As April 15 approaches, thoughts on Lincoln, Whitman, and sacrificial death

Guest post by Michael C. C. Adams

As I write, the temperatures in the lower midwest that I call home are below Antarctica’s. This is Lincoln country, where he lived and worked until leaving for Washington. And here he returned in death. Much has been written about the assassination, from maudlin verses to conspiracy theories. But just one piece, by Walt Whitman, truly sustains. It is not “O Captain! My Captain!” with its predictable allusion to Moses dying in sight of the promised land. No, it is “When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloom’d,still engaging because it reflects the uncertainty of expectation, asking if good can come from John Wilkes Booth’s act or the greater butchery of war.

The poet wishes rebirth to spring from patriots’ deaths, a nation reborn, just as the lilac will return after the dead of winter: “a varied and ample land, the South and the North in the light.” But “the black murk” of Lincoln’s death returns, dark and light vying in the poet’s mind. So today, in the cold, I yearn for the lilac’s return and an end to partisan divides, but winter and political bickering will continue perennial.

The concept of shedding blood to earn redemption, as in Lincoln’s death, underlies Christianity. The idea of God sacrificing his son to save humanity hypnotized Victorians. Bloodshed seemed the antidote to greed and avarice generated by capitalism’s unprecedented wealth. In England, Alfred Lord Tennyson saw the Crimean War (1853–1856) as cleansing corruption: in “Maud” (1854) he cheered fighting ending “a peace that was full of wrongs and shames.” That same year, he celebrated as a supreme act of self-sacrifice a blunder destroying the Light Cavalry Brigade. The soldiers’ courage had a sublimity not found in the bleak counting houses of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, also published in 1854.

In America, Whitman sought rejuvenation through civil war. He heard drums and bugles sounding through houses across the land, calling all to arms. Alas, when war entered America’s homes, it did so devastatingly. By 1864, Whitman’s America was a vast hospital, and by 1865 an enormous graveyard. The war proved too awful, vicious, confused, to be America’s epic. In Lilacs, Whitman could not forget “battle corpses, myriads of them,” nor “the living that remain’d and suffered.” The nature of Lincoln’s death also defied transcendent symbolism: shot in the back of the head by an assassin, a cruel and degrading execution technique used by policemen in authoritarian regimes.

Whitman’s hope for rejuvenation waned further in the rapacious, vulgar Gilded Age. In Democratic Vistas, he denounced increasing materialism, writing that “society in these States is canker’d, crude,” and charging that “the depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed but infinitely greater.” Inevitably, when in 1876 George Armstrong Custer and most of the 7th Cavalry died unexpectedly on the Little Bighorn, Whitman and other pundits welcomed a new sacrificial atonement. The New York Herald embraced the soldiers’ “duty and valor,” predicting Custer “will be remembered as long as the charge of the Light Brigade. . . .”

Artists scrambled to create heroic battle art. John Mulvany cast Custer in knightly pose, with flowing hair and unsheathed sword (factually, hair was cropped for campaigning and sabers were shelved), surrounded by stern troopers dying hard. Actually, we don’t know the point at which Custer died, and huddled clustering betrays panic, not stern heroism—disastrous bunching as terrified men fled collapsing skirmish lines. Yet the picture captivated Whitman, inspiring him to sing of epic renewed. Custer, “with erect head, pressing ever in front, bearing a bright sword in thy hand,” makes the ultimate blood sacrifice—“Thou yieldest up thyself.”

A scant decade after Whitman found the Civil War too bloody, cruel, and sordid to be the material of transcendence, he used a needless slaughter precipitated by a reckless field commander to grasp at a questionable saga of sacrifice. This deep ran the conviction that blood spilled in war atones for sin.


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