Remembering Abraham Lincoln…150 Years Later – Part 2
Probably my favorite attribute of Lincoln is his ability to be rock solid in the face of tremendous pressure but at the same time being able to be forgiving when needed. This story illustrates this perfectly and one we can all learn from. This is taken from Dr. Wheeler’s book “Abraham Lincoln – A Man of Faith and Courage”.
A LESSON IN FORGIVENESS
By T. Morris Longstreth
T. Morris Longstreth wrote several stories about Lincoln during his long writing career, but none are more moving than this one. The time: July 7, 1863, four days after the Battle of Gettysburg. Two people, a man and a boy, are faced with a terrible decision on the same hot summer night.
The Ripley brothers were as different in nearly every way as are the rapids and still pools of a mountain stream. Perhaps that is why they loved each other in a way not usually meant by “brotherly love.”
Will Ripley was the “still pool.” He was thoughtful to the point of appearing drowsy, honest as daylight, mild-tempered, and twenty. He was up north in Pennsylvania somewhere, either alive or dead, for the date of this story is July 7, 1863, which means, as you can read in the dispatches of the time, that the terrible Battle of Gettysburg was just over. The Ripleys, on their farm near Washington, had not heard from him for some time.
Although Will was no soldier at heart, he had responded to Lincoln’s call for more men two years before, leaving his young brother, Dan, at home to help he father and mother. Dan was now fourteen, a high-strung, impetuous, outspoken lad of quick actions and hasty decisions. He was the “laughing rapid.” But for all his hastiness, he had a head, and a heart that could be appealed to, usually.
The only thing to which he could not reconcile himself was the separation from Will. Even Will’s weekly letters – which had selfmo missed coming until recently, and which always sent messages of love to Dan, coupled with encouragement to stay on the farm as the best way to aid the cause – scarcely kept him from running away and hunting up his brother. Dan knew that he and his collie, Jack, were needed to look after the sheep; he knew that his father, who was little more than an invalid, must have help. But to see the soldiers marching set him wild to be off with them. In fact, Jack seemed to the anchor which held him. Dan sometimes even thought that he loved Jack next to Will.
The summer of ’63 had been unbearably hot. There had been an increasingly ominous list of military disasters. Even the loyal were beginning to murmur against Lincoln’s management of the war. Then Will’s letters had ceased, and Mr. Ripley could get no satisfaction from headquarters.
Dan was irritable with fatigue and his secret worry; his family was nearly sick with the heat and the tension.
The climax to this state came from an unforeseen event. Jack, crazed either by the heat or by some secret taste for blood, ran amuck one night, stampeded the sheep, and di grievous damage. Farmer Ripley doubtless acted on what he considered the most merciful course by having Jack done away with and buried before Dan got back from an errand to the city. But to Dan it seemed, in the first agony of his broken heart, an unforgivable thing. Weariness, worry, and now this knife-sharp woe changed the boy into a heartsick being who flung himself on the fresh mound behind the barn and stayed there the whole day, despite the entreaties of his mother and the commands of his father.
That evening his mother carried some food out to him. He did not touch it; he would not talk to her.
Some time later, as the night wore on, he stole into the house, tied up some clothes into a bundle, took the food at hand, and crept out of his home. Once more he went to the grave of his slain pal. What he said there, aloud but quietly, nneed not be told. Sufficient it is to know that a burning resentment toward his father filled him, coupled with a sickening longing to be with his brother Will. Ill with his hasty anger, he thought that Will was the only one in the world who loved or understood him.
In the wee hours of morning he left the farm, forever, as he thought, and turned down the road which led to the soldier’s home, not far away, where he hoped to find someone who could tell him how to get to Will’s regiment. The sultry, starless heat of a Washington midsummer enclosed him; the wood was very dark and breathless; his head throbbed. But he pushed on, high-tempered, unforgiving; he would show them all!
