Whitman's evocative sketches in his private journal of Lincoln, the president, have a haunting stroke today, as we see Lincoln riding down streets of our own city. America then was at with itself and Lincoln was stalked by the possibility of failure .
AUGUST 12, 1863 -- I see the president almost every day, as I happen to live where he passes to or from his lodgings out of town. He never sleeps at the White House during the hot season, but has quarters at a healthy location some three miles north of the city, the Soldiers' home, a United States military establishment.
I saw him this morning about 8 1/2 coming in to business, riding on Vermont avenue, near L street. He always has a company of 24 or 30 cavaly, with sabres drawn and held upright over their shoulders. They say this guard was against his personal wish, but he let his counselors have their way. The party makes no great show in uniform or horses.
Mr. Lincoln on the saddle generally rides a good-sized, easy-going gray horse, is dress'd, in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, &c., as the commonest man. A lieutenant, with yellow straps, rides at his left, and following behind, two by two, come the cavalry men, in their yellow-striped jackets. They are generally going at a slow trot, as that is the pace set them by the one they wait upon. The sabres and accoutrements clank, and the entirely unornamental cortege as it trots toward Lafayette square arouses no sensation, only some curious stranger stops and gazes.
I see very plainly Abraham Lincoln's dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression. We have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones.
Sometimes the president goes and comes in an open barouche. The cavalry always accompany him, with drawn sabres. Often I notice as he goes out evenings -- and sometimes in the morning, when he returns early -- he turns off and halts at the large and handsome residence of the Secretary of War, on K street, and holds conference there. If in his barouche, I can see from my window he does not alight, but sits in his vehicle, and Mr. Stanton comes out to attend him. Sometimes one of his sons, a boy of 10 or 12, accompanies him, riding at his right on a pony.
Ealier in the summer I occasionally saw the president and his wife, toward the latter part of the afternoon, out in a barouche, on a pleasure ride through the city.
Mrs. Lincoln was dress'd in complete black, with a long crape veil. The equipage is of the plainest kind, only two horses, and they nothing extra. They pass'd me once very colse, and I saw the president in the face fully, as they were moving slowly, and his look, though abstracted, happen'd to be directed steadily in my eye. He bow'd and smiled, but far beneath his smile I noticed well the exprission I have alluded to. None of the artists of pictures has caught the deep, though subtle and indirect expression of this man's face. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.
Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address one of the finest orations of the English language, but it was not a day of great celebration for the president .
MARCH 4 -- The President very quietly rode down to the capitol in his own carriage, by himself, on a sharp trot, about noon, either because he wish'd to be on hand to sign bills, or to get rid of marching in line with the absurd procession, the muslin temple of liberty, and pasteboard monitor.
I saw him on his return, at 3 o'clock, after the performance was over. He was in his plain two-horse barouche, and look'd evry much worn and tired; the lines, indeed, of vast responsibilities, intricate questions, and demands of life and death, cut deeper than ever upon his dark brown face; yet all the old goodness, tenderness, sadness, and canny shrewdness, underneath the furrows. (I never see that man without feeling that he is one to become personally attach'd to, for his combination of purest, heartiest tenderness, and native western form of manliness.) By his side sat his little boy, of 10 years.
There were no soldiers, only a lot of civilians on horseback, with huge yellow scarfs over their shoulders, riding around the carriage. (At the inauguration four years ago, he rode down and back again surrounded by a dense mass of arm'd cavalrymen eight deep, with drawn sabres; and there were sharp-shooters station'd at every corner on the route.) TI ought to make mention of the colsing levee of Saturday night last. Never before was such a compact jam in front of the White House -- all the grounds fill'd, and away out to the spacious sidewalks. I was there, as I took a notion to go -- was in the rush inside with the crowd -- surged along the passage-ways, the blue and other rooms, and through the great east room. Crowds of country people, some very funny. Fine music from the Marina band, off in a side place. I saw Mr. Lincoln, drest all in black, with white kid gloves and a claw-hammer coat, receiving, as in duty bound, shaking hands, looking very disconsolate, and as if he would give anything to be somewhere else.
A minth later, Lincoln was dead, murdered at the theater on Tenth Street. Walt Whitman wrote these notes to himself, published years later in "Specimen Days ."
APRIL 16, '65 -- I find in my notes of the time, this passage on the death of Abraham Lincoln:
He leaves for America's history and biography, so far, not only its most dramatic reminiscence -- he leaves, in my opinion, the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality. Not but that he had faults, and show'd them in the presidency; but honesty, goodness, shrewdness, conscience, and (a new virtue, unknpwn to other lands, and hardly yet really known here, but the foundation and tie of all, as the future will grandly develop,) UNIONISM, in its truest and amplest sence, form'd the hard-pan of his character. These he seal'd with his life.
The tragic aplendor of his death, purging, illuminating all, throws round his form, his head, an aureole that will remain and will grow brighter through time, while history lives, and love of country lasts. By many has this Union been help'd; but if one name, one man, must be pick'd out, he, most of all, is the conservator of it, to the future.
He was assassinated -- but the Union is not assassinated -- ca ira ! One falls, and another falls. The soldier drops, sinks like a weve -- but the ranks of the ocean eternally press on. Death does its work, obliterates a hundred, a thousand -- president, general, captain, private -- but the Nation is immortal.
For readers who want a full portrait of Walt Whitman's Washington, the complete text of "Specimen Days," his notes and ruminations on war-torn America, is available in "The Portable Walt Whitman," published by Viking .