“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”
750,000 soldiers died during the Civil War. 500,000 men died from their wounds or from disease. 250,000 died violent battlefield deaths. And then, with the war over, there was one more. The man who only a month earlier had called for malice toward none and charity for all, died a final, violent death.
Lincoln’s assassination had an immediate and profound effect on the country. As word spread, stillness fell over the country. Jubilation over the end of the war gave way to somber reflection and deep silence. Even people who opposed Lincoln or who distained what he represented had a sense that something truly terrible had happened. In a way the outpouring of grief was surprising. A country confronting the reality of 750,000 dead soldiers and an additional 750,000 wounded or missing might have been forgiven for looking upon this tragedy with sad resignation as simply the final violent chapter in an unprecedentedly violent war. Instead, it profoundly touched the nation’s heart.
In Brooklyn, Walt Whitman and his mother received the news: “The day of the murder we heard the news very early in the morning. Mother prepared breakfast—and other meals afterward—as usual; but not a mouthful was eaten all day by either of us. Little was said.” Whitman knew the price of war firsthand having volunteered as a nurse in a Washington hospital. But he’d also become an ardent Lincoln supporter. Disgusted with the corrupt politics of mid-century America, Whitman had longed for a “Redeemer President” and he found one in Abraham Lincoln. Almost immediately after hearing of the assassination, he began work on what would become his most popular work, the anguished, O Captain! My Captain! and the elegiac, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.
It’s in this second poem that Whitman transforms Lincoln into more than a political victim of war. Here he becomes a unifying symbol of all the dead and the focal point of a nation’s grief. His public death lifts individual and isolated families from their black-draped homes and homesteads into a community devoted to remembrance. Whitman explains that it’s important to remember because life goes on. To those who are gone, death doesn’t matter because, “They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not, The living remain’d and suffer’d.” Yet despite that suffering, ships sail, fields are harvested, city streets throb and in, “the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with its meals and minutia of daily usages.” We must remember or the sacrifice was in vain.
As time and generations slip by, we remember less and less. The sacred death Whitman wrote of has metastasized into Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies. Forgetting that our country was preserved at a horrifying price is bad enough, but when forgetting turns to caricature it’s time to take stock. It’s 150 years since the Civil War ended and Lincoln was assassinated. The colors have faded. Our memories are dim. On this anniversary, spare a moment to remember and then to, “mourn with ever-returning spring.” —Ebert