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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Walt Whitman and President Lincoln

Walt Whitman was a poet who first came to Washington during the Civil War looking for his injured brother. He stayed and continued to care for wounded soldiers at area hospitals. He lived in a house at the intersection of Vermont Avenue and L Street and often witnessed President Lincoln riding by on his way to or from the cottage. Below is an excerpt from his journal, written on August 12, 1863.

I see the President almost every day, as I happen to live where he passes to or from his lodgings out of town. He never sleeps at the White House during the hot season, but has quarters at a healthy location some three miles north of the city, the Soldier's Home, a United States military establishment. I saw him this morning about 8:30, coming in to business, riding on Vermont Avenue, near L Street. He always has a company of twenty-five or thirty cavalry, with sabers drawn and held upright over their shoulders. They say this guard was against his personal wish, but he lets his counselors have their way. The party makes no great show in uniform or horses. Mr. Lincoln on the saddle generally rides a good-sized, easy-going gray horse, is dressed in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, etc., as the commonest man. A lieutenant, with yellow straps, rides at his left, and following behind, two by two, come the cavalry men, in their yellow-striped jackets. They are generally going at a slow trot, as that is the pace set them by the one they wait upon. The sabers and accoutrements clank, and the entirely unornamental cortège [the group following and attending to some important person] as it trots toward Lafayette Square arouses no sensation, only some curious stranger stops and gazes.

I see very plainly ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression. We have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones. Sometimes the President goes and comes in an open barouche [horse-drawn carriage]. The cavalry always accompany him, with drawn sabers. Often I notice as he goes out evenings - and sometimes in the morning, when he returns early - he turns off and halts at the large and handsome residence of the Secretary of War, on K Street, and holds conference there. If in his barouche, I can see from my window he does not alight, but sits in his vehicle, and Mr. Stanton comes out to attend him. Sometimes one of his sons, a boy of ten or twelve, accompanies him, riding at his right on a pony. Earlier in the summer I occasionally saw the President and his wife, toward the latter part of the afternoon, out in a barouche, on a pleasure ride through the city. Mrs. Lincoln was dressed in complete black, with a long crape veil. The equipage [a carriage and all that attends it, such as horses and servants] is of the plainest kind, only two horses, and they nothing extra. They passed me once very close, and I saw the President fully, as they were moving slowly, and his look, though abstracted, happened to be directed steadily in my eye. He bowed and smiled, but far below his smile I noticed well the expression I have alluded to. None of the artists or pictures has caught the deep, though subtle and indirect, expression of this man's face. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Locate Whitman’s home on Map 1b. Based on that and the reading, do you think Whitman would have been very close as Lincoln drove or rode past?

2. Using your own words, how does Walt Whitman describe President Lincoln?

3. Why do you think Whitman would say that Lincoln had a “deep, latent sadness in his expression?” Can you find other examples in the writing that support this statement?

4. How does Whitman’s description of President Lincoln and his traveling companions compare to the travel of today’s presidents? Why was Lincoln accompanied by soldiers with their sabers drawn? How have transportation methods changed? Are there any similarities?

5. Whitman greatly admired Lincoln. Read over the poem, “Oh, Captain, My Captain” that Whitman wrote after Lincoln’s death. After reading this poem, describe Whitman’s feelings about Lincoln. How do you think these feelings might have affected his description in the journal entry above?

Reading 2 is quoted from Walt Whitman, “Abraham Lincoln,” No. 45 (August 12, 1863), Specimen Days in Prose Works (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1892; http://www.bartleby.com/229/1045.html).

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