In my novel, THE ONES THEY LEFT BEHIND, there is a moment when the three travelers Harriman Hickenlooper, Lucinda McWhorter and Rufus Dewes stand before Abraham Lincoln’s crypt in Springfield, Illinois.
“I still can’t believe they killed him,” Rufus said.
“I can,” Harriman answered.
“Why? I thought you loved Mr. Lincoln.”
“I do. Love cuts both ways.”
“I don’t understand.”
Harriman sat down on a bench near the crypt, staring at the other gravestones, listening to the sound of a caretaker’s broom sweeping on stone. “It was Easter time. The fourth spring of the war. We’d beaten Joe Johnston’s army at Bentonville and were chasing what was left of it around North Carolina…We knew it was over. Everyone felt this immense thrill…We entered this town, and like most towns, there was no one in sight when we arrived. We were relaxed, almost kidding around. Bugler sounded assembly and we formed up in the town square. Ridley read an announcement…President Lincoln had been shot and died on Good Friday. We couldn’t believe it…The boys were ready to torch the town right then. Ridley reminded us we had strict orders to maintain security and act like soldiers. He said General Sherman had ordered black bunting hung from every window in every town we came through…Lucas and me got to this one house and knocked on the door…At first, no one answered. I knew someone was home, I’d seen a face peer out from a window curtain. ‘Open the goddamned door, you dirty Rebel’. I was about to beat the door down when it swung open. The woman standing there didn’t look right.”
“What do you mean, din’t look right?” Lucinda asked.
“I mean, I could see she was young by how smooth and unwrinkled her skin was. But her hair was white, white as snow. She wore a black dress, like she’d been to a funeral…Lucas told her we had orders to hang this stuff from her balcony as a sign of mourning for our president.
“And she answered, ‘he is not my president.’
“I swear to God, I almost shot her right then. I told her we had orders to burn her house down if she didn’t comply.”
“This is an outrage,’ she said.
“Killing President Lincoln just when this war’s done, that’s the outrage!” I shouted.
“Her face turned the color of her hair. She grabbed my sleeve. ‘I have given a husband and a brother for our cause. Please, I beseech you. I will do as you order, but please leave my house. Leave me my dignity.’
I realized she had not heard the news yet. ‘Hurry it up. We’ll be watching.’
“The woman walked out onto her balcony overlooking the street. Some of the boys were yelling at her and catcalling. The woman ignored them and carefully wrapped the bunting around the iron railing, then wrapped it around her neck. She mounted the railing, looked me in the eye, and without missing a beat, jumped off. Just. Like. That…’
“Lord have mercy”, the caretaker mumbled. He crossed himself and moved off.
Lucinda held her hand over her mouth.
Rufus wrote in his diary.
“She loved her cause as deeply as I loved mine,” Harriman said. “And she gave her life for it, even after it was lost. It cuts both ways.”
It is arguably as great a tragedy as the catastrophic war that preceded it that Lincoln never lived to put into actions the great healing and reconciliation he so longed for, so eloquently articulated in his Second Inaugural Address barely a month before his death, and that the country needed so desperately. “…Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged…”
See if his closing words do not powerfully resonate now. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
In other words, to build A House United.