“Gettysburg Trip” from “Death Piled Hard” by W. Patrick Lang

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            "Edwin Stanton was not a generous man.  He hated anyone who might prove a rival for power and position, anyone.  He often worked late and alone brooding on the threats presented by wartime Washington.

            On this particular November morning, he sat in his 17th St, office in the light of day, and reflected on the many slights offered to him.  He correctly believed that Washington was filled with his enemies.  The Confederate underground was not among his pre-occupations.  He reckoned that he and Lafayette Baker could deal with them straightforwardly.   No.  Edwin Stanton was more concerned with his rivals within the Lincoln Administration.  They are all jealous, he thought.  There are so many, so many from before the war.  They are waiting for a sign of vulnerability, a political weakness, a chance to make me look inept before the president.  Today he had something special to worry about.  He was not happy with Lincoln’s invitation to Devereux to accompany the official party to the cemetery dedication.  It was bad enough that so many officers of the regular army and navy had direct political access to the president without the hazard of this man who worked in Stanton’s own offices being given several days with Lincoln without benefit of Stanton’s supervision.  Who knew what sort of foolishness he might tell the president.  He looked out the grimy window of his office.  Leaves fell and rattled against the cold glass of late autumn.  A hopelessly lost cardinal landed on the sill and looked in.  It pecked the glass hoping for food, for anything.  He looked away.  The bird flew on.  It had been left behind as its kind flew south toward warmth and food.

            Stanton forced his attention back to the task at hand.  It was his way.  The need to survive and prosper was always foremost in his mind.  After all, he thought he is still a Virginian, even though a loyalist.   How much can you ever really trust these people? 
Innate caution made him thing of Devereux, the man, as opposed to Devereux the potential rival.   In civilian life he is a merchant banker.  What sort of schemes will he press the president to support either now or after the war?  After the war, I must think of “after the war.”

             The Devereuxs were rich, rich beyond the dreams of most Americans.  Perhaps it would be a good idea not to antagonize the banker…  I wonder if he has political ambition?  Let him talk to the president.  I should talk to this man now.

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            “Have you thought of politics, perhaps a senate seat from Virginia, once this… is over?”  The question seemed normal in the context of conversation with the slim, elegant figure in dark blue.  The volunteer colonel sat across the desk in an erect but annoyingly relaxed pose.  The silver eagles inside rectangular gold braided shoulder straps looked very natural on his uniform tunic.  Salt and pepper hair added to the aura of restrained dignity and discreet power that hung around the shoulders.

            Claude smiled his usual costume ball smile, basking behind it in the comfort of Stanton’s uncertainty and insecurity.  “No, sir,” he replied.  “I have been planning to take my wife to Europe to live in Paris and to run our company’s Paris office.  We have kin in France whom I would like to see again.  She has never lived in Europe.  My father does not intend to retire and we are hoping that my brother, Joachim, will come to his senses and soon appear at home where he can be of help to father.  My mother misses him deeply, as do we all.”

            Stanton looked blank, and then remembered.  “Ah, the rebel, he is an officer now if I recall correctly from… one of Baker’s reports on you Devereuxs. The last phrase was unsaid but the source of the knowledge lay between them on the Turkey carpet covered table.  “I heard…”

            “I believe that is true,” Claude interrupted, “although we seldom get news of him.”   What do you want to tell me? Devereux asked himself in an echoing space now filling with fear of family disaster.  What would I tell father?  He has little use for me now for leaving Jake behind with the army.  What will he think if I bring him news of Jake’s death?  Later, he realized that he had not thought of his mother in his first moment of panic. 

            “I think it is a good idea that you should ride up to Gettysburg with the president and help him with his speech.  You write well… You can tell me what his intimate thoughts are on this office and the war.  He does not talk to me very much.  I wonder why…”  The smug superiority that Stanton felt toward Lincoln was visible for a second.  Then, it was gone, replaced with his own mask.

