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By William H. Benson
Columnist 

Abraham Lincoln's Farewell to Springfield

 

February 2, 2022 | View PDF

A favorite Lincoln biographer of mine is Carl Sandburg. In 1926, he published a two-volume work, Abraham Lincoln, The Prairie Years, and then in 1939, he published a four-volume work, Abraham Lincoln, The War Years. This latter work won Sandburg the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1940.

Although fellow historians have pointed out that Sandburg did a poor job citing his sources, his readers find his biography “exhaustively researched, and magnificently illuminating.” One reviewer called the six volumes, “The best written biography of Lincoln ever.” 

One reviewer cautioned though, “It is a dense read; don’t be in a hurry. You won’t be able to plow through it quickly anyway. It is slow food.”

In the final chapters of The Prairie Years, Sandburg covers in quick succession the grim details that Lincoln faced between November 6, 1860, the day his 180 electoral votes won him the election, and March 4, 1861, the day Chief Justice Roger Taney administered the oath of office to Lincoln. 

During those four months as President-elect, seven Southern states — South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas — seceded from the Union, because he opposed the extension of slavery into the western territories, and because he considered slavery immoral, wrong.

The first sentence in Sandburg’s chapter “The House Dividing,” he writes, “Lincoln’s election was a signal.” On February 8, 1861, the seceding Southern pro-slavery states formed their own provisional government, the Confederate States of America, with President, Congress, and Courts. 

Alas, people now spoke of war less as a possibility, and more as a surety, imminent, and inevitable.

No less hurtful was the hate-mail. Sandburg writes, “In the day’s mail [in Springfield], for Lincoln came letters cursing him for an ape and a baboon who had brought the country evil.

He was a buffoon and monster; an idiot; they prayed he would be flogged, burned, hanged, tortured.”

Lincoln spoke little of his plans, except to advise those in Washington that, “they must stand for no further spread of slavery. ‘On that point hold firm, as with a chain of steel,’ he counseled, and warned, ‘The tug has to come, & better now, than any time hereafter.’”

In the last chapter of The Prairie Years, entitled “I Bid You an Affectionate Farewell,” Sandburg describes Lincoln’s final days in Springfield. First, he visited his step-mother, Sarah Bush Lincoln.

“They held hands and talked. They talked without holding hands. Each looked into eyes thrust back in deep sockets. She was all of a mother to him. He was her boy more than any born to her. He gave her a photograph of her boy, a hungry picture of him standing, and wanting, wanting.”

People noticed a change in Lincoln. “He is letting his whiskers grow,” men were saying in January. 

Then, Sandburg writes, “Between seven and twelve o’clock on the night of February 6, there came to the Lincoln home several hundred ‘ladies and gentlemen.’ It was the Lincolns’ good-bye house party. The President-elect stood near the front door shaking hands, and nearby was Bob, and Mrs. Lincoln.”

On February 10, “he and Billy Herndon sat in their office for a long talk about their 16 years as law partners.” Lincoln had stuck with Herndon, even though the partner had a powerful thirst for alcohol. 

Then, it was the day. Sandburg writes,

“A cold drizzle of rain was falling February 11 when Lincoln and his party of 15 were to leave Springfield on the eight o’clock at the Great Western Railway station. He spoke slowly.

‘My friends—No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. 

‘I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.’”

At Lincoln’s inauguration on the steps of the Capitol’s east front, he said, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. 

“You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it.’ I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends.”

A month later, on April 12, a Civil War began when Southern forces bombed the Union’s Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina, forcing its surrender. Lincoln called up Union troops, as four more states seceded: Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Sandburg recognized that no President ever faced as dire a situation as did Lincoln, and he knew that Lincoln never returned alive to his beloved home town of Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln’s body though was returned there for burial after his assassination four years later, on April 15, 1865.

 

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