War Papers

By the
Honorable James Speed, Late Attorney General of the United States
Companion of the 3rd Class, Insignia Number 5384
Ohio Commandery
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the U.S.
Read May 2, 1887

Transcribed by Timothy H. Downey, Commander, Kentucky Commandery
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the U.S.
(November 2004)

Less than two years after the death of Mr. Lincoln, I gave a brief expression of my appreciation of his character. Then it was too soon for a general reception of his great and good qualities. I then said: When passion shall have subdued, and calmness and quiet come - a period he was only permitted to see from Pisgah's height - the large measure of his wisdom will be acknowledged by all men.

Since that time, twenty years have passed - passion has gone, quiet has come, and all men speak his praise.

I believe that, in all the annals of our race, Abraham Lincoln is the finest example of an unknown man rising from obscurity and ascending to the loftiest heights of human grandeur. The conspicuous causes which produced this grand result were inborn strength, integrity of character, patriotic devotion, and the nurturing influences of a free country.

At an early age, he began to show the superior endowments which made him a leader of men. In the rough scenes of backwoods life his companions made him umpire of their sports, and called him "Honest Abe." At the age of twenty-three, his comrades in the Black Hawk War made him captain. One of these comrades now lives in Louisville - the venerable lawyer, Isaac R. Greene. He loves to tell how Captain Lincoln was a leader among the soldiers in that campaign, and attracted all by his good sense, wit, and anecdote.

I knew Mr. Lincoln when he visited Kentucky, twenty years before he came to the Presidency. He then showed he was no ordinary man. I saw him daily. He sat in my office, read my books, and talked with me about his life, his reading, his studies, his aspirations. He made a decided impression upon all. He had an intelligent, vigorous mind, strong in grasp, and original. He was earnest, frank, manly, and sincere in every thought and expression. The artificial was all wanting. He had natural force and natural refinement. His after life was a continuous development of his youthful promise.

When he came to the Presidency, he was in the full completion of manhood, nurtured in the school of nature and our broad free country. He was a grand structure, designed, fashioned, and furnished for a grand purpose. Henceforth he was to live solely for his country.

The question of the ages had come to the test. Can a nation endure, dedicated to the proposition that all men are free and equal?

We now look back and see how much depended on the character of the Chief Magistrate in that crucial hour. Generals might fail, but the President cannot fail. He was to command through a four years battle. He was to be master through a four years tempest. At every point, at every moment, he must prove his fill sufficiency. He must be wise, resolute, courageous, firm, patient, loyal, and true. He must impress all others that he comes up to the standard of this great measure.

And so it was. He was equal to the task. He so impressed all who saw him rightly and truly. Those near him felt continually the mastery of his wisdom, and there were times when his influence was inspiration to all. I saw him in moments when his courage rose to the majesty of grandest heroism, and sent its strength leaping through the veins of his countrymen, nerving them to sustain the utmost limit the living ramparts of the Nation-facing; the doubtful battlefield.

His serene confidence restored the lapsing faith of men. His never relaxing hope cheered them on to victory. Experience in hardships had given him a brave and hopeful disposition. Experience in professional life had disciplined and steadied his mind. Attentive reading and observation had taught him much. His learning was sufficient to balance his perfect practicality. It was that sufficiency of learning which comes inevitably in this land of ours - bountiful in all things - to such a man as Lincoln was, in the course of twenty-five years of diligent professional life and close attention to public affairs. It was sufficient to enable him to see things in their relations, and to act with intelligent discrimination. Sufficient to give liberal views, dissipate narrowness, and broaden judgment. He had learned the theory, the objects, the duties, the powers of this great government. He had learned to know men. His own marvelously balanced humanity weighed men with unerring precision. He knew the real from the feigned. Truth felt assurance in his presence, and falsehood quailed. He had learned how to overcome difficulties; how to maintain composure in peril; how to be firm in doing and not doing; how to move neither too fast nor too slow. He had learned to think wisely. He said: We must see things as they are. To-day is not yesterday. To-morrow will not be to-day. That which is right must be done. He had learned to express his thoughts in language of unsurpassed energy, aptitude, and beauty. His utterances in moments of interest thrilled all hearts at the time, and will live coeval with the English tongue.