            I write well, Devereux thought?   I am a credit to my people?  Thank you, master.  Perhaps Yale had something to do with that. 

            Stanton felt intimidated by this man.  He did not like that feeling.  He was accustomed to reacting to such feelings with a murderous hostility.  Somewhere down inside him he knew that Devereux laughed at him, despised him, thought himself superior in every way.  I hate him.  Stanton thought.  I always have.  Why did I take him into the office? Ah, the bank, now I remember.  His damnable father knows everyone who is anyone.  These damned slave beating “gentlemen,” how dare they?  How dare they?      Devereux’s very uniform spoke of the difference in class between the two of them.   The fine broadcloth looked painted on the man without being tight anywhere.  The double row of gold buttons had a suspiciously soft glow.  Bullion?  Looking down, the secretary of war saw black half boots that spoke of a London maker.  Small rounded silver spurs without rowels were built into the back of the heels.  Mastering himself, Stanton smiled.  “I hope you have a nice trip.”

            Devereux looked slightly anxious.  “Are you not coming, sir?”  He did not like the thought of days on end in Lincoln’s company.    What on earth will I say to him?

            “No.  I have not been invited.  Let me know how it went…” 

            Watching Devereux’s retreat through the office door, he gloated over the conviction that no one liked Claude Devereux, no one at all. 

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            Stanton was a good judge of people, but this time he was wrong.  Abraham Lincoln liked Devereux very much.  Claude’s elegant presence, fine wit, and unshakable calm re-assured him.  He had liked both the Devereux brothers.  He had been hurt in a very personal way by Patrick’s death.  The loss had come at a bad time.  He had been open to new hurt because of the sudden death of his son, Willie.  And then there was always the matter of his wife and her perpetual illnesses and physical weakness.  She blamed him.  She blamed him for everything evil that happened.  There were so many deaths in the war and he felt responsible for all of them.  Union and Confederate combat deaths injured him personally.  He could not separate them in his mind.  He still thought of the rebels as Americans gone astray and he yearned for their repentance. The guerrillas for whom he had approved death sentences by the hundreds in Missouri did not affect him the same way.  He believed that these were evil men who had injured the innocent, but the death of soldiers, any soldiers, wounded him.

            Unfortunately for all concerned, Claude Devereux increasingly liked Lincoln as a person, and as someone who unaccountably was worried about Devereux’s state of mind and well being. Why the president would take a personal interest in him was a mystery to Devereux.   He had no idea of the cause, but the feeling of being appreciated was comforting.  Devereux’s father remained a distant and disapproving figure.  The knowledge of the dangerous and demanding mission that Claude has accepted had done nothing to improve that.  Devereux had seen Lincoln with his father on several public occasions.  The contrast in warmth and feeling was painful.

            His wife did not like Lincoln and freely said why.  She had said repeatedly that there was something twisted about him, something that made her uncomfortable, but would go no further.  Claude tended to discount her opinion in this as the zeal of a convert against the enemy.   Her jealousy of anyone he felt close to made her opinion even more suspect.

            One day in the middle of November his mother listened to a renewal of this discussion in her private parlor and finally asked Claude if he thought that Lincoln liked women in the same way that he did.   He was shocked by the question but his wife did not seem to be, nor did Victoria, who happened to be there.  George White listened attentively from beside his butler’s cart.

            “You are not serious?” Claude replied? 

            His mother said nothing at first, intent on her needlework.  “No?” she finally asked, looking up.  A small smile played across her pretty face.  “Come now, we are not so American and bourgeois as to discount the possibility…  Your father detests him.   He thinks him among the worst men he has ever met.”

            “It is more than a possibility,” Hope said with a mocking smile on her beautiful face.  “I would like to ask Amy Biddle about the possibility….  At least she and I would know how little chance…  Of course, she might not know what I meant.”

            “Why would you say this?” Claude asked.

            “There is talk,” his mother said.”

            “About me?”

