“How We Marched through Georgia” — A Union Soldier’s Tale of the Civil War

Cover for the Saturday Evening Post's Civil War collector's issue, featuring Gen. U.S. Grant on the cover.

This article and other stories of the Civil War can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Saturday Evening Post: Untold Stories of the Civil War.

—This account appeared in the May 20, 1961, issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

Robert Hale Strong was just 19 when he marched off to the Civil War with the 105th Illinois Union Volunteer Infantry and lived through grim fighting in the Georgia-Carolinas cam- paign. In his letters home, he told with brutal realism but unflagging good humor of humanity under fire and American courage of both sides. The following article is excerpted from that manuscript, later published under the title A Yankee Private’s Civil War.

* * *

We were under fire every day for about a month between Buzzard Roost and Atlanta, Georgia. I don’t mean that we were in a big battle every day, but were in a fight or skirmish on the picket line, always firing at one another. All the way to Atlanta was a series of fights. We did not always have it our own way; the Rebs were as stubborn as mules.

Scene from General Tecumseh Sherman's March to the Sea, with Union soldiers tearing up railroad tracks and, in the background, a house is burining.
Sherman’s March to the Sea followed a “scorched earth” policy, aiming to disrupt the Confederates’ access to resources and slow their campaign. (Library of Congress)

One time the enemy’s range was extra good, I remember, and their shells and bullets kept us dodging busily. You must understand that it was no real use to dodge, as the balls would either hit or pass us quicker than we could dodge. Old Col. Dustin saw the boys dodging, and he sung out, “Stop that dodging. Stop it, I say!” Just then along came a shell pretty close to his head. He was on horseback, and he bowed his head almost to the saddlebow. The boys laughed, whooped, and yelled. The colonel straightened up and said, “Well, d—n it, dodge a little, then.”

That same day, it seems to me, we experienced the heaviest musketry and artillery fire that we had all through the war. We fought them all day. They were on an elevation, and it is a fact that after we were relieved and started to the rear we could see round shot roll along the ground with enough force to tear off a man’s foot, as one negro discovered who tried to stop one with his foot. About then I found I had lost my knife and my pocketbook. I started to go back to the rail fence where we had been, to look for them. When I got nearly there, I found the Rebs had taken possession, and I lost all desire to recover my property.

The second day of the fight, we had been advanced to- ward the enemy in the shape of an upside-down V, with our troops at the point and Rebs on each side and in front. We were in timber. Across an open field we could see the Rebs massing about 80 rods away for a charge. The 102nd Illinois, armed with Spencer rifles, seven-shooters, were deployed in front of us as skirmishers. As the Rebs would advance, the 102nd boys would open on them with their seven-shooters and pretty soon, back they would go, only to rally and try again. We could hear their officers cursing them for cowards to run from nothing more than a thin line of skirmishers.

Shortly after they quit coming for us, Gen. Joe Hooker rode up, looked around and asked, “Who has command of these troops?”

Brig. Gen. William T. Ward said, “I have, sir.”

“D—n you, sir,” says Hooker, “don’t you know you have got these boys in a trap? The enemy are on three sides of them and prepared to charge on each side. Recall everybody but skirmishers and tell them to fall back quietly — don’t let a tin cup rattle to tell the Rebs that we are moving.” So we got out of that, but it was a close call.

During the first part of the Atlanta Campaign, I messed with Matthias Stephens and Ernst Hymen, both good, quiet, religious boys. One night, after advancing and driving the enemy all day, my mess had gone to our pup tents, and we were talking about the probability of a battle on the morrow. I used some strong language about the enemy and about our having to work so hard on short rations. Stephens checked me, saying, “Don’t talk so. Some of us will be killed tomorrow in the fight.”

Well, early the next morning we began a running fight, with the enemy falling back slowly. In advancing, we took advantage of all the shelter we could get, behind logs or stumps. My position was on the right of the company, being one of the tallest boys, but of course in that kind of advance ranks are not kept very true. It got to be a pretty hot fight. I heard someone call out, “Strong — Bob Strong!”

Before I could answer, someone else says, “The man call- ing you is out there in front of the line.” I saw the hit man shudder and lay his head down on his arm. I knew he undoubtedly was killed, for if only wounded he would have called further for help.

The Rebels refused to be driven any farther for hours. It was nearly sundown when they pulled out and we advanced. Our boys all gathered around the fallen man in our immediate front. Sure enough, it was one of my messmates, Ernst Hymen. He was shot directly through the top of his head and probably never knew what hurt him. Our orders were to push on after the enemy, but a few of us remained, dug a pit and wrapped Ernst in a blanket in his lonely grave.

Illustration showing Union soldiers capturing Buzzard's Roost during the Civil War.
Gen. William T. Sherman’s Georgia campaign resulted, in 1864, in the capture of Buzzard’s Roost at Hovey Gap, shown in this illustration. (Frank Leslie)

One day during a battle our brigade was ordered from center around to the right of the enemy. We marched just behind entrenchments filled with Yankees and across a field where we could see the enemies’ breastworks. We watched them working their artillery, with their shell and shot whistling over and among us. At the rear of the regiment were the major and Dr. Potter, brigade surgeon. If we saw a shell coming low, the men in line with it would lie down. One came along, striking the ground and rebounding. Dr. Potter with others was directly in line. Some lay down. Dr. Potter laughed at the boys. The shell struck the ground just in front of him, rebounded and took the top of his head off. As it hit him, a little puff went up from his head, and he fell dead. Then the shell struck the ground a few feet beyond him and stopped, with the fuse hissing. One of our boys ran to it and poured water from his canteen onto the fuse, putting it out and thereby probably saving many lives at the risk of his own.

At that point we were ordered to support a battery. As we came in sight of the battery, the Rebs, in three lines, They were about as near it as we were. We went on the run to save it. How those gunners did work those guns! At every discharge we could see holes open in the Johnnies’ ranks, but they closed up and kept on coming. When we reached our place behind the guns, the Rebs were not more than 100 feet away. Even in our hurry and great danger we handled our rifles as if on drill. Every man reached his place, pointed toward the enemy, and began firing. The Rebs were not more than 60 feet away. They went down like a boy shooting into a flock of blackbirds. It checked the charge, and the Rebs fell back. Our boys sent up a big cheer, then the battery boys had to shake hands with such of us as they could reach.

The enemy infantry having pulled back, their artillery began firing at us. Our battery returned the fire. We of the infantry lay down so as not to catch any more of the shot and shell than we could help. It was said there were 700 dead and wounded in our front. I know it looked as if we could walk over men without putting foot to the ground.

