The Journey begins...

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The National Park Service is sponsoring programming that will commemorate the 150 anniversary of President-elect Abraham Lincoln's trip from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, DC, on February 11-23, 2011.

Friday, April 8, 2011

New York, New York

Day Ten - February 20, 2011
New York, NY

The only program today was at General Grant National Memorial (Grant’s Tomb). Again today, I was feeling under the weather and didn’t leave the hotel. Fritz, Tim, and Spirit went to the site from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm. They did informal interpretation for about 200 people during the three hours.

Fritz, Tim, and Spirit ate two meals at the South Houston Restaurant in New York City. While looking for the restaurant, a man ran out from a building along the way and he wanted a photograph with “Abraham Lincoln” (this happens a lot). The first time they went to the restaurant, Tim and Spirit wore NPS uniforms and Fritz wore his living history outfit as Lincoln. Someone asked Tim if he was a real park ranger. Before the lunch was over, several people wanted to get photos with Lincoln. The other restaurant guests were very warm and friendly. Tim, Spirit, and Fritz returned to the same restaurant for supper. This time, our team was in regular street clothes—and they were recognized by some of the same restaurant staff. In New York City, as elsewhere, our team has been greeted and treated very kindly.

While in New York City in 1861, Lincoln spoke to supporters at the Astor House in New York. He also met with a variety of Republican supporters during his visit to the city. And in a tangible link to the nation’s founding, Lincoln talked with 94-year-old Joshua Dewey. Mr. Dewey had cast a ballot for president every four years—beginning with George Washington, who first took office in 1789.

During Lincoln’s visit to New York City, he was greeted by large, but more subdued crowds. Even though Lincoln carried New York State, he didn’t win a majority of votes in New York City. The city financially profited from the cotton trade and had maintained a close relationship with wealthy Southern planters. In fact, Mayor Fernando Wood had even suggested to the New York City Council that city should secede from the Union and become a “free” city to maintain its economic relationship with the South.

Mr. Lincoln met Mayor Wood during a reception at City Hall. The mayor greeted Lincoln from behind a writing desk that had been used by George Washington. With the symbolic desk between them, the mayor asked Lincoln to pursue peace and reconciliation because New York’s economic health was at stake. Lincoln responded, “There is nothing that can ever bring me willingly to consent to the destruction of this Union, under which not only the commercial city of New York, but the whole country has acquired his greatness.”

President-elect Lincoln then used a “ship” metaphor that Fritz Klein has repeated several times during our trip. I got goose bumps each time he does it, as I’ll explain in a moment. Lincoln then pointed out to Mayor Wood, “I understand a ship to be made for carrying and preservation of the cargo, and so long as the ship can be saved, with the cargo, it should never be abandoned.”

Every time I heard Fritz use this Lincoln “ship” metaphor I immediately thought of Walt Whitman’s poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” After Lincoln’s death in 1865, Whitman wrote, among other things, this remarkable poem that compares Lincoln to a ship’s captain.

O Captain! My captain! Our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won. . . .

Later in the poem Whitman concludes:

My Captain does not hear my voice, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will:
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, has come in with object won.
Exalt O shores, ring O bells!
But I, with mournful tread, walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

As we look back at history and consider the challenges facing Lincoln, we also, in the back of our minds, know how it turns out. We know John Wilkes Booth will pull that fateful trigger and take Lincoln’s life.

But we should try and always remember that when we study the past, we are actually studying people who were living in a different “present.” We inserted that idea into Spirit’s introduction. “And please remember,” Spirit says before introducing Fritz Klein as Abraham Lincoln, “as our nation teetered on the brink of civil war 150 years ago, Americans did not know how it would turn out—just as we cannot predict what tomorrow will bring. Our ancestors a century-and-a-half ago did know one thing, however, that the crisis would lead to change. But no one knew for sure what that change would be. . . .”

Abraham Lincoln didn’t know what fate had in store for him as president. He knew, however, that he would need to summon every ounce of courage, fortitude, and wisdom that he could muster for the task. And he knew the nation would need to do the same.

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