Six Months at the White House/LXIV

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"The Soldier's Home," writes a California lady,[1] who visited Mr. Lincoln there, "is a few miles out of Washington on the Maryland side. It is situated on a beautifully wooded hill, which you ascend by a winding path, shaded on both sides by wide-spread branches, forming a green arcade above you. When you reach the top you stand between two mansions, large, handsome, and substantial, but with nothing about them indicative of the character of either. That on your left is the Presidential country-house; that directly before you, the 'Rest' for soldiers who are too old for further service... The 'Home' only admitted soldiers of the regular army; but in the graveyard near at hand there are numberless graves--some without a spear of grass to hide their newness--that hold the bodies of volunteers.

"While we stood in the soft evening air, watching the faint trembling of the long tendrils of waving willow, and feeling the dewy coolness that was flung out by the old oaks above us, Mr. Lincoln joined us, and stood silent, too, taking in the scene.

"'How sleep the brave, who sink to rest
By all their country's wishes blest,'--

he said, softly.

"There was something so touching in the picture opened before us,--the nameless graves, the solemn quiet, the tender twilight air, but more particularly our own feminine disposition to be easily melted, I suppose,--that it made us cry as if we stood beside the tomb of our own dead, and gave point to the lines which he afterwards quoted:--

"'And women o'er the graves shall weep,
Where nameless heroes calmly sleep.'"

..."Around the 'Home' grows every variety of tree, particularly of the evergreen class. Their branches brushed into the carriage as we passed along, and left with us that pleasant, woody smell belonging to leaves. One of the ladies, catching a bit of green from one of these intruding branches, said it was cedar, and another thought it spruce.

"'Let me discourse on a theme I understand,' said the President. 'I know all about trees in light of being a backwoodsman. I'll show you the difference between spruce, pine, and cedar, and this shred of green, which is neither one nor the other, but a kind of illegitimate cypress.' He then proceeded to gather specimens of each, and explain the distinctive formation of foliage belonging to every species. 'Trees,' he said, 'are as deceptive in their likeness to one another as are certain classes of men, amongst whom none but a physiognomist's eye can detect dissimilar moral features until events have developed them. Do you know it would be a good thing if in all the schools proposed and carried out by the improvement of modern thinkers, we could have a school of events?'

"'A school of events?' repeated the lady he addressed.

"'Yes,' he continued, 'since it is only by that active development that character and ability can be tested. Understand me, I now mean men, not trees; they can be tried, and an analysis of their strength obtained less expensive to life and human interests than man's. What I say now is a mere whimsey, you know; but when I speak of a school of events, I mean one in which, before entering real life, students might pass through the mimic vicissitudes and situations that are necessary to bring out their powers and mark the calibre to which they are assigned. Thus, one could select from the graduates an invincible soldier, equal to any position, with no such word as fail; a martyr to Right, ready to give up life in the cause; a politician too cunning to be outwitted; and so on. These things have all to be tried, and their sometime failure creates confusion as well as disappointment. There is no more dangerous or expensive analysis than that which consists of trying a man.'

"'Do you think all men are tried?' was asked.

"'Scarcely,' said Mr. Lincoln, 'or so many would not fit their place so badly. Your friend, Mr. Beecher, being an eloquent man, explains this well in his quaint illustration of people out of their sphere,--the clerical faces he has met with in gay, rollicking life, and the natural wits and good brains that have by a freak dropped into ascetic robes.'

"'Some men seem able to do what they wish in any position, being equal to them all,' said some one.

"'Versatility,' replied the President, 'is an injurious possession, since it never can be greatness. It misleads you in your calculations from its very agreeability, and it inevitably disappoints you in any great trust from its want of depth. A versatile man, to be safe from execration, should never soar; mediocrity is sure of detection.'

"On our return to the city we had reached that street--I forget its name--crossing which you find yourself out of Maryland and in the District of Columbia. Wondering at this visible boundary that made certain laws and regulations apply to one side of a street that did not reach the other, I lost the conversation, till I found it consisted of a discursive review of General McClellan's character, in which I was directly appealed to to know if we had not at one time considered him the second Napoleon in California.

"I hastened to say that I had found, in travelling in the New England States, more fervent admirers of the Unready than I had ever known to expend speculative enthusiasm upon him among us.

"'So pleasant and scholarly a gentleman can never fail to secure personal friends,' said the President. 'In fact,' he continued, kindly,

'"Even his failings lean to virtue's side."

A keen sense of genius in another, and a reverence for it that forced expression, was out of place at Seven Oaks, as beautiful things sometimes will be. He was lost in admiration of General Lee, and filled with that feeling, forebore to conquer him. The quality that would prove noble generosity in a historian, does not fit the soldier. Another instance of the necessity for my suggestion being carried into effect,' he added, smiling.

"When in New York a few months afterwards, I heard the regular dinner-table conversation turn on the 'Nero who cracked jokes while Rome was burning,' and the hundred and one wicked things the McClellanites said of Mr. Lincoln, I recalled the gentle verdict I had heard, and acknowledged how bitterly a noble Christian gentleman may be belied. It was after McClellan's speech at West Point, and his admirers were wild with enthusiasm over the learning and classic taste it displayed. The word 'scholarly' rang from mouth to mouth in characterizing it,--the very word Mr. Lincoln had used months before in finding a merciful excuse for his inefficiency.

"There is one little incident connected with this visit to the Soldier's Home that remains with me as connected with my home here. I had always noticed that the bare mention of our California cemetery filled the minds of those who heard it with a solemn sense of awe and sorrow,--'Lone Mountain!' It seemed to rise before them out of the quiet sea, a vast mausoleum from the hand of God, wherein to lay the dead. I was not astonished, therefore, when Mr. Lincoln alluded to it in this way, and gave, in a few deep-toned words, a eulogy on one of its most honored dead, Colonel Baker. Having witnessed the impressive spectacle of that glorious soldier's funeral, I gave him the meagre outline one can convey in words, of something which, having been once seen, must remain a living picture in the memory forever. I tried to picture the solemn hush that lay like a pall on the spirit of the people while the grand procession wound its mournful length through the streets of the city out on that tear-stained road to the gate of the cemetery, where the body passed beneath the prophetic words of California's most eloquent soul, 'Hither in future ages they shall bring,' etc. When I spoke of 'Starr King,' I saw how strong a chord I had touched in the great appreciative heart I addressed; and giving a weak dilution of that wondrous draught of soul-lit eloquence, that funeral hymn uttered by the priest of God over the sacred ashes of the advocate and soldier of liberty, whose thrilling threnody seems yet to linger in the sighing wind that waves the grass upon the soil made sacred by the treasure it received that day, I felt strangely impressed as to the power and grandeur of that mind, whose thoughts, at second-hand and haltingly given from memory, could move and touch the soul of such a man as Abraham Lincoln as I saw it touched when he listened. It is the electric chain with which all genius and grandeur of soul whatsoever is bound,--the freemasonry by which spirit hails spirit, though unseen. Now they all three meet where it is not seeing through a glass darkly, but in the light of a perfect day."

Footnotes[edit]

  1. San Francisco Bulletin.