After our battery opened on them, the enemy scattered. Then we were ordered to do a thing that I thought then, and think now, was a foolish, foolhardy thing. Our music struck up, and with arms at “shoulder” we marched in a solid square out into that open field, the bands playing Be- hold the Conquering Hero Comes. There we stood at “rest,” supposing all the time that the Rebs would open fire, as we were in plain view of them.

Two photographs showing William T. Sherman on hoseback, and Union army wagons.
Left: Gen. Sherman led an extraordinary campaign across the South, which became a turning point in the war. In this photograph, taken on July 19, 1864, he’s behind Union lines facing Atlanta, Georgia. Three days later, his troops would capture the city. Right: Shortly after the capture of Atlanta, wagons sit loaded with Union supplies, ready for the next phase of Sherman’s plan: the March to the Sea. (Library of Congress)

We lay down, expecting we were now safe for the rest of the day. Scott was marching up and down in front of us, declaiming some funny piece to amuse us, when the Rebs began to shell us. Scott kept on declaiming, and the boys kept on laughing. Then, with a heavy shock, a big shell struck within ten feet in front of our company and buried itself in the ground. We just held our breaths, expect- ing it to explode. Scott threw himself on the ground. I flattened myself out on the ground, until I seemed to have made a hole in it. May- be you can imagine what the suspense was, waiting for some of us to be killed. Of course, all this happened quicker than you can read it. After perhaps a minute Mark Naper lifted his head, his eyes big as saucers, and said, “Why don’t the — thing bust?” That made us laugh. As far as I know, the shell never did explode.

We became so used to noise — the firing of guns and can- non, the yelling and cursing of teamsters and artillerymen, and the blaring of bugles — that when permitted we would lay down and go to sleep amid it all and only our brigade bugle call would rouse us.

On the famous march from Atlanta to the sea we traveled light. Three days’ rations were issued to each man. Fifteen days’ rations for each man was put into wagons. We were ordered to form forage squads and to live off the country or go hungry. We did both at times, often having nothing to eat for 24 hours. Commonly our rations consisted of sowbelly — fat salt pork — and hardtack. We got four large hardtacks — crackers so dry as to resist all action of the weather — as a day’s ration. We had coffee, too, and sometimes sugar. At times we would draw what was called desiccated vegetables, a mixture of peas, beans, cabbage, turnips, carrots, onions, and beets, with grass to hold everything together, and dried and pressed. A piece an inch square would swell and swell into all the soup a man could eat. It was not to be despised. Our coffee generally was parched. Sometimes we would boil the berries whole, save and dry them later and trade them to the natives for corn bread, milk or butter. It was a fair exchange for some of the pies we got. Nobody but a soldier or an ostrich could digest them.

During this time we could draw no clothing, and ours was nearly worn out and did not pretend to cover our nakedness. I have foraged women’s shoes and stockings and worn them too. The mountain women had good-sized feet and wore heavy calf shoes, so I did not do so bad.

Our orders, while out foraging, were to capture all Confederate soldiers, seize all horses, burn all cotton and all Rebel government stores, but not to molest any citizens who remained at home and to respect all private property except for horses, mules and forage for man and beast. As far as I know, the order was respected.

Many times in Georgia we and the Rebs — after skirmishing and shooting at each other all day — arranged our own private truces. Once we stripped off, swam to a sand bar in the middle of a little river and traded our coffee for their tobacco. When we lay for a time along the Chattahoochee River, we agreed not to fire at each other except by officers’ orders and, if such orders were given, to notify the other side before firing. We told each other across the river, about 20 or 30 rods wide, that if we did kill a man once in a while it would have no effect on the war as a whole, that it was all nonsense.

One evening just before sundown, as both sides were taking it easy, a Rebel officer galloped up on his horse and began cursing and swearing at his men for not shooting the d—n Yankees. “Talking with them, are you?” he yelled. “Begin firing and shoot the hell out of them.”

Photo portrait of Pvt. Robert Hale Strong in his Union army uniform.
A portrait of the author, Pvt. Strong of the 105th Illinois Volunteers, who lived to share his story. (Library of Congress)

We could hear everything he said and took up our guns. The Rebs yelled, “Hunt your holes.”

Little Charley Hapgood of our regiment, a splendid shot, says, “I’ll fix him.” We all stood watching as Charley fired. The Rebel officer threw up his arms and fell dead.

We cheered and cheered and called, “Say, Johnny, is it time to hunt our holes yet?” and they said, “No, he was a damn fool anyway and deserved what he got.”

Later on I also had some trouble with one of our own officers, a general, no less. In our corps, the Twentieth, one division consisted in part of Eastern troops under Maj. Gen. John W. Geary of Pennsylvania. Geary was a martinet, much stiffer with his boys than we of the West could stand. He frequently threatened to arrest us while foraging and confiscate our forage. He was cruel, too, in exacting full discipline of his men. I have many times on the march passed his camp and seen men with a cord tied around their thumbs, standing on tiptoe with their arms stretched above their heads and their thumbs tied to the limb of a tree. It was an ugly sight, and more than once our boys cut the men down.

My run-in with Geary came one morning when I was walking back from the advance guard with a message. About halfway, Geary and his adjutant rode up. I saluted and stepped aside to let them pass. Halting his horse, he asked, “What in hell and damnation are you doing here?” I told him. “You’re a damned liar, you are skulking,” he replied. “About face and go with us until we meet your command.” I told him that he was mistaken, that I was obeying orders already and could not obey him. He swore he would cut me down and drew his sword. His adjutant moved to draw a pistol.

I cocked my gun and said, “Sew, or I’ll kill you both where you are.” I then repeated my story and begged their pardon for my conduct.

Geary remarked to the adjutant, “I expect we were too fast,” and to me, “I believe you, and I am sorry for my anger.” He went one way, and I went the other.

It seems terrible to think about it now, but the boys would kick a skull out of the way as indifferently as if it had been a stone. Some would pick up a skull with a bullet hole in it and speculate about it.

Picket or guard duty was fun for the boys, for they not only got away from camp but had a chance to catch up officers. One time I stood sentry close to the enemy lines. Oh, how it rained! The mud was half knee-deep. Just as the morning began to get gray, I saw out in front of us a man slipping along from tree to tree, followed by several more. He passed post after post until he came to mine. He had on an old slouch hat, pulled well down over his face to keep the rain off, and a rubber blanket, high boots with spurs and a sword at his side. Well, I says to myself, it is Sherman, but he must come in like anybody else.

As he got in front of me, I called to halt him. At first he paid no attention, so I cocked my gun and says, “Halt! Come in or I’ll fire.”

Sherman and his staff put their hands up and came up to me, all of them. Sherman shook hands and said this was the only post but one to halt him, and that other posts let him go as soon as they knew him. I said, “Our orders were to halt everything that moved in our front.”

