crook had witnessed Lincoln’s “agony when the thunder of the cannon told him that men were being cut down like grass.” He had seen the anguish on the president’s face when he came within “sight of the poor, torn bodies of the dead and dying on the field of Petersburg.” He discerned his “painful sympathy with the forlorn rebel prisoners,” and his profound distress at “the revelation of the devastation of a noble people in ruined Richmond.” In each instance, Lincoln had internalized the pain of those around him-the wounded soldiers, the captured prisoners, the defeated Southerners. Little wonder that he was overwhelmed at times by a profound sadness that even his own resilient temperament could not dispel.

visited injured soldiers…“no more fighting”: Chambrun, “Personal Recollections of Mr. Lincoln,” Scribner’s (1893), pp. 30, 33–34. By Doris Kearns Goodwin,“Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”,Goodwin-717-489-25,Goodwin-717-489-30

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