Suddenly he remembered that he had not said the Lord’s Prayer that night. Dan had been reared strictly. He tried saying it walking. But that seemed sacrilegious. He knelt in the dark and tried. But when he got to “as we forgive our debtors,” he stopped, for he was an honest lad. This new gulf of mental distress was too much for him; it brought the tears. There in the dark by the roadside, Dan lay and bitterly cried himself into an exhausted sleep.
At the same hour another worn person, a tall, lean-faced man with eyes full of unspeakable sorrow, was pacing the chamber of the White House in the nearby city. The rebellion had reached its flood tide at Gettysburg three days before. The president had stayed the flood, bearing in tireless sympathy the weight of countless responsibilities. Now, all day long, decisions of affairs had been borne down upon him – decisions that concerned not only armies, but races; not only races, but principles of human welfare. He was grief-stricken still from his son Willie’s death, and his secretary in the room downstairs, listening unconsciously to the steady march of steps overhead, read into them the pulse beats of human progress. Lincoln had given instructions that no one was to interrupt him. He was having one of his great heart battles.
Finally, shortly before dawn, the footsteps stopped, the secretary’s door opened, and the gaunt, gray face looked in. “Stoddard, do you want anything more from me tonight?”
The secretary rose. “I want you in bed, sir. Mrs. Lincoln should not have gone away; you are not fair with her or us.”
“Don’t reproach me, Stoddard,” said Lincoln, kindly: “it had to be settled, and with God’s help, it has been. Now I can sleep. But I must have a breath of air first. There’s nothing?”
“Only the matter of those deserters, sir, and that can wait.”
The president passed his hands over his deep-lined face. “Only!” he murmured. “Only! How wicked this war is! It leads us to consider lives by the dozen, by the bale, wholesale. How many in this batch, Stoddard?”
The secretary turned some papers. “Twenty-four, sir. You remember the interview with General Scanlon yesterday?”
Lincoln hesitated, saying, “Twenty-four! Yes, I remember. Scanlon said that lenience to the few was injustice to the many. He is right, too.” Lincoln held out his hand for the papers, then drew it back and looked up at Stoddard. “I can’t decide,” he said in a low voice, “not now, Stoddard, you see a weak man. But I want to thresh this out a little longer. I must walk. These cases are killing me; I must get out.”
“Let me call an attendant, Mr. Lincoln.”
“They’re all asleep. No, I’ll take my chances with God. If anybody wants to kill me, he will do it. you must go to bed, Stoddard.”
The two men, each concerned for the other, shook hands in good night, and Lincoln slipped out into the dark, his long legs bearing him rapidly northward. During the heat he usually slept at the soldier’s home, being escorted thither by cavalry with sabers drawn. But he hated the noise of it, and during Mrs. Lincoln’s absence was playing truant to her rules. When he neared the home, he felt slightly refreshed and turned into a wood road. The sky to his right began to lighten.
By the time dawn showed the ruts in the road, Lincoln realized that he was tired. “Abe, Abe,” he said half aloud, “they tell me you used to be great at splitting rails, and now a five-mile stroll before breakfast – well! What have we here?”
The exclamation was occasioned by his nearly stepping on a lone youngster lying in the road. The boy raised his head from a small bundle of clothes. The tall man stooped with tenderness, saying, “Hello, sonny. So you got old Mother Earth to make your bed for you! How’s the mattress?”
Dan sat and rubbed his eyes. “What are you doin’?” he asked.
“I appear to be waking you, and making a bad job of it,” said Lincoln.
“You didn’t come to take me, then,” exclaimed Dan, greatly relieved. “I wouldn’t’a gone!” he added defiantly.
Lincoln looked at him sharply, his interest aroused by the trace of tears in the boy’s eyes and the bravado in his voice. “There’s a misunderstanding here,” said Lincoln, “almost as bad a misunderstanding as Mamie and her mother had over Mr. Riggs, who was the undertaker back home.” Here the gaunt man gave a preliminary chuckle. “Ever hear that story, sonny?”
Dan shook his head, wondering how such a homely man could sound so likable. Lincoln seated himself on a fallen tree trunk. “Well, it was this way –” And he told the story.