He said, “You did right,” and said he was out examining the lines. When he left, I saluted him, and he and his companions returned the salute. He was a nice general. Wherever he went, the boys would give three cheers for “Old Tecump” or for “Billy T,” and he would grin and wave his hat to us. He could joke too. There were lots of foreigners — Germans, Irish and others — among our troops. Once when the Rebs stopped us near Atlanta, I heard that Sher- man shouted command-like, “Attention, creation! Forward by nations and flank them!”

While marching through the public square at Smithfield, North Carolina, we saw Sherman seated on a big block. Behind him was an elevated platform with a rail, and in the center of it a tall and stout post with rings and cords attached. The platform was the auctioneer’s stand where he knocked off slaves to the highest bidder. The post was the whipping post. Just as we came up to Sherman, he cast his eyes toward this platform and waved his hand toward it. In just one minute, we had it torn down. Someone struck a match, and the whipping post was no more.

As we hurried by him, we asked, “How’s that, general?”

Companies of Union solders march through Washington D.C. before the President and his generals.
After weeks of mourning Lincoln’s eath, the nation’s capital held a Grand Review of the Armies. On May 23-24, 1865, 150,000 solderis marched down Pennsylvania Avenue past the grandstand holding President Johnson, Gens. Grant and Sherman, and many others. (Library of Congress)

He grinned and said, “Good job.”

In Richmond a large section had been burned, and for blocks and blocks the weeds and grass were growing where houses had been and between paving stones. It was a picture of desolation and ruin. The country beyond Richmond was so bare that orders were very strict against foraging, but the boys had innumerable excuses when found with a pig, goose, or chicken. The goose tried to bite, so had to be killed. The chickens crowed to the tune of Dixie, so had their necks wrung. Pigs squealed for Jeff Davis, and soldiers could not stand that!

Then we marched for hours across the field of the Battle of the Wilderness, which lasted for days. We could tell by the graves how far charges went, and where Rebels and Yankees had stood. The dead were barely buried. It seems terrible to think of it now, but the boys would kick a skull out of the way as indifferently as if it had been a stone. Some would pick up a skull with a bullet hole in it and speculate about it.

At the end of it all the Army of the Potomac, in white gloves and collars, with new uniforms, with their buckles and eagles bright as stars, paraded through Washington past the grandstand which contained President Johnson, generals Grant and Sherman and many others. The next day we of the West had our parade. We had been ordered to draw new uniforms. At the last moment our regiment packed them away. Instead of smart knapsacks, we had our blankets rolled up and hanging over our shoulders. We were so tanned we looked almost black, with worn uniforms and all kinds of hats, but our guns were always clean and bright. There was not a collar or pair of white gloves among a thousand men. There was as great a contrast between us and the “feather-bed soldiers” as possible. But when we halted in front of the reviewing stand, everybody cheered like mad. We stood there, as indifferent as an old maid to the voice of flattery.

“How We Marched Through Georgia,” May 20, 1961

Heroes of Vietnam: The Black Veteran

Vietnam SIP CoverThis article and other features about America in Vietnam can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Heroes of Vietnam. This edition can be ordered here.

This article was originally published on May 4, 1968.


Ron Harmon talking to a reporter on a train platform.
A department store laid off Ron Harmon; the phone company turned him down as a trainee; and he failed a test for a labor union. Finally, he had to take a job as a cook.
(Frank Dandridge, © SEPS)

When I got on the bus there at Travis Air Force Base, headed downtown for San Francisco, I had my discharge papers in my pocket and I had $1,200 in savings. It felt good. We got to the gate at Travis, and right outside was this big sign flashing Go-Go Girls! We started yelling, ‘Stop the bus, man! Stop the bus!’ And he did. And we all piled out, duffel bags and all. I mean, you can always catch another bus.”

Ronald Harmon was talking in the Blue Moon Bar on White Plains Road in the Bronx. Ten months had passed since he burst through the gates of Travis, and he was dead broke and unemployed. His last employer, B. Altman’s, a big New York department store, had laid him off two days before Christmas. His mother was in a hospital with pneumonia, brought on by holding down two jobs in an attempt to keep her family together. “It was like getting hit on the head,” said Harmon, a slender man in a shirt of red velour. “You come home thinking the world is going to open right up for you. And you find out you’ve still got to work twice as hard as Whitey, just to stay alive.”

There will be more than 40,000 of them this year. In growing numbers, the Negro soldier is coming home from the jungles and cities of Vietnam to an unsettling, uncertain future. He is a quite special man, this veteran, capable of greatly enriching the American society to which he returns, or of ripping it to shreds.
Many of them have been exposed for the first time in their lives to total integration, imposed by both Army discipline and the demands of combat. Indeed, they have been immersed in it, for within the tight, closed fraternity of a combat unit, color simply drops away. “The only color in the jungle,” the veterans say, “is green.” The cruel divider in combat is not color but courage and skill at arms.

Almost all of the veterans hold a high-school diploma. Most of them have had technical training of one sort or another during their hitches. Many have commanded white soldiers in battle. “After a tough firefight,” says a Negro paratrooper, “I have seen white boys from the South throw their arms around a Negro noncom, hugging him and kissing him.”

The militant Black Power groups know about this veteran and his importance. These groups, which denounce the U.S. role in Vietnam as “genocide,” are calling on the veteran to enlist his combat skills in a worldwide revolution of colored peoples against their white “oppressors.” On the other hand, Negro moderates like Whitney Young of the National Urban League look hopefully, almost ­wistfully, to the returning veteran for the new and constructive leadership that the Negro community badly needs.

During a long tour of Vietnam, and on a cross-country trip, over dozens of lengthy interviews, some basic patterns emerged.

The veterans themselves are at this point overwhelmingly concerned about their own personal futures. Their attitudes within the Negro movement will probably turn on whether or not they “make it,” a phrase that constantly recurs in their conversations. They are poised young men, but filled with bitterly mixed emotions. They can be smoothly buttoned down in a personnel office for a job interview, and then full of brooding if rejected. “It is those $60-a-week jobs that grind you down,” says Ronald Harmon. “I have pushed my share of those clothes carts in the garment district. I want something better now.”

For many Negro veterans, California is the place to go. James Price, 26, who fought for a year with the tank ­battalion of the 25th Division in the jungles of War Zone C, is slight and intense, a talented amateur at photography. When he got his Army discharge, he made his move from Akron to Los Angeles — where he is cleaning toilets on the night shift at the City Hall Annex and going to school all day.

Student James price listening to a lecture in class.
By day, James Price takes refresher courses to qualify for college. “You have to pass the white man’s exams.” (Frank Dandridge, © SEPS)
Within the tight, closed fraternity of a combat unit, color simply drops away. “The only color in the jungle,” the veterans say, “is green.”

