02/12/08 7:55AM By Howard Coffin  Download MP3
(HOST) Although we celebrate the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln this coming Monday on Presidents' Day, today is the actual birthday of Abraham Lincoln. And civil War historian and commentator Howard Coffin is observing the event with a story that has a Vermont connection.
(COFFIN) Next year, America will mark the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln with much commemoration. And that's as it should be. Arguably, the greatest human being this nation has yet produced, he ended the abomination of American slavery, and along the way reunited a country. But it was as much for individual deeds that he is remembered, little acts of kindness that have lived in history and legend.
Time and again Lincoln pardoned soldiers sentenced to death by firing squad. He was fond of saying, "I don't want that boy's blood on my skirts." Oft times his leniency drove nearly to distraction his generals who were trying to discipline an army made up mainly of civilian volunteers.
Just south of Morristown Corners early in the Civil War lived a widow named Gates and her two children. When 14 year old William decided to enlist as a fifer in the Fifth Vermont Regiment, she couldn't stop him. But soon after he left, the other child, a daughter, died of illness.
Now the mother needed her son at home more than ever, but her letters failed to bring him home. So the widow Gates went to Washington, intent on asking Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to allow her son's discharge from service. But Stanton would not see Mrs. Gates, so she went to the White House where President Lincoln did see her. She came home with her son.
Today, only a small pile of rubble overlooking an alder-lined creek remains of the widow's home. Yet it is a place that was, in a sense, touched by the hand of the great emancipator.
Abraham Lincoln first learned about loss during his childhood days on the Indiana frontier. His mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln died there of the milk sick - of drinking milk from cows who had consumed a poison plant - a dread frontier affliction that had recently killed the neighbor Sparrow family. According to the writer Carl Sandburg, young Abe helped his father Thomas build the coffin. Nobody ever wrote better of Lincoln than Sandburg, and he had this to say about the death of Lincoln's mother. It seems a good time to read it as we mark birthday 199 of the 16th president, and as we wait in a snowbound Vermont for the first hint of spring.
Sandburg wrote, "They carried the coffin to the same little timber clearing nearby, where a few weeks before they had buried Tom and Betsy Sparrow. It was in the way of the deer run leading to the saltish water; light feet and shy hoofs ran over these early winter graves. So the woman, Nancy Hanks, died, thirty-six years old, a pioneer sacrifice, with memories of monotonous, endless everyday chores, of mystic Bible verses read over and over for their promises, and with memories of blue wistful hills and a summer when the crab apple blossoms flamed white and she carried a boy-child into the world."
AP Photo/Alexander Gardner