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How should a President honor the war dead?
February/March 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 1
Woodrow Wilson visited the graves of Truman’s comrades-in-arms at Suresnes Cemetery in France and invoked that visit over and over again during his last, desperate train tour of the country, trying to get the American people to endorse the League of Nations, which he believed would make their sacrifice worthwhile. Speaking in Pueblo, Colorado, on September 25, 1919, the ailing President, his head throbbing so badly that he saw double, told a cheering crowd: “I wish some men in public life who are now opposing the settlement for which these men died could visit such a spot as that.… I wish that they could feel the moral obligation that rests upon us not to go back on those boys, but to see the thing through to the end and make good their redemption of the world.”
Just as Washington set the first precedent in the matter, the last word should go, as usual, to Lincoln.
When the pain in his head kept him from sleeping that night, Edith Wilson and the President’s physician, Dr. Gary Grayson, had the train stopped in the middle of the prairie and walked the stricken Chief Executive down a lonely road, in the hope that some gentle exercise might help. There—in a moment that no modern spin doctor would believe—they encountered a wounded veteran, sitting on a front porch, and Wilson impulsively decided to climb over a fence and talk with the young man and his family for a while. The encounter appeared to ease the President’s pain, but by the following evening the tour had been canceled, and shortly thereafter Wilson suffered the massive stroke that left him a virtual invalid for the rest of his time in the White House.
In more recent years, as the idea of “closure” has taken hold in American society, our Presidents have chosen to honor the dead in collective ceremonies. President George H. W. Bush attended such commemorations for the dead from both the first Iraq war and the explosion of a gun turret aboard the USS Iowa . President Reagan attended similar ceremonies on four different occasions, including ones for the Marine dead in Grenada and Lebanon and the victims of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. This seems like a good compromise between a President’s obligations to the living and the dead, and it is likely that George W. Bush and future Presidents will honor the victims of the war on terror in the same way.
Yet just as Washington set the first precedent in this matter, the last word should go, as usual, to Lincoln. At the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, of course, he gave us the greatest funeral oration since Pericles. But more than two years earlier, during the first weeks of the war, Lincoln had attended the funeral of a close friend. It seemed to truly bring home to him the likely cost of the conflict the country had embarked upon. Elmer Ellsworth had been a clerk in Lincoln’s Springfield law office for two years before moving to New York City and becoming the colonel of his own volunteer regiment of Fire Zouaves. Soon after the outbreak of war he was shot by an Alexandria, Virginia, tavern keeper for having cut down a Confederate flag after a minor engagement there. He was just 24.
After attending his funeral, on May 25, 1861, Lincoln paid homage to his young friend, writing to his parents, “In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall.”
The tribute is characteristic of Lincoln: frank, unassuming, considerate, succinct, and brimming with real sorrow. He does not presume too much knowledge of Ellsworth: “My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet… it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit.” He seeks above all to console the Ellsworths, telling them that “I never heard him utter a profane, or an intemperate word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents.” His closing says all that can be said: “In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child. May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power. Sincerely your friend in a common affliction—A. Lincoln.”
No President could better honor the dead.