The annex is a big square building at First and Main. By day it is a busy, bustling place; by night it is fluorescent and silent, except for the footsteps and mops of Price and the rest of his clean-up brigade. Between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m., Price cleans 15 places. “It is all coded, automated, you see, by these tags on my cart.” He leaned a mop taller than himself against a toilet wall. “I give them all a good going-over every night, work over the toilet bowls with bleach here, and work over the mirrors there, all according to the tags. I can give you a regular guided tour.”

His voice rose up the scale of anger, and he threw a dirty, wet rag into his cleaning cart. “Is this any job for a man? Is this any job for a man?”

Later, Price explained why he had made his move to Los Angeles. “I don’t know if you know Akron. It is a small town. You can walk right downtown in 20 minutes. When I got back home from Vietnam, it was like, you know, everybody had forgotten I was alive. They said, ‘Oh, it’s you.’ I was down, man, way down, so I came out here bag and baggage and moved in with my dad. He’s got a job driving a truck. We’re having some good times here, times we never got a chance to have when I was a kid.”
Price was raised by his mother. “I used to put my old man down, but I can see now he had his problems. In hard times, it is the man that gets thrown out of work. The woman can always get some sort of a job. It will break a man’s heart. It’s the system, not the man.

“Is ‘Go West’ a good plan? Well, I will tell you. If you’ve got a case of the smarts, this place will knock it out of you. I still feel lost. It’s so big and it’s wide. In Akron, I know who you can trust. Out here you can’t trust nobody; they’re all of them hustling. Now I am making $420 a month, but it slips away, $20 here and $20 there.

“I’m going to hang in there with the work and the school. This chick I was out with the other night said, ‘Money, money, money, that’s all you think about,’ and I said, ‘That’s all there is.’”

The Negro veteran headed for college is a promising, and badly needed, young man. But his problems would defeat all but the most determined. If his high-school training was poor, like Price’s, he must often do remedial work even to get in. The GI bill pays only $130 a month for a single man, just enough to cover tuition in most cases. He must usually hold down a full-time job in addition to his demanding academic work. Price is attending refresher courses in English, math, and economics at an adult training center in Los Angeles. He is hoping to enter Trade Technical College this fall to study accounting or data processing if he can pass the entrance exams.

“I’m losing weight because I’m running so hard all the time,” says Price. “I never have time for a righteous meal. I’m always tired. I work from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., and I go to school from 9:30 till 3:30. The classes bend me just about out of my mind. You are tired and you doze off for a minute, and you’re an hour behind. You miss one week of class and it takes you a month to catch up. It puts you down on yourself.

James Price cleaning toilets in a bathroom
By night, Price cleans toilets in a Los Angeles municipal building. “Is this any job for a man?” he asks. (Frank Dandridge, © SEPS)
Although only 11 percent of the troops in Vietnam are Negro, they have taken 14 percent of the combat death toll.

“My math teacher is this nice white woman, and I sometimes imagine her trying to run a crap game with 10 side bets going and the odds changing with every roll. That is a math exam I could handle without even thinking, and she would flunk. But you’ve got to play the white man’s game — so many apples and oranges, and interest at 6 percent per annum. But going back to school was one of the few good moves I ever made.

“What am I aiming for? I’m going to set me behind a big desk and push some buttons somewhere.”

Many Negro veterans of Vietnam are finding within the Army itself the sort of status and authority that Price is seeking. Their reenlistment rate is three times that of the whites. Many are becoming an elite guard, the shock troops and centurions of a society they could not breach as civilians. Many are paying for it in blood, volunteering for the most dangerous units and most hazardous jobs. Although only 11 percent of the troops in Vietnam are Negro, they have taken 14 percent of the combat death toll. “If you have been called ‘boy’ all your life,” one Negro paratrooper explains, “you want to prove that you’re a man.”

An Air Force veteran, Cpl. Algernon Trimble of Harlem, makes another point. “When you hit E-6 [Staff Sergeant], you have really got it made. Where else would a Negro get to boss white boys around? If he is married, where else could he make enough money to keep his family together?”

A splendid example of this new professional soldier is Elija Fields, 29, of Quincy, Florida. He is modest in speech and unobtrusively flawless in the cut and press of his uniform as an E-7 [Platoon Sergeant] in the 101st Airborne. At Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he runs the combat firing range, he is a star. Over his breast pocket, Fields wears the modest blue, red, and white ribbon of the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s highest decoration after the Medal of Honor. On February 8, 1967, Fields crawled into Viet Cong machine-gun fire and, although hit twice himself, pulled a badly wounded man to safety.

“I’m staying in for the 20 years, and I’ll probably do 30,” Fields says. “The services are still far ahead of the world outside in integration. But the world outside is changing. I believe in Black Power if it means more economic and political power for the Negro. Black Power is like an infantry tactic that can be used well or poorly.

“I’m staying in because it’s a good job, and I like it and do it well.” Fields lives in a brick three-bedroom duplex on post and drives a 1966 blue Ford Galaxie. The family shops at the PX at bargain prices. Rent is free, and Fields takes home $463 a month. “Security for my family is part of it, of course — it is for any Negro. I do hope to be able to send my two children to college. But I’m not a killer for hire. I wouldn’t be in if I did not believe in this country.”

—“I’m Going to Make It — I’ve Got To!,” May 4, 1968

Stephen Vincent Benét’s ‘Freedom from Fear’

Freedom of Fear
(© SEPS)

In 1943, the Post commissioned four writers to craft an essay to accompany each of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings, which had quickly come to represent America’s moral imperative during World War II. You can read the other three essays here.

Freedom from Fear

Originally published on March 13, 1943

What do we mean when we say “freedom from fear”? It isn’t just a formula or a set of words. It’s a look in the eyes and a feeling in the heart and a thing to be won against odds. It goes to the roots of life — to a man and a woman and their children and the home they can make and keep.

Fear has walked at man’s heels through many ages — fear of wild beasts and wilder nature, fear of the inexplicable gods of thunder and lightning, fear of his neighbor man.

He saw his rooftree burned with fire from heaven — and did not know why. He saw his children die of plague — and did not know why. He saw them starve, he saw them made slaves. It happened — he did not know why. Those things had always happened.

Then he set himself to find out — first one thing, then another. Slowly, through centuries, he fought his battle with fear. And wise men and teachers arose to help him in the battle.

His children and he did not have to die of plague. His children and he did not have to make human sacrifices to appease the wrath of inexplicable gods. His children and he did not have to kill the stranger just because he was a stranger. His children and he did not have to be slaves. And the shape of Fear grew less.

