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Lincoln and the Angels December 28, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

Beachcombing has previously in this place enjoyed some of the nonsense written about death bed quotes. He thought that, following on with this theme, he would today concentrate on that  memorable room in Petersen House at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865 when Lincoln passed from this world, just hours after John Wilkes Booth had ‘heroically’ shot him in the back of the head. The vigil by Lincoln’s bedside included most of the cabinet and his son. His wife knew her husband was dying and was present only occasionally as she quickly became hysterical and annoyed the more serious Washington types who were trying to experience history. Here is an account from Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy:

The room was small and overcrowded. The surgeons and members of the cabinet were as many as should have been in the room, but there were many more, and the hall and other rooms in the front or main house were full… A door which opened upon a porch or gallery, and also the windows, were kept open for fresh air. The night was dark, cloudy, and damp, and about six it began to rain. I remained in the room until then without sitting or leaving it, when, there being a vacant chair which some one left at the foot of the bed, I occupied it for nearly two hours, listening to the heavy groans and witnessing the wasting life of the good and great man who was expiring before me. About 6 A.M. I experienced a feeling of faintness, and for the first time after entering the room a little past eleven I left it and the house and took a short walk in the open air… A little before seven I went into the room where the dying President was rapidly drawing near the closing moments. His wife soon after made her last visit to him. The death struggle had begun. Robert, his son, stood with several others at the head of the bed. He, bore himself well but on two occasions gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, turning his head and leaning on the shoulder of Senator Sumner. The respiration of the President became suspended at intervals and at last entirely ceased at twenty-two minutes past seven.

So much for a short, dispassionate description of the death vigil. But observant readers will note that GW missed out the most famous words spoken in the room, Edwin Stanton’s final tribute to his rival and master: ‘Now he belongs to the ages’.

Luckily, James Tanner, a short hand writer, was kept by the side of the bed. In the critical moments his pencil broke! But JT was clearly aware that his task was to record the words spoken, that he was the official recorder. Here is the finale in Tanner’s words.

The Reverend Dr Gurley stepped forward and lifting his hands began ‘Our Father and our God’ and I snatched pencil and notebook from my pocket, but my haste defeated my purpose. My pencil point (I had but one) caught in my coat and broke, and the world lost the prayer, a prayer that was only interrupted by the sobs of Stanton as he buried his face in the bedclothes. As ‘Thy will be done, Amen’ in subdued and tremulous tones floated through the little chamber, Mr Stanton raised his head, the tears streaming down his face. A more agonized expression I never saw on a human countenance as he sobbed out the words: ‘He belongs to the angels now’.

‘To the angels…’?! Stanton’s words, as normally quoted, are, of course, ‘to the ages’. A powerful, Lincolnian-sounding sentence. Whereas ‘to the angels’ is cloying and does not scan as well. Yet the more impressive phrase only entered print in 1890, admittedly in the book of another witness to Lincoln’s death, John Hay, his one time secretary.

So the question: is the confusion down to simple mishearing – ‘angels’, ‘ages’? Stanton’s voice was presumably full of emotion and may have invited this kind of misunderstanding. Or was there some sensible and silent re-editing behind the scenes? Beachcombing has come across one text of Tanner’s account where ‘now he belongs to the angels’ has been silently changed to the preferred form.

Beachcombing is always interested in misquotations and the perversity of history? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com