During these days of isolation, when Washington, with the telegraph inoperative, was kept in an appalling uncertainty, the North rose. There was literally a rush to volunteer. "The heather is on fire," wrote George Ticknor, "I never before knew what a popular excitement can be." As fast as possible militia were hurried South. The crack New York regiment, the famous, dandified Seventh, started for the front amid probably the most tempestuous ovation which until that time was ever given to a military organization in America. Of the march of the regiment down Broadway, one of its members wrote, "Only one who passed as we did, through the tempest of cheers two miles long, can know the terrible enthusiasm of the occasion."
To reach Washington by rail was impossible. The Seventh went by boat to Annapolis. The same course was taken by a regiment of Massachusetts mechanics, the Eighth. Landing at Annapolis, the two regiments, dandies and laborers, fraternized at once in the common bond of loyalty to the Union. A branch railway led from Annapolis to the main line between Washington and Baltimore. The rails had been torn up. The Massachusetts mechanics set to work to relay them. The Governor of Maryland protested. He was disregarded. The two regiments toiled together a long day and through the night following, between Annapolis and the Washington junction, bringing on their baggage and cannon over relaid tracks. There, a train was found which the Seventh appropriated. At noon, on the 25th of April, that advance guard of the Northern hosts entered Washington, and Lincoln knew that he had armies behind him.
The history of the North had virtually become, by April, 1861, the history of Lincoln himself, and during the remaining four years of the President's life it is difficult to separate his personality from the trend of national history. Any attempt to understand the achievements and the omissions of the Northern people without undertaking an intelligent estimate of their leader would be only to duplicate the story of "Hamlet" with Hamlet left out. According to the opinion of English military experts*, "Against the great military genius of certain Southern leaders fate opposed the unbroken resolution and passionate devotion to the Union, which he worshiped, of the great Northern President. As long as he lived and ruled the people of the North, there could be no turning back."
* Wood and Edmonds. "The Civil War in the United States."
Lincoln has been ranked with Socrates; but he has also been compared with Rabelais. He has been the target of abuse that knew no mercy; but he has been worshiped as a demigod. The ten big volumes of his official biography are a sustained, intemperate eulogy in which the hero does nothing that is not admirable; but as large a book could be built up out of contemporaneous Northern writings that would paint a picture of unmitigated blackness--and the most eloquent portions of it would be signed by Wendell Phillips.
The real Lincoln is, of course, neither the Lincoln of the official biography nor the Lincoln of Wendell Phillips. He was neither a saint nor a villain. What he actually was is not, however, so easily stated. Prodigious men are never easy to sum up; and Lincoln was a prodigious man. The more one studies him, the more individual he appears to be. By degrees one comes to understand how it was possible for contemporaries to hold contradictory views of him and for each to believe frantically that his views were proved by facts. For anyone who thinks he can hit off in a few neat generalities this complex, extraordinary personality, a single warning may suffice. Walt Whitman, who was perhaps the most original thinker and the most acute observer who ever saw Lincoln face to face has left us his impression; but he adds that there was something in Lincoln's face which defied description and which no picture had caught. After Whitman's conclusion that "One of the great portrait painters of two or three hundred years ago is needed," the mere historian should proceed with caution.
There is historic significance in his very appearance. His huge, loose-knit figure, six feet four inches high, lean, muscular, ungainly, the evidence of his great physical strength, was a fit symbol of those hard workers, the children of the soil, from whom he sprang. His face was rugged like his figure, the complexion swarthy, cheek bones high, and bushy black hair crowning a great forehead beneath which the eyes were deep-set, gray, and dreaming. A sort of shambling powerfulness formed the main suggestion of face and figure, softened strangely by the mysterious expression of the eyes, and by the singular delicacy of the skin. The motions of this awkward giant lacked grace; the top hat and black frock coat, sometimes rusty, which had served him on the western circuit continued to serve him when he was virtually the dictator of his country. It was in such dress that he visited the army, where he towered above his generals.
Even in a book of restricted scope, such as this, one must insist upon the distinction between the private and public Lincoln, for there is as yet no accepted conception of him. What comes nearest to an accepted conception is contained probably in the version of the late Charles Francis Adams. He tells us how his father, the elder Charles Francis Adams, ambassador to London, found Lincoln in 1861 an offensive personality, and he insists that Lincoln under strain passed through a transformation which made the Lincoln of 1864 a different man from the Lincoln of 1861. Perhaps; but without being frivolous, one is tempted to quote certain old-fashioned American papers that used to label their news items "important if true."