No one man did this by himself. It took many men and women, over many years. It took saints and martyrs and prophets — and the common people. It started with the first fire in the first cave — the fire that scared away the beasts of the night. It will not end with the conquest of far planets.

Since our nation began, men and women have come here for just that freedom — freedom from the fear that lies at the heart of every unjust law, of every tyrannical exercise of power by one man over another man. They came from every stock — the men who had seen the face of tyranny, the men who wanted room to breathe and a chance to be men. And the cranks and the starry-eyed came, too, to build Zion and New Harmony and Americanopolis and the states and cities that perished before they lived — the valuable cranks who push the world ahead an inch. And a lot of it never happened, but we did make a free nation.

“How are you ever going to live out there, stranger?”

“We’ll live on weevily wheat and the free air.” If they had the free air, they’d put up with the weevily wheat.

So, in our corner of the world, and for most of our people, we got rid of certain fears. We got rid of them, we got used to being rid of them. It took struggle and fighting and a lot of working things out. But 130 million people lived at peace with one another and ran their own government. And because they were free from fear, they were able to live better, by and large and on the whole, than any 130 million people had lived before. Because fear may drive a burdened man for a mile, but it is only freedom that makes his load light for the long carry.

And meanwhile around us the world grew smaller and smaller. If you looked at it on the school maps, yes, it looked like the same big world with a big, safe corner for us. But all the time invention and mechanical skill were making it smaller and smaller. When the Wright brothers made their first flights at Kittyhawk, the world shrank. With those first flights, the world began to come together, and distant nations to jostle their neighbor nations.

Now, again in our time, we know Fear — armed Fear, droning through the sky. It’s a different sound from the war whoop and the shot in the lonesome clearing, and yet it is much the same for all of us. It is quiet in the house tonight and the children are asleep. But innocence, good will, distance, peaceable intent, will not keep those children safe from the fear in the sky. No one man can keep his house safe in a shrunken world. No one man can make his own clearing and say “This is mine. Keep out.” And yet, if the world is to go on, if man is to survive and prosper, the house of man must be kept safe.

So, what do we mean by “freedom from fear”?

We do not mean freedom from responsibility — freedom from struggle and toil, from hardship and danger. We do not intend to breed a race wrapped in cotton wool, too delicate to stand rough weather. In any world of man that we can imagine, fear and the conquest of fear must play a part.

But we have the chance, if we have the brains and the courage, to destroy the worst fears that harry man today — the fear of starving to death, the fear of being a slave, the fear of being stamped into the dust because he is one kind of man and not another, the fear of unprovoked attack and ghastly death for himself and for his children because of the greed and power of willful and evil men and deluded nations.

It will not be easy to destroy those fears. No one man can do it alone. No one nation can do it alone. It must be all men.

It is not enough to say, “Here, in our country, we are strong. Let the rest of the world sink or swim. We can take care of ourselves.” That may have been true at one time, but it is no longer true. We are not an island in space, but a continent in the world. While the air is the air, a bomb can kill your children and mine. Fear and ignorance a thousand miles away may spread pestilence in our own town. A war between nations on the other side of the globe may endanger all we love and cherish.

War, famine, disease are no longer local problems or even national problems. They are problems that concern the whole world and every man. That is a hard lesson to learn, and yet, for our own survival, we must learn it.

A hundred and sixty-odd years ago, we, as a nation, asserted that all men were created equal, that all men were entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those were large assertions, but we have tried to live up to them. We have not always succeeded; we have often failed. But our will and desire as a nation have been to live up to them.

Now, in concert with other free nations, we say that those children you see and other children like them all over the world shall grow to manhood and womanhood free from fear. We say that neither their minds nor their bodies shall be cramped or distorted or broken by tyranny and oppression. We say they shall have a chance, and an equal chance, to grow and develop and lead the lives they choose to lead, not lives mapped out for them by a master. And we say that freedom for ourselves involves freedom for others — that it is a universal right, neither lightly given by providence nor to be maintained by words alone, but by acts and deeds and living.

We who are alive today did not make our free institutions. We got them from the men of the past, and we hold them in trust for the future. Should we put ease and selfishness above them, that trust will fail and we shall lose all, not a portion or a degree of liberty, but all that has been built for us and all that we hope to build. Real peace will not be won with one victory. It can be won only by long determination, firm resolve, and a wish to share and work with other men, no matter what their race or creed or condition. And yet, we do have the choice. We can have freedom from fear.

Here is a house, a woman, a man, their children. They are not free from life and the obligations of life. But they can be free from fear. All over the world, they can be free from fear. And we know they are not yet free.

The World Isn’t Finished (and Neither is the Car)

A couple leaning out of the driver-side car door to look at their flat, back tire
Flat Tire, Flat Evening
Ellen Pyle
November 24, 1934

This article and other features about the early automobile can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition: Automobiles in America!

Charles F. Kettering was head of research for General Motors from 1920 to 1947. The holder of 186 patents, he was best known for inventing the electrical starter, leaded gasoline, Freon gas (essential for air conditioning), and a system for using color paints in mass-produced cars. In this article written for the Post during the dark days of the Depression, Kettering invites readers to take the long view, reminding them that life (and the auto business) is constantly changing for the better. It was an important message from a chronic optimist. 

A man said to me the other day, “I don’t see what you can do to improve the automobile. It looks like perfection to me.” I said, “I hope it isn’t, because my job is gone if it is.” And that’s a fact. Most of our jobs would be gone if the products of the industries in which we are engaged should be adjudged perfect. Because then it would just be a question of employing enough men to produce the perfect thing. In the reorganization of business on this basis, not more than 30 percent of us would have employment.

In these days, as always, the most important fact from every angle is that the world isn’t finished. This holds in every realm — in business, in matters of unemployment and economic recovery, in the organic world, the psychological, the spiritual, the personal, and all others. Growth is the essence of life, and evolution functions in business as in biology. New standards evolve, and new human needs, new products, new jobs, just the same as new living forms do. Of course my work has been limited largely to the automotive field. But that’s a big world in itself, touching many others and exemplifying many truths. If the world had ever stood still, we might still be in the age of the dinosaurs and pterodactyls. But there aren’t any of these creatures around. The principle of the thing, as Darwin showed, is that the world moves on, that Nature is never satisfied with existing forms, but is always trying for new ones. The world has moved on from the first living cell to the modern man. It is moving on toward higher living forms and better social conditions. It will continue to move on toward a higher standard of living for everybody, toward a greater degree of beauty, strength, and perfection in all things.