Dan’s quick, impetuous laugh might have disturbed the early-rising birds. Lincoln joined in, and for an instant Dan completely forgot dead Jack and his deserted home. For the same fleet instant Lincoln forgot his troubles in Dan’s laugh. The boy chuckled again. “I’ll have to tell that to fa–“ He didn’t finish the word, remembering with a pang that he was not going to see his father again.
Lincoln caught the swift change on his face, and it was his turn to wonder. He knew better than to ask questions. You can’t fish for a boy’s heart with question marks, neat little fishhooks though they may be. So he said, “Our sitting here when we ought to be getting back home reminds me of another story.”
“Tell me,” said Dan, well won already to this man, despite the gray, lined cheeks and the sadness that colored his voice. Dan didn’t know yet who he was. He had not seen the cartoons that flooded the country during election. He was too young to go in alone to the inauguration, and the idea of the president of the United States sitting with him in the woods was too preposterous to cross his mind.
When Dan had laughed heartily over the second story, Lincoln said, “Well, sonny, I reckon we ought to be moving, don’t you?” He helped the lad with his bundle.
“Are you going to the war, too?” asked Dan. “I am.”
“You!” exclaimed Lincoln, “why, you’re no bigger than my own tadpole, and he’s only a wriggler yet. Does your father know?”
“I reckon he does by now,” said the boy, darkly. “Father’s an early riser. You see, he killed my dog without my knowin’, and so I left without his knowin’.”
The hardness of the boy’s voice hurt Lincoln, who said, “What’s your father’s name, sonny?”
“William Ripley – that is, senior. Will, that’s junior, my brother, is off at the war. I’m Dan. I’m going to find my brother. I don’t care if I never come back. I loved Jack better than – than – ” His voice choked.
Lincoln put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He was getting the situation. “Jack was your dog?” asked the big man, as gently as a mother.
“Yeh. And father shouldn’t’a killed him unbeknownst to me. I’ll never forgive him that, never!”
“Quite right,” said the wise man, walking with him. “Don’t you ever forgive him, Dan. Or don’t ever forget it – under on condition.”
“What’s that?” asked the boy, a trifle puzzled at the unexpected compliance of his elder with his own unforgiving mood.
“Why, that you also never forget all the kind and just things that your father has done for you. Why did he kill the dog, Dan?”
“Well – he – killed – some sheep,” said the boy. He would be honest with this tall, gentle, and grave person who understood so readily.
“How old are you, Dan?”
“Fourteen, going on fifteen.”
“That’s quite a heap,” said Lincoln, musingly, “quite a heap! In fourteen years a father can pile up a lot of good deeds. But I suppose he’s done a lot of mean ones to cancel ‘em off, has he?”
“No,” admitted Dan.
His frankness pleased the president. “I congratulate you, Dan. You’re honest. I want to be honest with you, and tell you a story that isn’t funny, for we’re both in the same boat, as I size up this proposition – yes, both in the same boat. I am in the army, in a way. At least, I’m called commander in chief, and occasionally they let me meddle in a little with things.”
“Honest?” said Dan, opening his eyes very wide. He had been so absorbed in his own disasters that he had accepted this strange, friendly acquaintance without question. But now, although the forefront of his consciousness was very active with the conversation, the misty background was trying to make him compare this man with a certain picture in the big family album, with another one pasted on the dining room cupboard door, the same loose-hung person, only this one had a living rawness – maybe it was bigness – about him that the pictures didn’t give, like a tree, perhaps. But it couldn’t be the president talking to him, Dan. If it was, what would the folks at home – and again his thought stopped. There were to be no more “folks at home” for him.
“Honestly, Dan. But sometimes they don’t like it when I do meddle. There’s a case on now. Last night I pretty nearly had twenty-four men shot.”
“But I hadn’t quite decided, and that’s the reason I came out here in God’s own woods. And I’m glad I came, for you’ve helped me decide.”
