The first farmer was the first man. All historic nobility rests on the possession and use of land. Ralph Waldo Emerson

01 December 2010

A Grief Observed

As faithful readers of this blog already know, I am an immense admirer of Abraham Lincoln--not only for his astonishing leadership in the our nation's years of greatest crisis--but also for his unutterable eloquence and dexterity with the English language.

I've recently come across a little-known letter that Lincoln wrote in the early days of the Civil War to the parents of Elmer Ellsworth, who died in Alexandria, Virginia after he had torn down a Confederate flag and was subsequently shot by the owner of the hotel upon which it was displayed. Ellsworth was Lincoln's friend, a young protege of Lincoln who had worked with him in Lincoln's law office in Springfield, Illinois before he was elected President. He had formed a largely ceremonial detachment known as the Zouaves, a drill team that thrilled spectators with its exotic costumes and precision choreography. When the war began, Ellsworth--only 24 years old--asked for and received a commission in the U.S. Army and led the Zouaves as they were sworn into military service. Less than three weeks later, the young officer was dead--and the loss hit Lincoln hard.

In the midst of his grief, he wrote this letter to Ellsworth's parents. It is a model of timeless grace, personal remembrance, and tender compassion--and I commend it to you...

My dear Sir and Madam,

In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one's country and of bright hopes for one's self and friends have rarely been so suddenly dashed as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men was surpassingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent in that department I ever knew. And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse. My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages and my engrossing engagements would permit. To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane or intemperate word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents. The honors he labored for so laudably and, in the sad end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for you no less than for himself.

In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.

May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power. Sincerely your friend in a common affliction.

A. Lincoln

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