The Future Is Bright

We in the automobile business believe that time is no kinder to us than to anybody else. But we think we try to recognize it more. We bring out yearly models on the theory that business and social conditions progress as producers hit a constant rate of improvement. We believe that for the next 10 or 20 years at least we can bring to you an improved and a better automobile. I think I can illustrate the basis for my belief by considering the three basic materials with which we work — rubber, petroleum, and steel.

I always admired the man Dunlop, because I think that anybody that had the nerve to propose a rubber tire to run on the ground when everybody knew that steel was the only thing that would do, must have been a man of distinct nerve and bravery. He planted the idea, and the simple rubber tube that he made progressed through various stages of evolution, until, a half-dozen years or so ago, the industry turned out the balloon tire. The lifespan of a tire went from 3 and 4 thousand miles up to 15 and 20 thousand. We began to experience a new ease in riding and a new safety in driving.

We owe a great debt to the rubber people. Yet I don’t think their job is finished. And they don’t either. In the future, we can expect tremendous improvement, not merely trivial additions, but evolutionary — and I might say, revolutionary — developments in tires.

In regard to petroleum, we have always known it to be a marvelous fuel, but in the past four or five years we have begun to recognize that the possibilities of developing power from the internal combustion engine are just on the verge of development. It is a fact that our best automobiles today deliver under normal driving conditions only about 7 or 8 percent of the total energy in the fuel. There is actually enough energy in one gallon of trade gasoline to propel a small car from Chicago to Detroit, some 300 miles, instead of the 20 miles attained.

In steel, we used to believe that the elastic limit was about 80,000 pounds per square inch, which is to say that if we pulled a square inch of the best steel we used to have with 80,000 pounds’ pressure, it would go back to its original position. The place where steel fails to go back is called its elastic limit. But then we came along with better steels, and the elastic limit went up to 100,000 pounds per square inch, and finally to 125,000 pounds, and today we are using steels under pressures of 300,000 pounds per square inch and they are standing up perfectly. Nobody knows where the limit will finally be found, if indeed it is ever to be found. Ten years from now, we shall be thinking thoughts and dreaming dreams not even in our conscious thought now.

Nourishing an Idea

Head shot photograph of Charles Kettering
Charles Kettering

Ideas always do go on to a harvest. They are like corn — first the seed, then the blade, then the stalk, then the flowering, then the grain in the ear. The parallel holds in many ways. When a man travels, observes, wonders, and questions about things, that is like plowing the land, the seed bed of his mind. Then the seed must be planted. Of course the rains may come and wash out the seed, or the hogs root it up, or the sun bake and dry the kernel. If the shoot does push through, the weeds may choke it, or the high winds rip it out of the ground, or the drought kill it. But if a man keeps on planting corn he will eventually reap a harvest.

I’ve seen this work out so many times. One submits an idea to a committee. If the committee is in an unprogressive industry not used to new ideas, it will probably brush that new idea into the wastebasket; nevertheless, one will have plowed a little ground, made it ready for the planting of the idea. One goes on submitting it, and the committee keeps on pushing it off the table, and pushing it off and pushing it off, until, perhaps, after two or three or four years, somebody says, “Hey, wait a minute. There’s something in that.” Then one may be sure that the seed of the idea has sprouted, that the shoot has pushed through the ground. All one has to do then is to keep the weeds down, work the land and the crop. The seed will yield a harvest of a thousandfold or more.

That is Nature, and one may be sure of the harvest, though if it is a big idea he is planting, much time may be required. The idea of the automobile was simple enough, but it took a long time for it to grow into its present magnitude. The world seldom sees that harvest until it starts to materialize, because it’s a new thing that the world has never heard of and doesn’t believe in. But when people do begin to see the harvest, they rally round and get all enthused and start making the thing a whole lot bigger than it really is. With one voice they all say, “How blind we were not to see this thing in the first place.” They start out to make a hero of the man who promulgated the idea, and build monuments to him after it is too late to do him any good.

The Nature of Work

In business, as in all things, we must swing back to the old position of being guided by Nature. Because life is just that way: That is all. As ideas are like seed corn, so wealth itself is like the harvested ears. One has to work to produce wealth. You can’t wave a wand and take it out of a hat. In order really to prosper, you have to study your land, perhaps fertilize it, then plow it, plant it, scratch the crust, work the crop, keep the weeds down and guard against insects, blight, and marauders. After the sun has warmed and rains watered, there is the labor of harvest. The man who follows this life and knows that it’s his job, is happy in it.

Of course, here’s where the business of living really begins to come in. You know the story of the old mule that used to pull the slag oar out at the ironworks. The company became prosperous, and decided that they ought to have a little steam locomotive to pull the slag car. They turned the mule out to pasture. The first day he seemed to enjoy it; the second day he hung around the gate; when the man came to work on the third day, they found the old mule leaning up against the slag car. Maybe the mule didn’t exactly enjoy pulling the slag car, but it was his job and he was lost without it. Most men, like the mule, like to do what is in them to do. The farmer has to have his hands on the plow handles; the sailor must live around the sea; the painter must paint; the mechanic work with his monkey wrench; the racing driver work to win the Indianapolis races.

What is more, there is a certain natural rhythm in work, as one can see by watching a blacksmith at his anvil, or a sower flinging the seed with a motion nicely tuned to his stride, or several hoe hands working in the field in natural unison of movement. It is only when one gets out of this natural way of life, and gets all excited about the possibility of adding up figures in the monetary realm, that a man runs into trouble.

—“The World Isn’t Finished,”
The Saturday Evening Post, April 23, 1932


Bad Manners on the Line

People staring at their smartphones during dinner or inconsiderately yakking away in public may be modern annoyances — but it’s only part of a long history of bad telephone manners.

Just two years after Alexander Graham Bell first demonstrated his invention in 1876, telephone lines were growing thick above the streets of New York City. Americans were amazed to learn their voices could be carried anywhere by wire. And many, noted the Post, were mystified by the technology: “A woman who was having her first introduction to the telephone was told by the operator to place the instrument to her ear and listen to the words the wire would speak to her. ‘And now,’ said she, in all innocence, ‘shall I talk with the other ear?’”

But within a few years after becoming accustomed the phone, customers were already complaining about the service.

Much like today’s anxious texters, early telephone users didn’t accept that the person they wished to speak to wasn’t waiting by the phone. And callers would vent their frustrations to the operators if their party didn’t answer or the line was busy or, as often happened, they were connected to the wrong phone.

Operators weren’t the only ones noticing rude behavior. Angus S. Hibbard, the general manager of the Chicago Telephone Company, noticed that something about the phone seemed to bring out the rudeness in people. And it prompted him to write this lesson in phone etiquette for Post readers:

How to Use a Telephone

By Angus S. Hibbard, general manager of the Chicago Telephone Company

Originally published on November 24, 1900

The man who knows how to use a telephone properly is comparatively a rare personage, and the observance of a few simple rules and suggestions in relation to telephone usage would accomplish, for any busy man, a great economy in money, time, and vital energy.