“I have!” said Dan, astonished, “to shoot them?”
“No! Not to. You showed me the case in a new light. Here you are, deserting home, deserting your father, bringing sorrow to him and to your mother, who have sorrowed enough with Will in danger and all; you’re punishing your father because he did one deed that he couldn’t very well help, just as if he’d been a mean man all his life. And it’s like that with my twenty-four deserters, Dan, very much like that. they’ve served for years, faithfully. Then, can any one thing they do be so gross, so enormously bad, as to blot out all the rest, including probably a lifetime of decent living? I think not. Is a man to blame for having a pair of legs that play coward once? I think not, Dan. I tell you what I’ll do, sonny,” and the tall man stopped in the road, a new light shining in his cavernous, sad eyes, “I’ll make a bargain with you. If you’ll go home and forgive your father, I’ll go home and forgive my twenty-four deserters. Is that a bargain?”
The boy had been shaken, but it was difficult to change all at once. “It is hard to forgive,” he murmured.
“Someday you’ll find it hard not to,” said the great man, putting out his huge palm for the boy to shake. “Isn’t that a pretty good bargain, Dan? By going home, by ceasing to be a deserter yourself, you will save the lives of twenty-four men. Won’t you be merciful? God will remember and perhaps forgive you some trespass sometime even as you forgive now.”
Something of last night’s horror, when he could not say that prayer, and something of the melting gentleness of the new friend before him touched the boy. He took Lincoln’s hand, saying, “All right. That’s a go.”
“Yes, a go home,” smiled Lincoln. “I suppose I’ll have to turn, now.”
“Where’s your home?” asked the boy, knowing yet wishing to hear the truth, to be very sure; for now he could tell the folks at home.
“The White House,” replied Lincoln, “but I wish I were going back to the farm with you.”
The boy heard him vaguely; his jaw was sagging, “Then you – are the president?”
Lincoln nodded, enjoying the boy’s wonder. “And your servant, don’t forget,” added Lincoln. “You have been a help to me in a hard hour, Dan. General or no generals, I’ll spare those men. Any time I can do anything for you, drop in, now that you know where to find me.”
The boy was still speechless with his assured elation.
“But you’d better – Wait,” and Lincoln began hunting through his pockets; “you’d better let me give you a latchkey. The man at the door’s a stubborn fellow, for the folks will bother him. Here –”
And finding a card and a stub of a pencil, he wrote:
Please admit Dan’l Ripley on demand. A. Lincoln
“Thank you,” said Dan, proudly. “I reckon I should’a guessed it was you, but those stories you told kind o’ put me off.”
“That’s sometimes why I tell them.” And Lincoln smiled again. “It’s not a bad morning’s work – twenty-four lives saved before breakfast, Dan. You and I ought to be able to eat a comfortable meal. Good-bye, sonny.”
And so they parted. The man strode back the way he had come; the boy stood looking, looking, and then swiftly wheeled and sped. He had been talking to the president, to Abraham Lincoln, and hearing such talk as he never had heard before; but especially the words, “You have been a help to me in a hard hour, Dan” – those words trod a regular path to his brain. He ran, eager to get to the very hme he had been so eager to leave. Forgiveness was in his heart, but chiefly there was a warm pride. He had been praised by Abraham Lincoln! Of this day he would talk to the end of his days. Dand did not know that a major part of the day, the greatest in his life, was still to come. Certainly the dawning of it had been very beautiful.
Breathless and with eyes bright in anticipation of telling his tale, he leaped the fences, ran up to the back door, and plunged into the house. The kitchen was quiet. A misgiving ran over him. Were they all out in search of him? Would he have to postpone his triumph?
In the dining room a half-eaten meal was cooling. He explored on, and coming out to the spacious front of the house, found them – found them in an inexplicable group around a uniformed officer. Tears were streaming down his mother’s cheeks. His father, still pale from his accident, looked ashen and shriveled. They turned at Dan’s approach. He expected that this scene of anguish would turn to smiles upon his arrival. He was amazed to find that his return gave them the merest flurry of relief and alleviated their sorrow not at all.
