Abraham Lincoln might not have believed in ghosts and spirits, or even known of the ancient legend of vampires (as a filmmaker vividly suggested recently). But long before he presided over the bloodiest war in American history—which cost the lives of more than 700,000 young men in their prime—Lincoln was indisputably a melancholy, mystical man who interpreted nightmares as premonitions of tragedy. Ultimately he even dreamed of his own assassination just before his death.
Only days before his murder, Lincoln chillingly pronounced the “Duncan is in his grave” soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to “entertain” fellow passengers on a riverboat heading home to Washington from the battlefront. When he failed to arouse them sufficiently, according to one eyewitness, he read it yet again. Then, on the very night before his assassination, the president dreamed of an “indescribable vessel” sailing toward an “indefinite shore”—a vision he told friends he always had before some battle or other earth-shattering event. Now that Lee had surrendered to Grant, he wondered, what might the recurrent dream possibly signify?
Can death ever be far from a wartime president’s mind? The Lincoln whose uplifting public words inspired Americans to preserve their democracy and destroy slavery also shared private words of bereavement with widows and orphaned children. In his day, he wrote morbid poetry exploring death and madness, endorsed publication of eulogy in verse to his own dead child, “Willie,” and revealed warnings, portents and visions to his closest associates and family, many of whom later recalled his words in authoritative and disturbing detail. He pondered the idea of an afterlife. Though he may have done so chiefly to placate his troubled wife—especially after the loss of Willie in February 1862, the second of his four sons to die of illness—this beleaguered president at least cursorily embraced spiritualism, attending séances organized to reach to the beyond to reconnect the unhappy couple with their loved and lost. And in a way his most famous speech, at Gettysburg in November 1863, was not only a hymn to a “new birth of freedom” but an ode to death—a eulogy for “those who here gave their lives, that the nation might live.”
Although most of this neglected chapter of the Lincoln canon is not unknown to historians and biographers, it is traditionally recalled within the massive totality of his collected works. It has seldom been isolated and analyzed as a separate category of writing worthy of attention. It should be, because in our own hour of fiery trial, as new enemies challenge democratic ideals, as Lincoln knew they would, a brave expression acknowledging the inevitability of sacrifice might be just what is needed to steel modern America to new realities.
We live in another age of portents, signs, omens and threats. Our 24-hour news-cyclists see to it that every warning to America is endlessly repeated and analyzed to the point of exhaustion. In such a culture, perhaps we can hardly dream that a modern president would offer his people the brutally frank admission, as Lincoln did at his Second Inaugural, that a costly war might well have to continue “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”—much less the ominous justification Lincoln culled from the Old Testament: “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.” Was Lincoln too morbid and too fearful of death and sacrifice? Or did he possess a frank honesty about such matters sadly lacking in today’s leaders of both political parties?
Today, chief executives are obliged to telephone the families of fallen warriors who die in their country’s service. Lincoln did more; he sat down to write thoughtful, now classic presidential condolence letters—to the parents of Ephraim Elmer Ellsworth, to Fanny McCullough and Lydia Bixby, to name the three most famous classics of the genre. Has anyone ever understood grief more perceptively?
And yet Lincoln was increasingly portrayed during his presidency not as a consoler, but as a butcher. One finds evidence of such attacks in critical editorials and merciless caricatures and lampoons of the day, not to mention his own response to the burden of sending so many young men to their deaths. Yet his increasingly determined effort to destroy as many enemy lives as needed to save the Union and extinguish slavery was demonstrated in such unambiguous laments as “Breath alone kills no Rebels,” and military instructions such as his order to Ulysses Grant that he “chew and choke” enemy forces until they yielded.
The complex story of Lincoln’s obsession with, and understanding of, heroic death was recognized by no stranger an observer than the author of Dracula—the very tale that helped inspire the bloody film Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Haunter. Bram Stoker saw Lincoln’s death as a “worthy crown,” and found the idea of a hero resting in “an honoured grave… sweet”—for in his view Lincoln had risen too high to return to the life of a mere mortal after his presidency. But the writer who went on to frighten generations of readers also saw something of punishment in Lincoln’s ultimate sacrifice.
Stoker, of all people, offered an unsettling vision of Lincoln’s martyrdom that few have recognized or repeated, but which is surprisingly in keeping with the culture of death through which our 16th president lived and led. As Stoker put it: “Perhaps it was that this death had another lesson still and a sterner one: that he who would lift, howsoever worthily, the scepter of Man’s dominion over Man should know the many cares and perils of its sway, as it is wise in the economy of things that childhood should, now and again, stand face to face with the Mystery of the Open Grave.” Can modern leaders and their modern constituencies stand face to face with the ultimate sacrifice with the same degree of valor that Lincoln did? In an era in which “malice toward none” and “charity for all” have been tragically cast to the sidelines by friends and enemies alike, time alone will tell.
Historian Harold Holzer’s latest book is Lincoln and the Power of the Press (Simon & Schuster, 2014).
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.