The telephone has done more to lay bare a latent strain of belligerency in all mankind than any other feature of modern experience, and this element offers the greatest obstacle known to the universal success of telephone operation. But this attitude is not the only abnormal development attending the act of telephoning.

A man refuses to recognize plain physical conditions that would be apparent to a child in the primary grades. What man of affairs would willingly give a second audience to a caller who turned his back to his host and directed his voice in a direction away from him? Yet the majority of businessmen keep their faces a foot or more from the telephone and turned away from the instrument. To expect satisfactory results under such conditions is preposterous. The lips should not be an inch away from the rim of the receiver and the voice should beat squarely upon the drum to which the little “sound hopper” leads. Give a telephone instrument a “square chance” and it will do its work, unless radically deranged or defective.

This, however, is not the main difficulty. It is only the symptom of the disease. Lack of mental focus is the real trouble, both in talking and hearing — or, in telephone parlance, in transmitting and receiving. If your thought is not concentrated on the transmission of your message you will not make yourself heard or hear what is said to you. This is where a failure to realize that you are holding actual conversation is apparent. No person understands this phase of telephonic trouble better than the operator of long-distance lines, where conversations are important and comparatively expensive, and time is limited. He knows that, in case the two on the line do not readily hear each other, he must make each realize he is not talking into a hole in the end of an iron arm, but speaking into the ear of a man.

Shocking a Man into Attention

Sometimes it takes sound shock to effect this focus of mental faculties. Once, when hard pushed, I resorted to a desperate expedient, which demonstrated this point with indisputable force. That was several years ago, when prominent men were not so accustomed as at present to use the telephone. They generally delegated the task to their assistants — a practice now much in vogue in England, where it is well-nigh impossible personally to engage the head of an establishment in telephonic conversation.

But in case of calls on the long-distance wires the conversations were generally of a confidential nature. Therefore the “parties,” although not thoroughly accustomed to using the telephone, must be made instantly to understand each other, despite the added disadvantages of the “long range.” At that time I was in charge of certain long-distance lines in the East, and was called upon to engineer a conversation of the utmost importance between a Baltimore capitalist and a Boston financier. Time was an essential in the transaction, which involved thousands of dollars.

The Boston man seated himself at the instrument, in my office, and waited for me to get the Baltimore capitalist properly started. At the first sound of the latter’s voice I knew he was “not there,” mentally speaking. Then I resorted to the usual expedients to impress on him the realization that he was talking with a person instead of at an inanimate object.

“Don’t hear a word! This thing is —” he was saying.

“I’m not a thing, Mr. Smith,” I interrupted;  “I’m a man, about 30 years old, prematurely bald, with dark hair and gray eyes. I can hear you because I know you’re a real, live man doing business with your voice, right now. I can hear you because I’m thinking right to the point — and you’re that point! Now listen to Mr. Jones.”

But still I heard an irascible repetition of:

“Can’t hear! Can’t hear! Better give the thing up and telegraph. No use trying this old thing! It’s no account. I tell you I can’t hear a word!”

Meantime my Boston man was growing restless and excited. Every moment was of great value in the affair. Turning to him I said:

“If I were to tell Mr. Smith that he lies he’d learn how to hear every word you say in one second. Shall I do it?”

“Yes,” was the quick response; “and I’ll square it completely, later. “Very clearly I spoke into the receiver the words:

“Mr. Smith, you lie!”

“What’s that, sir?” came the instantaneous answer. “You call me a liar? Why, I’ll, I’ll —”

“You will understand,” I interrupted, “that I mean nothing of the kind — only that you do hear distinctly every word I say, and you are proving it. Now listen, quick, to Mr. Jones!”

He had no difficulty in hearing the Boston financier and the day was saved — simply because he was shocked into realizing that he was not talking at a thing, but conversing with a man.

Women are keenest to grasp the personality of the invisible conversationalist. A telephone is not a dead thing to them. They bow and smile into it and even stop before the mirror to touch up their hair when about to answer a call on a telephone in their own rooms.

Only a few days ago a man in Chicago decided to give his wife a novel surprise on her birthday anniversary. He arranged that, at a certain moment, her mother, whom she had not seen for years, should be at the long-distance telephone office in Philadelphia and should call up the daughter in Chicago. There was a telephone in the Chicago house and the husband answered the prearranged call. Turning from the instrument he said to his wife:

“Helen — here’s your mother on the wire in Philadelphia.”

The wife seated herself at the instrument and heard the familiar voice of her mother. It uttered one word: “Daughter!”

Suddenly the young matron in Chicago gripped the instrument and poured out her heart in the response: “Oh, Mother! Mother!”

Then, as she heard the sob that came over the wire from the aged mother, she answered in kind, still keeping the receiver at her ear. Speaking literally, those two women cried to each other until the tolls amounted to $15. Later they both said that it was the sweetest experience they had known since their long separation began! Nothing could more effectively demonstrate the sympathetic possibilities of the telephone or better illustrate the vital point of realizing the personality behind the voice.

Fist Fights Following Phone Talks

Lest any should think I have spoken with ill-advised harshness on the subject of the belligerency aroused by the telephone, let me say that I could give definite instances where men have put down their telephone receivers to meet each other in personal combat — and all owing to the fact that the instrument tempted them into a manner of expression that they would not have employed for an instant in a personal interview.

There are records in every metropolitan office which bear sad testimony to the cowardly, profane, and even vulgar abuse which some classes of men pour into the ears of telephone operatives who are innocent of blame — and who are also young women of refinement and respectability.

Such offenses are made of record, and their repetition leads to investigation, with the result that the offender is notified that he must mend his ways or his telephone will be taken out, and he will be denied the use of any telephone whenever his identity is recognized.

One way in which a large volume of time is wasted is in foolish preliminaries to the process of identification. Brown desires to speak with Abbott. Brown calls Abbott’s office. The person answering the call properly responds, “Hello!”

“Who is this?” brusquely asks Brown.

“This is Central 120. Who are you and whom do you want?”

“Look here! Who is this talking?” returns Brown. This kind of thing continues indefinitely until Brown finally says that he is Mr. Brown and that he wishes to speak with Mr. Abbott. By the time Brown gets Abbott on the wire he is thoroughly irritated and in no mood to conduct a business conversation of any importance. All this waste of time and energy could have been avoided had Brown responded to the clerk’s “Hello” in this manner: “Abbott & Co.?”

He is answered “Yes,” and quickly proceeds: “This is Mr. Brown. I wish to talk with Mr. Abbott personally.”

