Newspapers recently rang the alarm that the date on a pardon issued by Lincoln was altered in the archives to the date of his assassination in order to make it seem as if one of the President’s final decisions was an act of mercy. This has triggered renewed interest in the question of Lincoln as a commander in chief who was willing to forgive rather than condemn.
But there is a far better window into Lincoln’s heart than one-sentence pardons, and that is the letter of condolence he wrote on December 23, 1862. At the time, Lincoln was suffering. The journalist Noah Brooks saw him at church in November and described the President: “his hair is grizzled, his gait more stooping, his countenance sallow, and there is a sunken, deathly look about the large, cavernous eyes, which is saddening to those who see there the marks of care and anxiety such as no President of the United States has ever before known.”
And yet, notwithstanding the misery and gloom he felt so deeply, Lincoln managed to write one of the most hopeful condolence letters ever composed, a letter that in many ways reveals more about his temperament than almost anything else. Lieutenant Colonel William McCullough of the 4th Illinois Cavalry had been killed in battle, and Lincoln wrote McCullough’s surviving daughter Fanny: “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now.”
About the author: Louis P. Masur chairs the American Studies program at Trinity College (CT) and is the author of The Civil War: A Concise History (2011).
Image Credit: Timothy H. O’Sullivan, A Harvest of Death (Gettysburg, 1863). Courtesy of Library of Congress.