O Captain! My Captain

Lincoln Memorial,


“If I am killed I can die but once, but to live in constant dread is to die over and over again.”
President Abraham Lincoln

O Captain! My Captain

by Walt Whitman

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

O captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;

Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Of the countless tributes written to President Lincoln following his death, one of the most moving is Walt Whitman’s poem O Captain, My Captain.   Whitman had been devastated by the war, right from its very beginning.  Whitman’s poetry at its best, arose from his keen observation and appreciation of his fellow citizens and human beings, and he found the savagery of the war among countrymen unimaginable. 
We have enshrined Lincoln as a perfect leader, so great was his contribution and his sacrifice, but we should remember that he himself understood that he was an imperfect man.  It is possible that it is only through his understanding of imperfection that he found the grace to proceed both in leading the Union through but also in elevating the moral compass of our nation to end slavery.  It is now up to all of us, the beneficiaries of that sacrifice and gift to determine a path forward to end racism.
I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me…
Abraham Lincoln, 1862.
Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, just 6 weeks prior to his assassination on April 15.  Here is his speech in its entirety, as there is no better way to summarize the history of the Civil War and to encompass the generosity of this man.  I believe this speech did as much to create the opportunity for a lasting peace as all the Union’s victories, as once Lincoln was dead, his words stood for his expectations of the path forward for both sides; to find a way forward in forgiveness and freedom.   At a time when we are becoming more and more divided, who will become the peacemakers of our generation?   Is it our responsibility as individuals more so than the government?  As divides and wars, even culture wars, are not created by politicians, they arise by men and women letting go of the ties that bind us all as citizens of the United States.

President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865


On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil-war. All dreaded it — all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war — seeking to dissole the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said f[our] three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.


Lincoln Is Dead

By George Moses Horton 
He is gone, the strong base of the nation,
    The dove to his covet has fled;
Ye heroes lament his privation,
    For Lincoln is dead.
He is gone down, the sun of the Union,
    Like Phoebus, that sets in the west;
The planet of peace and communion,
    Forever has gone to his rest.
He is gone down from a world of commotion,
    No equal succeeds in his stead;
His wonders extend with the ocean,
    Whose waves murmur, Lincoln is dead.
He is gone and can ne’er be forgotten,
    Whose great deeds eternal shall bloom;
When gold, pearls and diamonds are rotten,
    His deeds will break forth from the tomb.
He is gone out of glory to glory,
    A smile with the tear may be shed,
O, then let us tell the sweet story,
    Triumphantly, Lincoln is dead.

A Soldiers Thanksgiving

John C. Baxter to Abraham Lincoln, Friday, November 25, 1864

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation, October 3, 1863.

The Soldiers Thanksgiving

by John C. Baxter

Hurrah for the Turkeys !  Thanksgiving has come !
Hurrah for the Turkeys ! I’ae Turkey’s from home !
The nicely browned Turkeys they bring us good cheer;
Hurrah for the Turkeys, we welcome them here !

Our table, though humble, we’ll thankfully fill,
While home, with its loved ones, our bosoms shall thrill ;
We’ll join in the banquet they freely bestow,
Then onward to duty we’ll joyfully go.

We’re fighting for freedom, we’ll Jehovah will give.
The vict’ry we’re seeking ; the Union must live.
Her glorious banner ” in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the Free ,” not the home of the slave.

Hurrah for the President,  for Lincoln, the just,
Again he will guide us, and conquer we must !
Hurrah for our triumph, our country, our home !
Three cheers for the Union, the Turkeys have come !


As you sit down with your family this Thanksgiving Day, take a moment to understand that this holiday did not come about as a result of Pilgrims in the 1600’s, it is a religious holiday that came about during the Civil War.  That we have secularized it, and turned it into a triumph of capitalism and our consumption economy, would shock our ancestors who celebrated the true first Thanksgiving as we know it today. 

On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln, issued a proclamation that declared “the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” Lincoln had been encourage by the poet Sarah Hale in a letter she had sent to Lincoln that September in which she urged him to consider creating a “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.”   What is remarkable is not that Lincoln acted on Hale’s suggestion, but that he was aware of her letter and had read it at all, for Lincoln received between 250 to 500 pieces of mail each day during the war.  

A year later, the second Thanksgiving celebrations were planned well in advance for Union soldiers.   Lincoln received a letter on November 25, 1864 from John C. Baxter, with the poem above enclosed and a note informing Lincoln,  that “the enclosed lines have been sent by large quantities, in the boxes of Turkeys, to our brave boys at the Front. They were written by my good-wife at the request of a mother who has a noble son in the ranks battling for Freedom.”

Those turkeys would not reach all the men for whom they were intended.  The year 1864, the final full year of fighting, was the costliest of the entire war in terms of human life.   Between cholera, battle field casualties and malnutrition of soldiers confined in prisoner of war camps, more soldiers and civilians lost their lives than any other year of the conflict.  Given the grim circumstances, it is remarkable that thoughts of thanksgiving were shared with the troops.  I wonder if the beloved son of the Mother who had enclosed the poem returned to their home after the war was over?

It was widely known that Lincoln enjoyed poetry and so it was not uncommon for poems to be included in letters sent directly to the President.  Lincoln also wrote poetry.  Fortunately, he did write serious poetry, and not much of it has survived.   There is too great a contrast between the words of Lincoln the poet, and the words of Lincoln the President of the United States at a time when we were not united. 

