Monday, February 2, 2009
Lincoln the genius
(Above: Elmer Ellsworth)
For years, some academics have been debating about who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. They argue that a country bumpkin from Stratford-on-Avon never could have penned such sophisticated works.
But I think Shakespeare wrote them himself. Genius trumps everything.
The best example is the man whose 200th birthday we're going to celebrate next Thursday, Abraham Lincoln. (Also born on that same day: Charles Darwin. It was the greatest twofer until 1965, when the Chicago Bears drafted Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers in the same round.)
At least Shakespeare made it through high school. But Lincoln had less than a year of formal schooling. Yet he wrote the greatest speeches in American history, including his masterpiece, the Second Inaugural.
I don't mean the most famous passage - " with malice toward none, with charity for all" - as much as the hair-raising language that precedes it:
"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
It took a lot of guts to tell a country that had just lost 650,000 young men that it deserved to suffer because of the sin of slavery.
But Lincoln knew personally what suffering was like. He lost Elmer Ellsworth. In 1858, at the age of 20, Ellsworth was hired as a clerk in Lincoln's law office.
In no time flat, he moved in with the family and became Lincoln’s surrogate son.
In 1860, with war on the horizon, Ellsworth quit his job and went from city to city, organizing regiments of soldiers.
The day after Ellsworth and his soldiers arrived in Washington, Lincoln invited him to lunch at the White House. Standing on the front porch, they could see a Confederate flag flying atop the Marshall House hotel in Alexandria, just over the river on the Virginia side.
Indignant, Ellsworth took a squad of soldiers to tear it down. They went up to the roof, removed the rebel banner and started back down the stairs.
Suddenly, the hotel’s proprietor, James W. Jackson, stepped out of the shadows and emptied a shotgun into Ellsworth's chest, killing him instantly. Jackson, in turn, was killed by the enraged soldiers.
The whole North went into mourning. Public buildings in every city were draped in black crepe. Hymns and dirges were composed in Ellsworth’s honor.
Lincoln gave him a state funeral in the East Room, sobbing as he stood over the open coffin, tears falling from his cheeks onto the body.
For years, I tried to find out where the Marshall House used to stand. And the last time I visited Washington, I finally found it. There's a Holiday Inn on the site now, but on the wall is this plaque:
"The Marshall House stood upon this site, and within this building on the early morning of May 24, 1861, James W. Jackson was killed by federal soldiers while defending his property and personal rights, as stated in the verdict of the coroner’s jury. He was the first martyr to the cause of Southern independence. The justice of history does not permit his name to be forgotten. Erected by the sons and daughters of Confederate soldiers."
Ellsworth wasn’t even mentioned! As it turns out, he and Jackson were the same age - only 24. Ellsworth was one of the first deaths on the Northern side. Jackson was one of the first on the Southern side.
And there were 650,000 more to come.
Reach Martin Snapp at firstname.lastname@example.org.