For four years he bore the burden of the Nation racked in the convulsions of civil war. In that four years the events of an age were crowded - passion raged, excitement rose without an ebb, the earth shook with the tramp of armies, the skies were lurid with the flames of battle. It was a period of subversion and revolution. Each day witnessed a new scene in the great drama. Each hour brought a new responsibility. Who can estimate the value of Abraham Lincoln's service to his country in that tremendous struggle? He was strong when weakness would have been calamity; wise and prudent when rashness would have been ruin; faithful when to swerve would have been destruction.

With all his lofty qualities, the greatness of his nature never abated. His simplicity, sincerity, and integrity remained in all the purity of youth, when he was known as "Honest Abe." He had that charity for all men he pleaded for others to show. Quick to see imperfection, he was never exacting. He was patient to try, and ready to excuse. His forbearing spirit dealt with men rejoicing in the good, with no harshness to the erring. He had no censure for the general who failed, but the comfort that came when the real commanders appeared, those only can tell who saw his relieved soul speaking in his countenance.

Nor did any feeling of hatred toward those in opposing arms enter his soul. Although his own election was made the occasion of the great revolt; although he was misrepresented, derided, and insulted; although the duty was cast upon him of sending forth the power of the country to the bloody battle-field; although upon him were concentrated cursings and bitterness, he felt no anger, he uttered no revengeful word. In his patience and decisiveness, he seemed to rise above the level of humanity.

The Nation imbibed his magnanimity. The spectacle of so vast a collision, with none brought to punishment, stands alone in history. Only that group of friends who stilled the pulsations of Lincoln's great heart paid the penalty of crime. A maudlin sentiment has sought to cast blame on the officials who dealt out justice to these. One in particular is my distinguished friend, the then Judge Advocate General of the Army. Judge Holt performed his duty kindly and considerately. In every particular he was just and fair. This I know. But Judge Holt needs no vindication from me or any one else. I only speak because I know reflections have been made, and because my position enabled me to know the facts, and because I know the perfect purity and uprightness of his conduct.

Mr. Lincoln always trusted that truth and right would prevail. He never knew of exemption from anxiety. He was a stranger to rest and repose. His form bent under the weight of his great charge. Care furrowed his countenance. But he had confidence in the ultimate triumph of the right. That confidence lighted his pathway from his youth. It inspired him when the passions of his countrymen were aflame to predict that the mystic chords of memory would swell the chorus of the Union when touched by the better angels of our nature.

We wish that he could have lived to see the fulfillment of this prophetic vision. But the curtain which veiled the new and glorious era of the Nation was just lifting when his eyes forever closed. Great as our country then was, we now contrast it with the present. The fiery tempest of war did not overthrow the giant plant of the American Republic. It burnt the poison from its sap, expanded its beneficence, and sent its roots deeper in the eternal foundations.

We wish Mr. Lincoln could have seen the North and the South come together, in a loving embrace, to bury every hostile thought, "And kiss again with tears."

We wish he could have seen the East and the West bound together with iron bands, and the growth from thirty to sixty millions. We wish he were living to-day, in the midst of his peaceful and happy countrymen. We wish we could now see him reposing in the comfortable retirement of his home, beholding, at a venerable age, the present splendors of our glorious Union. For the Union he felt the most intense love, and for those who went to battle in her cause his tender solicitude was like that of the fond ones waiting and praying at home. These are his words near the end of the conflict:

    Let us finish the work we are in - to bind up the Nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and orphans; to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

We wish he could have seen the consummation of all his patriotic hopes, as it is our privilege to see it this day. Were it possible for him to be here now, in this great assembly of gallant soldiers whose heroism sustained and preserved the Union, he would take you each one affectionately by the hand, and, from the depths of his grateful soul, say, God bless you!

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Note and Source:

Mr. Speed read this sketch at the May meeting, a little less than two months before his death, which occurred June 25, 1887. His intimate relations with Mr. Lincoln, as a member of his Cabinet, gives it peculiar interest.

Speed, J. 1888. Abraham Lincoln, pp 405-411. IN Sketches of War History, 1861-1865. Papers Read before the Commandery of the State of Ohio, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Published by the Ohio Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Robert Clarke and Company, Cincinnati, Ohio. Volume 2.

Copyright © 2004 Timothy H. Downey, Kentucky Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States

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