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Lessons of History

In case you missed it, yesterday afternoon we posted this story about Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman which deserves an additional mention.

The setting is New Year's Eve, 1862, one of the darkest moments of the Civil War, and President Lincoln is up late penning a final version of the Emancipation Proclamation to be issued the following day. Tell me the following passage does not strike you as it did me:

The fireworks thundered all night. Then, as the sun rose, the streets around the White House began to fill with citizens who had come from far and wide to greet Mr. Lincoln at the president's customary New Year's levee.

Lincoln did not drink, and in any case this was not a night for him to celebrate. Military dispatches from Murfreesboro, Tenn., were appalling. On December 31 the Rebels, led by General Braxton Bragg, had attacked William Starke Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland. "Our entire line suffered terribly this morning," said telegraph superintendent Colonel Anson Stager's telegram. "Four regiments of regulars lost half of their men, and all of their commanding officers....

Majors Rosengarten and Ward were killed, Generals Stanley, Rousseau and Palmer were wounded....The Fifteenth Wisconsin lost seven captains. General Negley's artillery is still mowing the rebels in the center." In his third dispatch Stager admitted, "The greatest carnage of the war has occurred." Soon the president, and the country, would learn that there were 24,000 casualties at Murfreesboro. Two weeks earlier at Fredericksburg, 18,000 soldiers had been killed and wounded, and the president had said, "If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it."

Walt Whitman's brother George, a first lieutenant under Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside's command, survived the Union disaster at Fredericksburg in December, advancing over a narrow turf the Rebels had so perfectly enfiladed that one gunner remarked, "A chicken could not live in that field when we opened on it." Walt called Burnside's charge "the most complete piece of mismanagement perhaps ever known in the earth's wars." Public confidence in the commander in chief collapsed, and his cabinet was at loggerheads, so that he was able to hold it together only by the most ingenious diplomacy.

"I am heartsick," lamented Senator William Pitt Fessendon of Maine, "when I think of the mismanagement of our army....There never was such a shambling, half-and-half set of incapables collected in one government before or since the world began." New York lawyer George Templeton Strong wrote in his famous diary: "Even Lincoln himself has gone down at last. Nobody believes in him any more."

One would hope this might serve as a lesson to those who bleat day in and day out with such certainty about the incompentence of this administration and its management of the war. History is long, and far more patient and circumspect than many of those who live in it. It will take a generation or more before we can get a proper view and make proper judgments about this President and his policies.