Touched by the hand of death

Posted: Aug 28, 2006 12:00 AM

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Bill Bennett’s latest book, America: The Last Best Hope, released last month. The book can be purchased here.Horrors they surely were. What must have been the thoughts of young Union soldiers marching, fighting, then bedding down in “ghoul-haunted woodlands” that their older brothers had fought over and many had died in the previous two years? Herman Melville captured the eerie feeling in a poem, “The Armies of the Wilderness”:

In glades they meet skull after skull
Where pine-cones lay—the rusted gun,
Green shoes full of bones, the mouldering coat
And cuddled-up skeleton;
And scores of such. Some start as in dreams,
And comrades lost bemoan:
By the edge of those wilds Stonewall had charged—
But the Year and the Man were gone.

Lincoln grieved at the toll the grinding trench warfare was taking on the Union forces—and the entire Union. For Lincoln did not simply mourn Northern losses. He believed the entire country was one, North and South. As reports came back of the trenches around Petersburg, Virginia, the whole country understood what it meant. Southern boys as young as thirteen were found dead there, lying next to fallen white-bearded grandfathers. Whose heart could remain untouched at such a loss?

Few families North or South were untouched by the hand of death. The Lincoln family was no different. When Lincoln’s favorite sister-in-law, Emilie Helm, was detained at Fort Monroe, Virginia, she refused to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. Emilie had married Mary Lincoln’s younger half-brother, Ben Helm. Ben Helm had been killed at Atlanta. “Send her to me,” Lincoln telegraphed the Union officers who had stopped the young widow whom Lincoln and his wife thought of as the daughter they never had. When she arrived at the Executive Mansion, Emilie was embraced by the president and the first lady. “You know, Little Sister,” Emilie Helms later reported his saying to her, “‘I tried to have Ben come with me.’ Mr. Lincoln put his arms around me and we both wept.” In a sense, Lincoln wrapped his arms around the entire country.