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President Lincoln's Darkness Turns to Hope

A scan through the statements of President Abraham Lincoln reveals a man who underwent some very dark days. Consider, at the start of the War Between the States, Lincoln was resolute and visionary. "The mystic chords of memory," he announced in his inaugural address on March 4, 1861, "stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union." A little over a year into the war, on June 28, 1862, his rhetoric was tempered but still firm and uncompromising: "I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered."

And then the true darkness began to fall. After a devastating defeat at Manassas in Virginia, Lincoln began first to worry, and then to doubt his cause: "Well, we are whipped again, I am afraid," he moaned. "What shall we do? The bottom is out of the tub, the bottom is out of the tub!" (August 1862). The next months and years for Lincoln were lived in near-constant, faith-shaking darkness and despair: "If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it" (December1862, after defeat at Fredericksburg). "My God! My God! What will the country say?" (May 1863, after defeat at Chancellorsville). "This war is eating my life out. I have a strong impression that I shall not live to see the end" (1864).

And then, in the darkness a flicker of hope burst into flame. Union victories began turning the tide of the Civil War, and we can see Lincoln's spirits lift. Once again his rhetoric begins to soar, to reach resolutely toward his vision of one United States of America. In March 1865, about a month before Lee's surrender, Lincoln is able to regather his faith and speak, "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right [as God gives], let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds … " (Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865). And finally, less than two weeks before his death, President Lincoln proclaimed the end of his trials: "Thank God I have lived to see this. It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone" (April 3, 1865).

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