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O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN! Remembering Lincoln's assassination - and legacy - 150 years later

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The Abraham Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – It was 150 years ago today that President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, attended a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. It was during this performance that stage actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln by shooting him in the head, at point-blank range, with a Derringer pistol.

Arguably America’s greatest president, Lincoln, with his mortal wound, never regained consciousness and would die the following morning, April 15, 1865. It would be Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who would make the famous and profound statement: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

And this, just days following Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, signaling the end to the horrific and bloody Civil War, which had been triggered four years earlier with the attack on Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina. Approximately 750,000 lives were lost during those years. And while many complain that Lincoln was power hungry and abused his position, he reminded people that as president that he swore an oath to protect and defend the United States, while keeping the Union intact, defending democracy and smashing the slave system (the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863).

Reading recently released cover stories in both Life and National Geographic magazines this month, both talking about Lincoln’s life – and death – were very insightful in how they portray this great man, the man poet Walt Whitman eulogized in his elegy to the fallen leader of the Union, “O Captain! My Captain!” (which was featured in a powerful way in the Robin Williams film Dead Poet’s Society).

O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought s won;

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! Heart! Heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.”

It was a very moving poem and captured the mood of the country (and the world) as this great leader was mourned and the country finally took time to grieve after being torn apart for so long.

Thinking about America’s Civil War and the profound impact President Lincoln had on the Republic is quite remarkable in its depth and reach. Here was a man of modest means, rising to the position of president – and rising to the occasion as his country needed him, only to be martyred by a white supremacist who, in a fit of anger and rage, decided to strike Lincoln dead because, as he put it, civil rights for African-Americans means “(N-word) citizenship.”

And Lincoln (“all men are created equal”) knew his determination to see the Union saved and the slaves freed was not popular across the board, even in the North.

One can only imagine “what might have been,” had Lincoln not met his end with an assassin’s bullet. Reconstruction was a difficult road and Lincoln’s corrupt and hapless successor, Andrew Johnson, was a disaster and forced out of office. And Discovery News speculated that the 16th president would have fought for full voting rights for freed blacks and would have likely pushed for them to move out of the South and out to the West where land was plentiful and opportunities awaited settlers.

And while many mourned Lincoln's death here at home, the outpouring of grief was overwhelming from those overseas. As Matt Ford at The Atlantic magazine writes this week that while Lincoln's abolitionist views on slavery evolved over the course of his presidency, solidifying 100 percent against it by the final year of his life, those overseas saw him as a fallen martyr in the fight against this "odious institution."

And yet 150 years later, Abraham Lincoln continues to inspire new generations of young people. It was no surprise that Barack Obama made his 2007 presidential run announcement in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois. 

And for those interested, this link features a list of Lincoln's activities on the last day of his life. 

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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