Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln


Once, on a visit to Disneyland, strolling along its strenuously quaint turn-of-the-century Main Street, past ice-cream parlors and candy palaces and penny arcades, I noticed a building called the Disneyland Opera House. On its marquee it said GREAT MOMENTS WITH MR. LINCOLN. I’m always up for great moments with Mr. Lincoln, and I went in to get a fix.

My fellow congregants and I were first shown a short film in which Walt Disney explained “Audio-Animatronics,” the technology at the heart of his theme parks, enabling all manner of seemingly real people, animals, birds, and other critters to hail us as we come riding by. Disney said he first Audio-Animated Mr. Lincoln for the New York World’s Fair of 1964, using a life mask taken in 1860, before Lincoln grew a beard. “The final result is so lifelike that you may find it hard to believe,” the narrator said, and we were ushered into a theater to try to believe it.

The curtain went up and I saw a tall man in a black suit who somewhat resembled Abraham Lincoln. He was sitting in a chair, and something in me kept hoping he wouldn’t try to get up. But he did, struggling arthritically to his feet and moving a few steps forward. He said he wanted to talk to us about liberty, and he expatiated on respect for duty, the law, faith in divine Providence, and dangers facing the nation. They sounded like disconnected homilies, and, as I later learned, they were–snippets from five speeches given during the mainly beardless years from 1838 to 1864.

This was not my writer’s Lincoln. Was it anybody’s Lincoln? As the tall man rambled on, emphasizing his points with hand and arm gestures that were angular and spasmodic, his long legs a little unsteady–would he fall?–I was reminded of another figure from the mists of Hollywood make-believe who moved with the same mechanical vulnerability, the same endearing wish to be human.  It was Boris Karloff in Frankenstein.

That was a not-so-great moment with Mr. Lincoln. But otherwise my encounters with the 16th President always sustain me. He is the grave deity at the core of the American narrative, never far from my thoughts. I see him on my pennies and I see him on my stamps. I’ve see him at Mount Rushmore, looking across the nation he preserved, and I’ve seen him in Washington, looking across the Mall where Martin Luther King Jr. sang his own song of emancipation. Above all I see him in his words. He is the writer I most often revisit to remind myself of the simple strength of the English language. His Second Inaugural Address, delivered only five weeks before his consuming war finally ended and six weeks before he himself was killed, is a sacred text.

One of my best moments with Mr. Lincoln took place at Appomattox. I knew that my book American Places, about 16 iconic sites, ought to include one Civil War landmark, but I didn’t want it to be Gettysburg. I have no appetite for tramping across the battlefields of our saddest war, imagining the carnage and the military blunders that killed 620,000 men in four years. My Lincoln is a man of reconciliation. Instead the Civil War site I chose was not one where the armies fought but where they stopped fighting. Appomattox was both a longed-for end and a longed-for beginning; America could get on with the business of being a nation.

I flew to Richmond and drove west across southern Virginia, along the route covered by General Robert E. Lee during his last week with his 55,000-man army–a week that would end with his surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant, on April 9, 1865, in a tiny village that just happened to be handy when the dream of the Confederacy finally unraveled. Along the road I stopped to read a series of historical markers that told me how dire Lee’s situation had become.



Three days later it was all over. Outnumbered and almost encircled, Lee said, “There is nothing left for me to do but go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” On April 9 he sent his aide into the village called Appomattox Court House to find a suitable place for the two men to meet. There, in the house of a merchant named Wilmer McLean, Lee asked Grant to write out the terms “under which you would receive the surrender of my army.”

Grant took out a pencil, wrote rapidly at a small table, and handed the paper to Lee. The last of its four sentences gave the Confederate officers permission to keep their side arms and their private horses. “This will have a very happy effect on my army,” Lee said after reading the terms, which, far from hounding the Southerners with reprisals, just let them all go home. Grant asked Lee if he had anything to add. Lee mentioned that the soldiers in his cavalry and artillery also owned their horses. Could those horses be kept? Grant agreed. He said he assumed that most of the men were small farmers and “because the country has been so raided by the two armies” he doubted that they could put in a crop to get through the next winter if they didn’t take their horses home. “This will do much toward conciliating our people,” Lee said.

More than a century later, through the stillness at Appomattox, that theme of clemency kept echoing in my ears. “Grant and Lee had to look far into the future,” I was told by Ron Wilson, superintendent of the National Park Service site. “They knew that the energies that had been given to divisions for so many years would now have to be devoted to rebuilding the country. There was no vindictiveness.”

Appomattox seemed to me to exist in a cul-de-sac of history, outside time, as if the village had been brought to life for just one event. Only three people were strongly alive to me. Lee and Grant continued to radiate powerful qualities that Americans still honor: one of them symbolizing the aristocratic tradition of the old South, the other personifying the self-made common man of the new North, Midwest, and West.

The third person was the inescapable Lincoln. Appomattox was, finally, his show. I could almost see him standing over the little table in McLean’s parlor where Grant sat scribbling the surrender terms. As president, Lincoln had often spoken of wanting a merciful peace, but I didn’t know if he and Grant had found time to discuss the situation, and I asked Ron Wilson when the two men had last met. He said they had met on March 27 and 28 at City Point–on the River Queen in the James River–and had talked at length about the approaching end of the war and the civil disorder it would bring.

“You just know,” Wilson told me, “that Lincoln said, ‘Let ’em down easy.’”

To me, that generosity of spirit–“with malice toward none, with charity for all”–is Abraham Lincoln’s message to a divided nation as we remember his birthday this week.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

William Zinsser, who died in 2015, was the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well, and a columnist for the Scholar website.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up