“Danny, dear, where have you been?” asked his mother.
“The Lord must have sent you home in answer to our prayers,” said his father.
Then they turned back to the officer, pleading, both talking at once, weeping. Dan felt hurt. Did his return, his forgiveness, mean so little to them? He might as well have gone on. Then he cauight the officer’s words, “Colonel Scott can do no more, madam. The president cannot see him, and more pardons are not to be hoped for.”
Mrs. Ripley turned and threw her arm across Dan’s shoulders. “Danny – Danny – you are our only son now. Will was –” and she broke down completely.
“Will was found asleep while on duty, Dan, and –”
“Is to be shot?” asked the boy. “I wonder if he was one of the twenty-four.” They looked at him, not understanding.
“The Lord has restored you to us. If we could only pray in sufficient faith, He could restore Will,” said Farmer Ripley, devoutly. “Dear, let us go in and pray. We should release this gentleman to his duty. We can talk to th Father about it.”
Dan realized with a sudden clearness that his brother, his beloved, was to be taken from him as Jack had been taken. It shook his brain dizzy for a moment; but he knew that he must hold onto his wits – must think. There was Abraham Lincoln, his friend!
“You pray,” he cried to his father, shrilly, “and I’ll run.”
“Run where, dear? Will is in Pennsylvania.”
“To the White House, mother. He said, ‘Any time I can do anything for you, drop in.’ Anything, mother. Surely he’ll –”
“Who?” cried both his parents.
“Why, the president, Mr. Lincoln!”
“But the president is busy, dear.”
“He’ll see me – I know he will!” said Dan. “Look! We have a secret together, the president and I have.” And the boy showed his card and poured out his story.
The mother saw a break in her gray heaven, saw the bright blue of hope.
“We must go at once,” she said. “Father, you are not able to come with us, but pray here for us.”
“Please take my horse and carriage,” said the officer.
“Yes,” said Dan, “let’s hurry. Oh, I’m glad. I’m so glad!” And the joy at his lucky turning back shone in his face as he helped his mother into the vehicle.
“May God help you!” said the officer.
“He does,” said the boy, thinking.
It was high noon when the doorkeeper of the White House, hardened into a very stony guard by the daily onslaught of Lincoln seekers, saw an impetuous youth leap from a light carriage and help a woman up the portico steps toward him.
“In which room is the president?” asked Dan.
“He’s very busy,” said the doorkeeper, probably for the five hundredth time that morning. “Have you an appointment?”
“No, but he said I should drop in when I wanted to; and what’s more, here’s my ‘latchkey’”; and Dan, trembling a little with haste and pride, showed him the card. “A. Lincoln” had written.
The man looked quizzically at it and at him. “In that case,” he said, dryly, “you’d better step into the waiting room there.”
There must have been forty or fifty people crowded into the anteroom, each on some urgent errand. Some were in uniform; all looked tired, impatient, important. Dan saw the situation, and knew that Lincoln could never see them all. He whispered to his mother and showed her to a chair, then went up to the doorboy and asked if the president was in the next room. The boy admitted the fact, but would not admit anything further, including Dan.
The annoyed looks on the faces of the waiting people deepened. Does this urchin [said their looks] expect to see the president today, when so many more important persons (such as we) are kept waiting?
Dan, not caring for etiquette when his brother might be shot at any moment, slipped under the arm of the doorboy and bolted into the room.
Lincoln was standing by the window. He looked around in surprise at the noise of Dan Ripley’s entry. He recognized his walking partner, made a motion for the doorboy, who had one irate hand on Dan, to withdraw, and said: “Why, Dan, I’m glad to see you so soon again. You’re just in time to back me up. Let me introduce you to General Scanlon.”
Dan looked into the amazed and angry eyes of a Union general who, practically ignoring the boy, went on to say: “Mr. President, I repeat that unless these men are made an example of, the army itself may be in danger. Mercy to these twenty-four means cruelty to near a million.”
