July 14, 2021

Lincoln and America on the Verge, Then and Now

By Stuart Mitchner

It all comes down to the map shown on this page. As soon as I saw it, I was hooked. I’d say it was love at first sight, no, that’s too easy, but what else can you call it when your first view of a book is an inviting gateway that rouses something deep inside you, something truly special, something at the heart of who you are and how you see the world? All the better when the book is about a perilous journey undertaken by the one figure in American history who loomed above the miasma of fact sheets and data-to-be-memorized.

My first encounter with the Liberty Bell, at 12, was not particularly memorable. A few days later when my father took me to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., I was moved, fascinated, and remain haunted to this day by the photographs of the gallows and the hooded bodies of the four conspirators executed on July 7, 1865. As you read Ted Widmer’s Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington (Simon & Schuster paperback 2020), the real-life equivalent of Chekhov’s metaphorical gun is always waiting in the wings, the gun you know will be fired in the last act by an actor who played the crookback king in Shakespeare’s Richard III, one of the numerous plays Lincoln could quote by heart.

Thanks to the map, I was drawn into Widmer’s book before I read a word. There’s a hint of a board game quest in the way the colorful lay-out puts Lincoln’s Odyssey in play, from Springfield to the goal of Washington and inauguration, a route twisted in tangents because of assassination conspiracies brewing in Baltimore, thus Poe’s raven perched on the letter B.

And thanks to my search for an online image of the map, I landed on the April 2020 CUNY Book Beat website and a quote by Ted Widmer that communicates an enthusiasm that can be felt throughout the narrative: “It’s the story of thirteen days in the life of Lincoln. He’s been elected president, the South is seceding, Washington is falling apart and somehow out of all of this chaos he’s got to get on a train, go two thousand miles, meet millions of Americans and try to avoid an assassination attempt. . . .  It’s not just to save the North, it’s to save the entire country, the United States of America, the most successful democracy on earth . . . It felt to me like something out of Greek mythology or any of the old epics from a lot of different civilizations where someone has to fight against terrible odds, almost as if the gods are against him to get to his destination to fulfill his quest. It felt bigger than a story out of American history to me.”

A Key Chapter

Finally, my quest to discover the person who “drew a beautiful map for the endpapers” — Connie Brown of Redstone Studios — led me to Widmer’s “Acknowledgments,” actually a key “chapter” of Lincoln on the Verge that I’d overlooked my first time through. You feel you’re at the true beginning of the author’s journey when you read this sentence: “Around the age of ten, I went on an overnight train trip to Washington, and never quite got over the excitement of pulling into Union Station at dawn, with the dome of the Capitol visible just beyond, reflecting the sunrise.”

“A Strange Day of Driving”

Another glimpse of the book’s back story tucked into the “Acknowledgments” is Widmer’s account of what happened on September 11, 2001, when his Philadelphia to Seattle flight was diverted to “an airstrip that felt too small” somewhere in the Midwest. As “the full horror of that morning’s events became clear,” and with all flights canceled, Widmer rented a car for the journey back to Philadelphia. “What followed was “a strange day of driving” back toward his point of origin, slowly, “while trying to take in the news.” Somewhere in southern Indiana, he decided to leave the main highway to drive on smaller roads that took him “through the centers of towns, instead of around them.” Although this did nothing to “lessen the impact of the news, it was cathartic to go through one real place after another.” He saw each town as “a shrine to democracy, the ideal that felt so vulnerable that day.” It “reassured” him to see people “gathered in town squares, talking to each other,” evidence that this “older America was alive and well” despite the attacks.

It was this drive back to the origin of an unfinished journey that drew Widmer to the story of Lincoln’s historic 13-day train ride to Washington during “a very different crisis,” an “odyssey through the heartland” that “reassured Americans that they possessed a great strength if they trusted each other.” 

The Counting

When Widmer recalled his boyhood sighting of the dome of the Capitol “reflecting the sunrise,” I couldn’t help flashing on an image of the MAGA mob storming the ramparts and streaming under the Capitol Rotunda, “the ark of the republic,” where on April 18, 1865, “Lincoln’s coffin was placed on an elevated bier below the dome he had seen through to completion.”

Readers of Lincoln on the Verge still unsettled by the events of January 6, 2021, may feel a grim déjà vu in Widmer’s account of what almost happened on February 13, 1861, when the votes were being counted to validate Lincoln’s election. For some time, “this had appeared to many as the most vulnerable moment of the transition. Unionists had become more alert since the alarming developments of late December, when it seemed as if the Capitol might be occupied by pro-Southern militias.” Widmer quotes a Baltimore Sun report claiming it was “not impossible” that the Capitol would be blown up — police were checking the basement every night for bombs.” Another account “described a city seething with anger, made more so by an influx of truculent outsiders spoiling for a fight. From eight in the morning people were trying to enter the Capitol to cause trouble during the vote.”

Commanding General of the U.S. Army Winfield Scott “posted armed guards at the building’s entrances and refused entry to any but members of Congress and authorized visitors carrying passes.” As the armed guards stood their ground against people trying to force their way into the building, “the amount of profanity launched forth against them,” according to one observer, “would have completely annihilated them if words could kill.” 

One of most memorable quotes in a book brimming with them  comes from the “indomitable” Scott, who warned that anyone who tried to interfere with the count of the electoral vote “should be lashed to the muzzle of a twelve-pounder and fired out the window of the Capitol.”

The parallels with January 6 are particularly striking. As Widmer puts it, “The counting of the vote offered a drama of Shakespearean intensity, with the country’s fate hanging in the balance.” Once again, the vice president was the man of the moment. Although John Breckinridge “was ardently in favor of slavery and would resign to serve the Confederacy as its secretary of war,” he “performed his duty and duly certified Lincoln’s election.”

Lincoln in New Jersey

In the post-election speech he gave before the New Jersey Senate on the eve of Washington’s birthday, February 21, 1861, Lincoln “spoke about himself as well and allowed more light to shine into the dark spaces of his childhood than was the norm. He told the suddenly hushed room that ‘in the earliest days of being able to read,’ he had found ‘a small book’: the famous biography of Washington by Mason Weems. At the dawn on his literacy, this book had registered deeply. He remembered all the stories Weems told, but Washington’s heroism ‘here at Trenton’ stood out in particular.’ “

After mentioning the “crossing of the river; the contest with the Hessians; the great hardships endured at that time,” Lincoln spoke directly to the legislators:  “…and you all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others. I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that these men struggled for.”

Imagine any president before or after Lincoln speaking in those terms to a gallery of politicians, grown men, senators. It’s as if he’s looking to reach the boy inside each man, the inner 10-year-old — not unlike the one who “never got over the excitement of pulling into Union Station at dawn, with the dome of the Capitol visible just beyond, reflecting the sunrise.”

Special thanks to Connie Brown for making available her map of “Lincoln’s Odyssey.”