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This Week in History: “My Captain Lies, Fallen Cold and Dead”


Abraham Lincoln’s violent assassination just as the Civil War was coming to an end — so movingly captured in Walt Whitman’s iconic poem — still haunts us today as we recognize that the “fearful trip” of our ship of state is not yet done.

In the waning hours of Good Friday, April 14, 1865, during a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C., a Confederate sympathizer’s bullet pierced the skull of President Abraham Lincoln. Less than 10 hours later, on April 15, the 56-year-old President breathed his last, not even a week after the Confederate Army suddenly surrendered, marking the end of the War Between the States.

The great American poet and essayist Walt Whitman would later movingly capture the duality of this bittersweet moment with these famous metaphorical words: “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won…But O Heart! Heart! Heart! O the bleeding drops of blood, Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.”

The ship represented the still fledgling American republic and the fearful trip the bloody conflagration we know today as the Civil War, the deadliest of all American conflicts. The history books record that the trip officially came to an end on April 9, 1865, Palm Sunday, though there would be continued skirmishes in the months yet to come.

Still, there was great reason for hope and celebration that day when those in the White House and other leaders in Washington D.C. heard that Confederate General Robert E. Lee had given up and surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in the little town of Appomattox, Virginia. The war had ended just three days shy of the fourth anniversary of the war’s opening salvo at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. 

“The ship has weather’d every rack.”

Whitman’s words acknowledge that the Union had been preserved despite the tossing and tumultuous passage of time. Homes and cities had been destroyed and/or burned. Thousands of dead soldiers in makeshift graves were scattered across the battlefields and cow pastures. Some of their remains were returned to their homeplaces; other families never knew the circumstances surrounding their loved one’s demise.

Millions of the next generation’s boys and girls would reach adulthood without a father. Many a Union or Confederate veteran’s remaining years were permanently altered by physical disabilities or “living on the edge,” whereby a sound, smell, or sight could immediately transform him to the site of combat. Unable to fully rid a combatant’s mind of memories, families were constantly vigilant and silently wondering when the next journey to Gettysburg, Antietam, or Vicksburg would commence. 

Whitman’s reflections about that sought-after prize — a nation reunited — came with an enormous price. Unfortunately, the fearful trip was not done.

Less than a week after Lee’s surrender, President Lincoln and his wife, both in joyous spirits, decided to attend a play called “Our American Cousin” at nearby Ford’s Theatre. As the crowd pitched into uproarious laughter during one of the comedy’s pivotal scenes, Confederate sympathizer and famous actor John Wilkes Booth crept into Lincoln’s box above the stage, pointed a revolver at the back of the President’s head, and pulled the trigger.

To the horror of the crowd, as the First Lady began screaming and the President slumped forward, Booth leapt to the stage, breaking his leg in the process but still managing to flee out the stage door, where a fellow co-conspirator was holding his getaway horse.

Lincoln, still alive but unconscious, was carried to a nearby home where it became clear that he would not survive. At 7:22 the next morning, Lincoln died. Only 41 days had passed since he had given his second inaugural address following an overwhelming electoral victory (22 states to 3).

After a 12-day manhunt, John Wilkes Booth was killed. Four others, including a woman, Mary Surratt, were found guilty of conspiring with Booth and others to assassinate Lincoln, as well as for the attempted murder of Secretary of State William Seward, who survived. They were hanged within three months of Lincoln’s death.

Easter Sunday was not celebrated as a typical Resurrection Sunday in 1865. A telegram was sent by the Secretary of War to telegraph offices on Saturday morning, stating, “Abraham Lincoln died this morning at 22 minutes after seven.”

Ironically, the telegraph had been a recent innovation demanded by war. Lincoln had recognized the need for “lightning messages” to keep abreast of his military’s progress. Thousands of miles of cable were installed for quicker communication. Lincoln used the telegraph office close to the White House to communicate with officers overseeing battles. The office was a frequent destination, so much so, in fact, that a well-worn path, void of grass, revealed the President’s regularity.

Many Civil War experts have acknowledged that the telegraph, along with the railroads, was instrumental in the Union winning the war. The lines of communication and transport in the North were far more prevalent than those in the South, so Confederate President Jefferson Davis was at a significant disadvantage when it came to commanding his own military.

From austere Illinois roots, born in a primitive log cabin, Abraham Lincoln was elected to the House of Representatives in 1846. During his time as a congressman, Lincoln was befriended by the only President in American history to return to the lower house, John Quincy Adams. Adams had been elected to the House of Representatives in 1831 and became quite determined to rid this nation of slavery, saying, “Slavery is the great and foul stain upon the North American Union.”

