As he lay on his cot at Carver U.S. General Hospital in Washington, D.C., Caleb Brewster of New York heard a knock on the door at the end of the ward. And when it opened, he saw the President, Abraham Lincoln, standing tall in the doorway. Caleb watched the President walk down the rows of cots, hat in hand, speaking to an occasional soldier.
You find yourself in a military hospital in Washington, far away from the home you left three years ago in New York. Outside a nearby window you’ve seen the President, sometimes alone, on horseback as he rode to his summer ‘cottage‘ at the Soldiers’ Home, three miles north of the White House.
One day, standing alongside your humble cot in the hot ward, that same tall, bearded President reaches to shake your hand. Your right having been damaged, you extend your left, and President Abraham Lincoln asked when you’d been hit, And after hearing of your wounding at Spottsylvania, he shakes his head sorrowfully as he stands to leave.
Growing up in Springfield, Illinois, I heard that story many times, and was able to read it, just as you see it in the link above.
Our mother, Jean Hartley Penning – the granddaughter of Caleb - took her six post-War children to visit Lincoln’s home on Seventh Street and his magnificent tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery nearly every February 12, the date on which Lincoln had been born in 1809.
So, today has special meaning for all sons and daughters of Springfield. We honor his memory while we celebrate the presidency of Barack Obama, who opened his campaign on the steps of the old state capitol, where Lincoln had received visitors after learning of his victory. And where, on June 16, 1858, he delivered words nearly as applicable to our condition today:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free. … I do not expect the Union to be dissolved - I do not expect the house to fall - but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
For President Obama seemed to speak similarly February 9:
“We find ourselves in a rare moment where the citizens of our country and all countries are watching and waiting for us to lead. It is a responsibility that this generation did not ask for, but one that we must accept for the sake of our future and our children’s. The strongest democracies flourish from frequent and lively debate, but they endure when people of every background and belief find a way to set aside smaller differences in service of a greater purpose. That is the test facing the United States of America in this winter of our hardship, and it is our duty as leaders and citizens to stay true to that purpose in the weeks and months ahead. After a day of speaking with and listening to the fundamentally decent men and women who call this nation home, I have full faith and confidence that we can.”
With President Lincoln as his guide, we must hope and pray our new President can equally bind our nation’s wounds and lead us from through this terrible moment in our history.
This is how I, as a great grandson of Caleb Brewster, will remember this day. One filled with the memory of Caleb and our slain 16th president; and with hope that our 44th will bring us together to meet the challenges of our own time.