Concert at Washington. The President of the United States and his lady are to be there. I have reserved seats for them in the first row. The Secretary of State, Mr. Seward, accompanies them. Mrs. Lincoln has a very ordinary countenance. Lincoln is remarkably ugly, but has an intelligent air, and his eyes have a remarkable expression of goodness and mildness. After an encore I played my fantasia, The Union, in the midst of great enthusiasm.
Thus Louis Moreau Gottschalk, writing on March 24, 1864. The country’s first real crossover composer, the New Orleans-born Gottschalk was a fervent Union man. He was on a boat off Mexico and heading for California when he heard of the assassination in April 1865 from a steamer captain who came on board to tell Gottschalk and his fellow travelers not only that the Civil War had ended, but that the president had been killed:
We do not know the details of the horrible outrage — the name only of the assassin is mentioned — Wilkes Booth. I remember having seen him play a year ago in Cleveland. I was struck at the time with the beauty of his features, and at the same time by a sinister expression of his countenance. I would even say that he had something deadly in his look. A literary lady among my friends who knew him told me that he had as much natural talent for the stage as his brother Edwin, but that his violent and fantastic character would not permit him to polish the natural brutality of his manners any more than to restrain the fury of his acting within the ordained limits of his art.
The next day, the ship’s passengers gathered to remember the fallen president by voting on resolutions that then were presided over by a Supreme Court justice who apparently happened to be on board (Stephen Field, 1816-1899):
Where now are those frivolous judgments on the man whom we are weeping for today? His ugliness, his awkwardness, his jokes, with which we reproached him: all have disappeared in presence of the majesty of death. His greatness, his honesty, the purity of that great heart which beats no longer, rise up today, and in their resplendent radiancy transfigure him whom we called the “common rail-splitter.” O Eternal Power of the true and beautiful! Yesterday his detractors were ridiculing his large hands without gloves, his large feet, his bluntness; today this type we found grotesque appears to us on the threshold of immortality, and we understand by the universality of our grief what future generations will see in him.
These are excerpts from Gottschalk’s valuable memoir, Notes of a Pianist, which tells us a lot about what the life of a traveling musician was like at the time. He’s also a sharp-eyed reporter, giving us good detail about the things he sees in language that’s vivid and immediate.
(A pianist named Richard Alston plays The Union in this clip I found on YouTube:)
It’s a voice I found myself wanting to hear today on the bicentennial day of Lincoln’s birth. He’s a hard man to really know amid all the worship that has followed him since his momentous presidency of only four years. Had he lived as long as the man who shared his exact birthday, Charles Darwin, he would have lived to 1882, and thus a few years past the ivention of the phonograph, and perhaps we would have a snippet of his voice to listen to.
I’ve thought a lot about Lincoln over the years, and what strikes me today is that he is one of the singular examples of the single-man view of history. Had he not existed, or come to the political stage just when he did, it’s very unlikely the country would have remained intact, and it’s further likely that slavery would have lasted as long as it did in Brazil, where it hung on into the 1880s.
In addition, there’s little question in my mind that had Lincoln not gone to Ford’s Theatre, and had he survived to carry out his apparent plan of different strategies of renewed Unionship for each of the Confederate states, I doubt Jim Crow would have taken root the way it did after the fraudulent election of 1876, which doomed African-Americans to second-class status for the next 90 years. Four days before his death, his announcement that he favored giving the vote to “very intelligent” black men and in addition those who had fought for the Union was the thing that set off John Wilkes Booth.
And it took until 1965 for a right Lincoln proposed 100 years earlier to be guaranteed by the law. I think that shows how bold Lincoln was planning to be; if it doesn’t seem like much now, in 1865 it was a thunderbolt.
But many other people have written more eloquently about Lincoln, and I only wanted to add a word or two by bringing up Gottschalk’s memoir and by saying that Abraham Lincoln was the only real genius ever to occupy the White House, and I’m including Thomas Jefferson when I say that. Lincoln is unique: not just a politician who was decades ahead of his time, but a writer of extraordinary power, a craftsman who belongs on the small shelf of canonical American writers. Like most of our greatest historical figures, there’s no end to the man, no end to the interest he provokes, no getting around the essential miracle of his providential arrival on the scene.
I also wanted to mention something briefly about Lincoln and music. He doesn’t appear to have been particularly musical, but he responded to the music of words. I read somewhere that he was fond of the old Irish song Oft in the Stilly Night, and we have this newspaper account of what he said the day after Appomattox:
I propose closing up this interview by the band performing a particular number which I will name. Before this is done, however, I wish to mention one or two little circumstances connected with it. I have always thought Dixie one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. [Applause.] I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he have it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize. [Laughter and applause.] I now request the band to favor me with its performance.
Here’s the Federal City Brass Band from YouTube, doing The Bonnie Blue Flag, Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, Dixie and Battle Hymn of the Republic.