The president, worn not only from his sleepless night, but from the incessant strain of things, looked grave, for the general spoke truth. He turned to Dan, “Did you go home, sonny?”
“Then I shall keep my half of the bargain. General, this boy and I each walked the woods half the night carrying similar troubles, trying to decide whether it was best to forgive. We decided that it was best, as the Bible says, even to seventy times seven. Dan, how did your folks take it?”
Dan spoke quickly. “It would’a killed them if I’d run off for good, for they just got word that my brother Will – you know I told you about him – is to be shot for sleeping on watch. I just know he was tired out – he didn’t go to sleep on purpose. I told my mothe that you wouldn’t let him be shot, if you knew.”
Lincoln groaned audibly and turned away to the window for a moment. The general snorted.
“I brought my mother in to see you, too,” said Dan, “seeing as she wouldn’t quite believe what I said about our agreement.”
Lincoln looked at the boy, and his sunken eyes glistened. “I agreed for twenty-four lives,” he said; “but I don’t mind throwing in an extra one for you, Dan.”
And this time the general groaned.
“Stoddard,” added the president, “will you see if there is a Will Ripley on file?”
The secretary left the room. Lincoln turned abruptly to the general. “You have heard me,” he said. “I, with the help of God and this boy, threshed out the matter to a conclusion, and we only waste time to discuss it further. If I pardon these deserters, it surely becomes a better investment for the United States than if I had them shot – twenty four live fighters in the ranks, instead of that many corpses underground. There are too many weeping widows now. Don’t ask me to add to that number, for I won’t do it!”
It was rarely that Lincoln was so stirred. There was a strange silence. Then the secretary entered with, “Yes, sir, a Will Ripley is to be executed tomorrow, for sleeping on duty. The case was buried in the files; it should have been brought to you earlier.”
“Better for the case to be buried than the boy,” said the president. “Give me the paper, Stoddard.”
“Then you will!” said Dan, trembling with joy.
“I don’t believe that shooting the boy will do him any good,” said Lincoln, as the pen traced the letters of his name beneath this message, “Will Ripley is not to be shot until further orders from me.”
Dan looked at it. “Oh, thank you!” he said. “Can I bring mother in to see it – and to see you?” he asked.
The president looked down into the shining face and could not refuse. In a moment, Dan’s mother was in the room. She was all confused; the general was red with irritation.
She read the message. it didn’t seem quite clear to her . “Is that a pardon? Does that mean that he won’t be shot at all?”
“My dear madam,” replied Lincoln, kindly, “evidently you are not acquainted with me. If your son never looks on death till orders come from me to shoot him, he will live to be a great deal older than anyone else.”
She stretched out both her hands, crying, “I want to thank you, sir. Oh thank you, thank you!”
“Thank Dan here,” said Lincoln. “If he had not let the warmth of forgiveness soften his heart, Will Ripley would have died. And perhaps, if I had not met him in the woods at dawn, I might have gone into eternity with the blood of these twenty-four men on my hands. Dan helped me.
“True, they are erring soldiers, Mrs. Ripley. But we must consider what they have done and what they will do as intently as we consider the wrong of the moment. Good-bye, Dan; we shall both remember today with easy consciences.”
The waiting crowd in the anteroom could not understand, of course, why that intruder of a boy who had fairly dragged the woman in to see the president so unceremoniously should bring her out on his arm with such conscious pride. They could not understand why the tears were rolling down her cheeks at the same time that a smile glorified her face. They did not see that the boy was walking on air, on light. But the dullest of them could see that he was radiant with a great happiness.
And if they could have looked past him and pierced the door of the inner room with their wondering glances, they would have seen a reflection of Dan’s joy still shining on the somber, deep-lined face of the man who again indulged himself – in mercy.
“A Lesson in Forgiveness,” by T. Morris Longstreth. Published in The Youth’s Instructor, February 10, 1925. Reprinted by permission of Joe Wheeler (P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433) and Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, MD 21740.