            “No.  No, about him” his wife said.  She looked displeased.

            “Enough,” Victoria intervened. 

            “Easy enough for you to say,” Hope said while looking at her husband.  Her face was flushed. “That noble French fool pines for you somewhere away down there … How many letters now?”

            “More tea?” White asked in search a way to rescue Devereux.

——————————————————————-

            On the 18th, Devereux settled into a big parlor car chair reserved for him on the president’s train.  Mercifully, someone had placed him two cars away from Lincoln.  Sgt. John Quick rode with him to the station in Washington, and then boarded a car for orderlies farther back in the train.

            Black smoke surrounded the engine and cars as the train left the station.  The city looked terrible in the early morning light; sooty, rundown, overly rich, vulgar.  The Maryland countryside was still green.  He could concentrate on that as the train rolled north.  His welcomed solitude lasted until the Baltimore station.

            Then, John Hay came walking back through the train looking for him.  “The boss wants you,” he said in his usual pleasant way.  “He says he needs help with the draft remarks he has been writing.”  He frowned a little, seeming to find that need odd. 

——————————————————–

            Two hours later Devereux sat across the carpeted aisle from Lincoln with the notes of the speech in his right hand and a pencil in the other.  “It’s too long,” he said looking up at the bearded face.   It’s not too long he thought to himself.  The damned thing is perfect.  Perfect.  This will be in every newspaper in the country tomorrow.  It is a perfect piece of preaching for their cause.

            The president squinted his eyes at him.  The red and black curtains draping the windows swayed behind and around him.  “I thought it was rather good,” he said.  He seemed puzzled.  “Senator Everett will speak at length.  He wrote last week to give me the skeleton of his remarks.  It will be most elegant, dignified and written to be something like that fellow Pericles’ funeral speech.”  Lincoln always risked ridicule when he attempted classical reference in his rural Kentucky voice.  The high pitch of his speaking apparatus only made it worse.

            “Sir that is why I think you must concentrate on the elegiac quality of a lyrical and poetic expression, something that will sing in history rather than preach of politics.  We Americans need to be reminded of first things, of the founding principles that have made us one people that the rebels are trying to drive apart…”  Not too far.  Don’t go too far.  Let us see if he will ruin it by over reaching.  His ego may do that if you don’t push too hard.

            “Think so?  The tall man contemplated him.  “Tell me what it looked like from the ridge when Lee attacked the third day?  I need to see it in my head to finish this, to make it sing.”

            Can I do this? Claude asked himself.  I pushed Joe Hooker into sending this man a telegram that got him fired.  Can I hope to do that now and strike a subtle blow against them, or will I over reach rather than he?

——————————————————-

“…the graves of our brethren beneath our feet call out to us.  It is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; — grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.”

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            Everett sounded good.  He was in fine speaking form, just as Wilkes Booth was when we saw him – last week, was it?   Booth,  Hope sees something in him,  something that I do not.   If Everett keeps this up, he is bound to make Lincoln look bad, Devereux thought.

            It was cold, cold in a mixed up Pennsylvania in November kind of way, “A day so fair and foul.”  Macbeth.   Claude felt momentarily happy with himself over the line.   It was freezing cold on the platform.  The wide wooden structure faced south, toward the length of what had already come to be called Cemetery Ridge.  He could see the little patch of tall trees where his brother Patrick had died and where Devereux would have shot George Meade if only the man had been closer.  Lincoln sat at the middle of the platform, near the bombast, Everett.

            A thought came over Devereux; I could shoot him from here.  Claude’s service Colt was in its holster at his side.  It would be an easy shot.  The pistol was a custom order from the factory in Connecticut.  Old man Colt owed “Devereux and Wheatley” money.  This was a special gun.  This would be a very easy shot.  Claude contemplated the back of Lincoln’s head.   Why not do it now?