For 17 years, Adams, a devout Christian, argued for emancipation. His battle for the rights of all men was observed by Lincoln during their time together. Adams collapsed and died suddenly during a House session inside the Capitol in February 1848, and Lincoln was one of his pallbearers. Lincoln served just one term in the House, but later returned to Washington as the President who would forever be known for emancipating the slaves.

Grieving mourners lined the railways that carried Abraham Lincoln from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. The train departed on April 21 and arrived in Illinois on May 3. The train never exceeded 20 miles per hour and stopped for processions in the capitals of several cities, as lines formed to pay their last respects. Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Illinois were destinations as the locomotive returned the President’s body to its final resting place. For Lincoln, his “fearful trip” was finally done. 

Whitman penned “O Captain! My Captain!” near the end of 1865. He had never met Lincoln, but admired him greatly, noting, among other descriptors, the President’s “unpretentious dignity” and “idiomatic Western genius.” The two shared a love for the Union and both viewed slavery as a great moral evil. Whitman had spent the war years in D.C. hospitals caring for wounded soldiers but was at his home in New York with his family having breakfast when he heard about the assassination. He later noted that no one ate that morning and “not a word was spoken” the rest of the day.

Whitman would write four elegies in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, but “O Captain! My Captain!” was by far the most impactful. Its enduring words described ultimate triumph in war followed by the gut-wrenching tragedy of assassination and the nation’s unbearable sense of loss and collective grief.

“O the bleeding drops of red, Where on the decks my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.”

Prognosticators may share their opinions of what might have been America’s future had Lincoln not been assassinated. The terms of surrender at Appomattox had been generous and gracious, providing pardons and sustenance to the defeated officers and soldiers, along with the freedom to take their horses and go home to restart their lives.

Such magnanimity towards those who had only hours before been mortal enemies was in keeping with Lincoln’s inaugural admonition to “let us judge not, lest we be judged,” and that “with malice towards none” the country should seek “to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Such a forgiving and redemptive spirit would fall away with Lincoln’s assassination. It was almost immediately replaced by a wave of distrust, fear, and the need for retribution, leading to a harsher Reconstruction era than might have been.

Could Lincoln have reunified and restored the nation in a way that healed the divisions, avoided the bitterness that prevailed in the South, and prevented the violence of the KKK and the creation of Jim Crow laws? No one, save God, can truly know. While we can speculate and try to imagine the future that might have been, with all its myriad of possible storylines, history cannot be changed.

The Civil War is over. But America’s fearful trip continues. More than 150 years after nearly 700,000 Americans died fighting each other, skirmishes still abound. Some believe that a similar war will be fought again. Others demand reparations. A significant number of strategically placed individuals promote a perverted form of history that never occurred.

Attitudes and actions regarding the discussion and/or removal of public displays that define critical moments in American history are troubling. Should statues of Confederate generals or one-time slaveholders be taken down, destroyed, and memory-holed? Should history be altered by those who believe that the only way to examine history is by viewing it through a lens of oppressor versus oppressed and rewriting it accordingly?

The optics will always be skewed if we fail to focus on the accuracy of history’s players and circumstances. Opinions based on raw emotion do not provide a good understanding of our past. We must tell the story, warts and all, but we must also take into account the humanity of our fellow man, our own faults, and the commandment to forgive as we ourselves have been forgiven. No one who has ever lived on this earth has ever been 100 percent good — except Jesus.

All of us who know the Word of God understand that God’s people can assist this nation through the division that is now being fomented by a significant number of public figures and private funders.

One day our own journey will be over. But for Christians, our journey is led by a different Captain, one who also bled and died — but who did not remain in the grave. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the true Captain of our souls, arose as a final payment for everyone who repents and believes.

One day, the prize sought — that of eternal life and peace through Jesus Christ — will finally be won. Until then, Christians must “weather ev’ry rack” by standing against man’s innate slavery to sin and recognizing our own role as soldiers in the spiritual battle, “the great contest,” that continues.

That means caring for the vulnerable; speaking Gospel truth to the lost; practicing forgiveness and seeking restoration; fervently praying for peace while recognizing, as Lincoln did, that “The Almighty has His own purposes” in bringing judgment; and continuing to fight for human freedom and human dignity. Only then will we have a chance at fulfilling Lincoln’s great hope to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and achieve “a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

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