This Thanksgiving, weary of the pandemic and the growing divide of partisanship in our politics, I will give some thought today for all that I am grateful.  I will give some thought to the importance of what we can only do united as a country and pray that despite the state of politics in the United States,that we remain united, so that we can as a nation, accomplish what lays ahead for this planet to solve the environmental challenges that threaten us all.  



To Rosa

By Abraham Lincoln

You are young, and I am older;
You are hopeful, I am not—
Enjoy life, ere it grow colder—
Pluck the roses ere they rot.

Teach your beau to heed the lay—
That sunshine soon is lost in shade—
That now’s as good as any day—
To take thee, Rosa, ere she fade

It Is Altogether Fitting and Proper

Gettysburg Cemetery

Never fear your enemies, fear your actions.

General George G. Meade


by Herman Melville  (1819-1891)

O Pride of the days in prime of the months
Now trebled in great renown,
When before the ark of our holy cause
Fell Dagon down-
Dagon foredoomed, who, armed and targed,
Never his impious heart enlarged
Beyond that hour; God walled his power,
And there the last invader charged.

He charged, and in that charge condensed
His all of hate and all of fire;
He sought to blast us in his scorn,
And wither us in his ire.
Before him went the shriek of shells-
Aerial screamings, taunts and yells;
Then the three waves in flashed advance
Surged, but were met, and back they set:
Pride was repelled by sterner pride,
And Right is a strong-hold yet.

Before our lines it seemed a beach
Which wild September gales have strown
With havoc on wreck, and dashed therewith
Pale crews unknown-
Men, arms, and steeds. The evening sun
Died on the face of each lifeless one,
And died along the winding marge of fight
And searching-parties lone.

Sloped on the hill the mounds were green,
Our centre held that place of graves,
And some still hold it in their swoon,
And over these a glory waves.
The warrior-monument, crashed in fight,
Shall soar transfigured in loftier light,
A meaning ampler bear;
Soldier and priest with hymn and prayer
Have laid the stone, and every bone
Shall rest in honor there.

In my opinion the greatest piece of poetry written during the Civil War is not generally thought of as poetry; it’s  President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, delivered on November 19, 1963.  Few people, even today, can not connect the opening words to Lincoln and the battle of Gettysburg, so famous and skillful is this short tribute.  But how many people would correctly place the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania?  The battle was fought over only three days,  July 1, 2 and 3 of 1863.  The two opposing generals knew each other well, both West Point graduates, General George G. Meade in 1835 and General Robert E. Lee in 1838.  I wonder how once proud classmates felt as they witnessed more than 51,000 soldiers under their opposing commands injured or killed, more than any other single battle in United States History?   To this day, Lee’s traitorous legacy remains a problem for West Point. 

Gettysburg was a turning point in the war for multiple reasons; it was the first time Union forces had defeated General Lee in a battle, with Confederate forces suffering the larger casualties over the three days,  significantly undermining Confederate resources from that point forward in the war. But possibly the biggest impact of the battle did not happen until 5 months later, President Lincoln’s address to dedicate the Union Cemetery.  His words provided an emotional rallying point for the North that would carry the Union all the way through his eventual assassination and eventual victory. 

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863

For Union families that lost loved one’s at the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln’s address came well after the news had reached them of their personal loss.  The poem below was written in honor of a soldier from Minnesota, killed at Gettysburg.  Philip Hamlin of the 1st Minnesota, who was killed on July 3rd, 1863. Hamlin’s family was notified of his death several weeks later by a letter from his close comrade, Sergeant James Wright.  In the letter,  Hamlin is described as “an earnest and consistent Christian, ” with religious and patriotic conviction.  Wright’s kind words of bravery in the face of death, comforted Hamlin’s loved ones.  The letter from Sergeant Wright was shared by his family with friends and neighbors and would became the inspiration for a poem written by the wife of Rev. Stephen D. Tandy, the pastor of the Methodist church where the Hamlin family worshiped. 

In Memory of Philip Rice Hamlin
Killed in Action, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 3, 1863

by Mrs. S. D. Tandy  (Canon Falls, MN – Upon hearing of Philip’s Death)

When our country called for succor,
Bidding home and friends farewell,
Fearing not to give his young life,
For his country loved so well,

He was noble in his actions,
Dutiful to parents dear,
Gentle, loving kind, forbearing,
Ah, how much they miss him here.

Where the battle raged the wildest,
In the thickest of the fight,
Fell he like a hero, bravely,
Proudly battling for the right.

Far away from home and kindred,
Loving Mother, Father dear,
Gentle Sister, youthful Brothers,
Ne’er again his voice shall hear.

Soon there came a white-winged missive,
Written by a friendly hand.
Fraught with words of tender solace
To that stricken family band.

“Tis a task to write this letter,
Painful news have I to tell,
On the second day of battle,
Sergeant Philip Hamlin fell.

From his bowed head I severed
One dark tress of waving hair.
Tore a bit from off his colors,
Folded them with reverent care.

‘Neath the shadow of the wildwood
There we made his lowly bed.
Left him there to rest unbroken
With the silent nameless dead.

Here’s the small but sacred token;
Well I know his Mother’s heart.
Will be cheered by this memento
Though from him she’s called to part.”

Death for Philip had no terrors.
He was strong in faith and love.
Hopeful, trusting, patient ever,
Living for his home above.

Father, Mother, all ye loved ones,
Though you meet on earth no more
Far from war and raging tumult,
Safe you’ll meet on Canaan’s shore.