             For some reason Abraham Lincoln turned and looked at him, and then smiled.  It was one of those moments when staring at someone for a while becomes a kind of spectral touch.  The expression on his face told Devereux that Lincoln was bored and frustrated with Everett’s speech.

            In that moment Devereux knew several things.  Most importantly, he would never kill Lincoln himself.   He had killed before and except for the death of George Dangerfield, a friend he killed in a foolish duel, he had little difficulty in living with the memory.   He had come to understand that Lincoln would have to be removed from government if the South were to live,  but he now saw  that Lincoln was both the best and the worst of things for him.   Devereux had searched all his life for acceptance and friendship.  Something in him demanded it, indeed screamed for it, but some other part of his being kept him from finding that friendship, that brotherhood.   Devereux knew that someone else would have to act strike this tall, bearded man.  He could not.

            He felt secure in his opinion that the women in his family were wrong in suspecting something hidden in Lincoln’s nature.   Devereux did not think that Lincoln had a “lavender streak,” but this was of no great importance to him.   He was as secure in his own nature as any man who ever lived.   Lincoln could be what he might be; it had nothing to do with Devereux.  At the same time, it would not hurt to be alert for symptoms of such inclinations.   For Claude, the difficulty of dealing with his two women was much greater importance.  There was little doubt that Hope Devereux was doubtful of his fidelity.   The memory of her sweet and passionate self called him home to her.  At the same time, Amy Biddle’s had become someone whom he could not imagine giving up.  Her sad and needy devotion to him was matched by the heat of the new found sexuality he had awakened in her.

            The foolishness of his reckless philandering impressed him in his soberer moments.  He was certain that the triangle he had created would end in emotional disaster, but he was powerless to help himself, a prisoner of the very qualities and characteristics that made him such a formidable spy,

            The clouds came over fast, soaring across the sky and leaving those listening below in a madcap harlequin succession of light and darkness.  Must be something symbolic in that.I ought to be able to think of a quotation… He could not.  Everett droned on.  There were a lot of people in the audience, all sitting on those round backed chairs often seen in cafés or church basements.  There were graves everywhere.  The work of reinterring the Yankee dead went on.  Across the field where Pickett’s men had attacked there were open holes.  The bodies had been buried there just after the battle.  The fresh dirt on a lot of the graves looked grayish brown.  Yankee dirt.  There were caskets along one wall of the new cemetery.

            Across the way, Claude could see the brick arch on the road leading into the local cemetery.  “Evergreen Cemetery” was inscribed on the arch.  He remembered that Bill White and he had taken refuge there when they arrived with Howard’s Corps the first day of the battle.  He remembered the Sanitary Commission wagon they had ridden in Howard’s column.   He looked down the ridge again.  A red bird settled on a branch in his line of vision to the group of trees.  What the hell are you doing here this time of year, he thought and smiled?   Is that you, Pat, come back to visit us on this day of days? What should I do?  Tell me.  Is it my task to kill this man? Is that what you are here to tell me? Surely not?  I have no taste for murder.

             Everett’s voice rose to a closing note.

“But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg.”

            The applause was polite but less than deafening.  Devereux was struck by a moment of doubt as he thought of the last draft of Lincoln’s remarks.   The copy that Lincoln had given him, written in Devereux’s hand and covered with Lincoln’s notations was in his breast pocket.  The tall bearded man approached the speaker’s rostrum.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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            Applause was sustained and thunderous.  With lead in his heart Devereux knew that he had failed.  He knew that he had made the speech better.   This speech had wings.

            Lincoln looked at him amid the applause and nodded in gratitude.

            Devereux knew then that he could never escape responsibility for an end that he did not want.

            The little red bird flew away toward the other side of the valley, toward Seminary Ridge."

End

 

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

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12 Responses to “Gettysburg Trip” from “Death Piled Hard” by W. Patrick Lang

  1. Maureen Lang says:

    Still as moving, evocative as the first time I read it.
    Thanks for posting this passage from the Strike The Tent trilogy today, Pat.

