Last month was the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a virtually unanimous choice as one of America’s greatest presidents, and in many historians’ eyes at the very top of the list.
With the benefit of a century and a half of hindsight, an overview of Lincoln’s place in history often falls into this neatly-arranged “happily-ever-after” sequence: Elected as the first Republican president, a party that was formed for the purpose of abolishing slavery in the United States, Lincoln’s occupancy of the White House immediately caused numerous Southern states to secede, forming the Confederate States of America. Refusing to allow the Union to crumble Lincoln dispatched the U.S. armed forces to compel the Confederacy to relinquish its newly-declared independence and return to the fold. Lincoln freed the slaves via the Emancipation Proclamation, and led the Union to victory over the Confederacy, which ended the Civil War and saw the South return to the United States. Shortly thereafter, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, on Good Friday (both Eastern and Western) 1865.
What many fail to realize, however, is how widely unpopular and despised Lincoln was during this presidency. Much of the South hated him, of course, because abolition of slavery meant financial ruin – not the to the slaveowners, of whom there were few, but to the vast majority of Southerners, non-slaveowners who depended on the wealthy’s patronage to keep their businesses afloat. Once abolition forced plantation owners to cut corners, they stopped spending and the entire Southern economy was crushed.
But they hated Lincoln in the North, too. Because much like the Iraq War of 2003 didn’t go according to plan, neither did the American Civil War. With loss after loss on the battlefield, Northerners cried out: “why are we doing this? If the South wants to secede, just lead them alone!”
In fact, one might think the following quotes are attributable to President George W. Bush after the Iraq War. But, in fact, they were directed toward Lincoln: “How can you defend him? He is the worst president ever! He tricked us into supporting a senseless war that has claimed the lives of thousands of our troops. He is a war criminal who should be impeached and convicted. He failed at every career before becoming president, and now those failures continue. History will confirm what a terrible president he is.”
One of those tumultuous periods was in Fredericksburg, VA in 1862, where Lincoln, president and Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. military, visited beleaguered troops. In an effort to bolster morale, he read to them a poem by the eminent Fitz-Greene Halleck, titled “Marco Bozzaris,” an ode to the Greek war hero Markos Botsaris.
Botsaris was Captain of the Souliotes during Greece’s War of Independence.
A leader of great tenacity and courage, Botsaris rose in the ranks and was instrumental in the defense of Missolonghi (1822-23). Botsaris led the attack on Karpenisi against the Ottomans in August, 1823 – but was killed that night in the battle. The Souliotes, only a fraction of the Ottoman troops, won the battle, and the Greeks in general, were greatly inspired by Botsaris’ heroism.
As presidential historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin wrote, Lincoln was drawn to the poem because of Halleck’s vision of a lasting greatness. It was a greatness the president envisioned for his own country. The Union troops, too, suffered many casualties at Fredericksburg, but like the Greeks, resiliently overcame adversity and ultimately won the war.
The poem’s full text appears below:
By Fitz-Green Halleck (1826)
At midnight, in his guarded tent,
The Turk was dreaming of the hour
When Greece, her knee in suppliance bent,
Should tremble at his power;
In dreams, through camp and court he bore
The trophies of a conqueror;
In dreams, his song of triumph heard;
Then wore his monarch’s signet-ring;
Then press’d that monarch’s throne — a king:
As wild his thoughts, and gay of wing,
As Eden’s garden bird.
At midnight, in the forest shades,
Bozzaris ranged his Suliote band,
True as the steel of their tried blades,
Heroes in heart and hand.
There had the Persian’s thousands stood,
There had the glad earth drunk their blood,
On old Platæa’s day;
And now there breathed that haunted air,
The sons of sires who conquer’d there,
With arm to strike, and soul to dare,
As quick, as far, as they.
An hour pass’d on: the Turk awoke:
That bright dream was his at last.
He woke to hear his sentries shriek,
“To arms! they come! the Greek! the Greek!”
He woke, to die ‘midst flame and smoke,
And shout, and groan, and sabre-stroke,
And death-shots falling thick and fast
As lightnings from the mountain cloud,
And head, with voice as trumpet loud,
Bozzaris cheer his band:
“Strike! — till the last arm’d foe expires;
Strike! — for your altars and your fires;
Strike! — for the green graves of your sires;
God, and your native land!”
They fought like brave men, long and well;
They piled that ground with Moslem slain;
They conquer’d; — but Bozzaris fell,
Bleeding at every vein.
His few surviving comrades saw
His smile when rang their loud hurrah,
And the red field was won;
Then saw in death his eyelids close,
Calmly as to a night’s repose,–
Like flowers at set of sun.
Come to the bridal chamber, Death,
Come to the mother’s, when she feels,
For the first time, her first born’s breath;
Come, when the blessed seals
That close the pestilence are broke,
And crowded cities wail its stroke:
Come in consumption’s ghastly form,
The earthquake shock, the ocean storm;
Come when the heart beats high and warm
With banquet song and dance and wine;
And thou art terrible: — the tear,
The groan, the knell, the pall, the bier,
And all we know, or dream, or fear,
Of agony, are thine.
But to the hero, when his sword
Has won the battle for the free,
Thy voice sounds like a prophet’s word,
And in its hollow tones are heard
The thanks of millions yet to be.
Come when his task of fame is wrought;
Come, with her laurel-leaf, blood-bought;
Come in her crowning hour,–and then
Thy sunken eye’s unearthly light
To him is welcome as the sight
Of sky and stars to prison’d men;
Thy grasp is welcome as the hand
Of brother in a foreign land;
Thy summons welcome as the cry
That told the Indian isles were nigh
To the world-seeking Genoese,
When the land-wind, from woods of palm,
And orange groves, and field of balm,
Blew o’er the Haytien seas.
Bozzaris! with the storied brave
Greece nurtured in her glory’s time,
Rest thee: there is no prouder grave,
Even in her own proud clime.
She wore no funeral weeds for thee,
Nor bade the dark hearse wave its plume,
Like torn branch from death’s leafless tree,
In sorrow’s pomp and pageantry,
The heartless luxury of the tomb;
But she remembers thee as one
Long loved, and for a season gone;
For thee her poet’s lyre is wreathed,
Her marble wrought, her music-breathed;
For thee she rings the birthday bells;
Of thee her babes’ first lisping tells;
For thine her evening prayer is said,
At palace couch and cottage bed:
Her soldier, closing with the foe,
Gives for thy sake a deadlier blow;
His plighted maiden, when she fears
For him, the joy of her young years,
Thinks of thy fate, and checks her tears;
And she, the mother of thy boys,
Though in her eye and faded cheek
Is read the grief she will not speak,
The memory of her buried joys,–
And even she who gave thee birth
Will, by their pilgrim-circled hearth,
Talk of thy doom without a sigh;
For thou art Freedom’s now, and Fame’s,
One of the few, th’ immortal names
That were not born to die.
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