Always respond to a “Hello” by giving your name and asking for the individual with whom you desire to talk. Universal observance of this rule would save a vast amount of time.

In a face-to-face talk no man of ordinary judgment will speak in a mumble, a growl, a whisper, or a shout. A calm, even voice and a distinct but natural enunciation are the chief considerations, aside from those already mentioned.

Many a man who holds a telephone receiver so carelessly that its rim barely touches his ear wonders why he does not hear. I have even seen a bald-headed man clap the receiver against his pate and expect to hear when the instrument did not touch his ear at all. Reasonable results in telephonic communication cannot be expected unless the receiver is held firmly against the ear.

Rudeness to Unoffending Persons

With few exceptions, the man who finds he has secured a telephone number other than the one desired sharply tells the innocent party to “Get off the line!” or to “Ring off there!” A quick and polite apology, instead of a gruff order, is due the man who has been taken from his business on a matter in which he has no interest.

“Holding the wire” is another matter of constant and radical abuse. Your office boy calls up Attorney Jones; who is told you desire to speak with him. You are in the middle of the dictation of a letter and finishes it before starting for the telephone. Then a clerk stops you with a question which you pause to answer. Then you are waylaid by friends who have just entered. Finally you take up the telephone receiver. If Jones has not left the wire in disgust he is irritated. You cannot understand it!

Trouble will inevitably occur in telephone work. Errors occur from carelessness and from lack of acuteness on the part of operators. They are human. But they are also trained experts and the number of mistakes made by them is a marvelously small percentage of the total volume of connections made. When it is remembered that more than one large city of this country has, say, 30,000 telephone lines, over which are daily originated fully 300,000 calls, what wonder that some mistakes occur? Many of these calls are over “trunk” lines involving a secondary call, so the total of calls would be considerably more than half a million.

Every complaint is made a matter of record and filed in the “Trouble Cabinet.” At regular intervals an expert analyzes the records, making charts which show, at a glance, the nature, duration, and scope of the troubles which have assailed the lines in a given period. If asked to reduce to epigrammatic form the best advice to the telephone patron I would say, “Be courteous.” A broad application of this rule would work wonders in the effective use of the telephone.

What Lincoln Was Hiding

Surely we all know Abraham Lincoln by now.

The subject of over 10,000 books, Lincoln has become our most familiar president. He is also one of the most popular. A Post editorial in 1961, claimed that people around the world, “feel for Old Abe a reverence, trust and affection that they reserve for their truest friends. He… always steps down from his monuments and—plain, decent, wise, tolerant, good and great—puts out his hand to help us.”

The problem with this image is that it doesn’t fully agree with the evidence. In fact, it often contradicts the accounts of people who knew him well. In his 1959 essay on Lincoln, Jacques Barzun offered the personal recollection of William Herndon who worked closely with Lincoln for years as his law partner. Herndon had known Lincoln the man before he became the martyr and national icon.

He said that Lincoln was a man of sudden and violent moods, often plunged in deathly melancholy for hours, then suddenly lively and ready to joke;

that Lincoln was self-centered and cold, not given to revealing his plans or opinions; and ruthless in using others’ help and influence;

that Lincoln was idle for long stretches of time, during which he read newspapers or simply brooded;

that Lincoln was a man of strong passions and mystical longings, which he repressed because his mind showed him their futility, and that this made him cold-blooded and a fatalist.

As we know from other sources, Lincoln was subject to vague fears and dark superstitions… He was subject, as some of his verses show, to obsessional gloom about separation, insanity and death.

None of which denies that Lincoln could be sociable, funny, or statesmanlike. But there was undeniably a side of Lincoln that he kept hidden, even from his closest friends. The key to understanding this hidden side, Barzun believed, was knowing the one thing Lincoln valued all his life: language.

Not one but several persons who remembered his childhood remarked on the boy’s singular determination to express his thoughts in the best way. [According to] his stepmother… “He didn’t like physical labor. He read all the books he could lay his hands on. . . . When he came across a passage that struck him, he would write it down on boards if he had no paper and keep it there till he did get paper, then he would rewrite it, look at it, repeat it.”

Years later, Herndon said Lincoln could be a “very patient man” but when people began talking to him in vague abstractions, glittering generalities, and misty ideas, he could become enraged.

Language was vitally important to Lincoln. He spent hours mastering his skills of expressing himself powerfully through deceptively simple language. His legal studies helped him sharpen his genius for expression.

Legal thought encourages precision through the imagining and the denial of alternatives. The language of the law foresees doubt, ambiguity, confusion, stupid or fraudulent error, and one by one it excludes them. [It must avoid] misunderstanding, and this is the foundation of any prose that aims at clear expression.

His ability to convey complex ideas to any audience, said Barzun, set him apart from his peers and convinced him he was marked for a special destiny. If you read Lincoln’s words, his letters, speeches, and debates, he added, you realize Lincoln’s personality was not that of a shrewd, humorous, saintly man, but a combination of traits that are found in the biographies of great artists:

passionate, gloomy, seeming-cold, and conscious of superiority.

Lincoln’s faith in his power to communicate led him to believe in a great personal destiny. The opinion of others was less important to him than his relationship with the greater Lincoln he felt inside himself. He believed his talent for expression had set him apart for greatness. It had lifted him up from a life of splitting rails and running a failing grocery store. It enabled him to distract listeners from his early struggle, his election failures, and his occasional gloom and doubts.

As he focused increasingly on the man of destiny inside himself, he grew detached from others.

William Herndon called Lincoln a man of sudden and violent moods. (Photo by Matthew Brady, 1864, first published in a 1947 Post.)

In conduct, this detachment was the source of his saintlike forbearance… Lincoln’s detachment was what produced his mastery over men.

Had he not towered in mind and will over his cabinet, they would have crushed or used him without remorse. Chase, Seward, Stanton, the Blairs, McClellan had among them enough egotism and ability to wreck several administrations. Each thought Lincoln would be an easy victim.

[Yet] their dominant feeling was exasperation with him for making them feel baffled. They could not bring him down to their reach.

John Hay, who saw the long struggle, confirms Herndon’s judgments: “It is absurd to call him a modest man. No great man was ever modest. It was his intellectual arrogance and unconscious assumption of superiority that men like Chase and Sumner could never forgive.”

Lincoln’s extraordinary power was to make his spirit felt—a power I attribute to his peculiar relation to himself.

He regarded his face and physique with amusement and dismay, his mind and destiny with wonder. Seeming clumsy and diffident, he also showed a calm superiority, which he expressed as if one half of a double man were talking about the other.

It may be that, even after another 10,000 books, the true, inner nature of Lincoln will remain unknown to us. But if he always remains a mystery to us, it’s possible that it was always a mystery to himself.