  2. Has not Stanton’s reputation improved with passage of time?

  3. Will says:

    very good. gettysburg will always remain to me the greatest battle fought on American soil. have read, listened to the audio, and seen the movie Killer Angels. now reading Newt Gingrich and Bill Forstchen’s alternate histories of Gettysburg and thereafter.

  4. turcopolier says:

    WRC
    Stanton? Not for me. pl

  5. Matthew says:

    Col: Lincoln’s ability to overlook boorishness was one of his greatest traits. See http://www.lib.niu.edu/1995/ihy950230.html
    Money quote;
    “A few days later Lincoln left to find Watson in Cincinnati. He arrived dressed in his best suit. When Stanton saw him, he asked, “Where did the long-armed baboon come from?” He then described him as “A long, lank creature from Illinois, wearing a dirty linen duster for a coat and the back of which perspiration had splotched wide stains that resembled a map of the continent.”

  6. nick b says:

    That was a fun read: southern ladies asking about ‘lavender streaks’ and a troubled confederate spy polishing up the Gettysburg address. The thing I enjoyed most was, that knowing you just a little, Col., I had to wonder how much of the story was your imagination and how much was deeply researched and real history.
    I could relate to Devereux in a small way. When I was young and working in politics, on a cold January day I sat with another colleague in the living room of well connected campaign consultant. He was working on the text of a speech when we arrived. He asked us to read a paragraph and if we would make any changes. I think my friend made a minor suggestion that was used.
    Later that month, on a much colder January morning on the mall in DC, we were both stunned to hear the newly inaugurated President us the exact paragraph, word for word, in his inauguration speech. Not quite the access Devereux had, but I could relate.

  7. turcopolier says:

    nick b
    As you perceive I know a great deal about that period in terms of events, politics, personalities, social mores in different parts of the US and CS and in different classes of society. Like you, I have observed the behavior of politicians and generals in the way they reach out to favored subordinates for “help” in things like speech writing. This often causes jealousies among the staff as in this case. With that as background I “unleashed” these characters in the matter of the Gettysburg Address and they behaved as I thought they necessarily would given their circumstances and nature. Southern ladies were quite aware of homosexuals in their world. Was Lincoln bisexual? I have no idea, but it is a possibility given his history. Like Devereux I have no interest in the matter other than asa plot element. pl

  8. turcopolier says:

    will
    Maybe you should read “The Butcher’s Cleaver.” pl

  9. I thought it a fine twist to have the Confederate spy Claude Devereux helping out with the Gettysburg Address.
    There is an interesting discussion of that document by Richard Gamble in the current edition of the ‘American Conservative’. It opens:
    ‘Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has achieved a status as American Scripture equaled only by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Washington’s Farewell Address. In merely 271 words, the wartime president fused his epoch’s most powerful and disruptive tendencies – nationalism, democratism, and German idealism – into a civil religion indebted to the language of Christianity but devoid of its content.’
    And closes:
    ‘One hundred and fifty years ago, President Lincoln, in the midst of a long and brutal war, deployed a powerful civil religion, civil history, and civil philosophy to superimpose one reading of American history onto any competitors. Ever since, generations of Americans have come to believe that we have always been a democratic nation animated by an Idea. The alternatives have been excluded from the national creed as heresy. The way most Americans today interpret the Declaration of Independence, the purposes of the War for Independence, the principles that underlie America’s Constitution, the causes and consequences of the Civil War, and the calling of the propositional nation to the rest of the world comes largely from the Gettysburg Address. To the degree we allow Lincoln’s words to mediate how we read American history, they will continue to settle, preemptively, the most contested questions about America’s origin, purpose, and destiny.’
    (See http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/gettysburg-gospel/ )

  10. nick b says:

    It all made for a very enjoyable read. Thank you.

  11. turcopolier says:

    Nick b
    If you have not read it you would enjoy the trilogy. pl

  12. nick b says:

    I have alerted Santa.

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