Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mr. Lincoln's Language

               In last week’s article, Civil War Reflections, I mentioned that I would address an issue that has been raised about the cursing that has been included in the recently released movie, “Lincoln.” Quite a bit of ink has been used in the debate over the historicity of profanity being used by President Lincoln and those around him. Depending on the individual Lincoln historian, will determine their take on how much accuracy there is in the 16th President’s use of, and tolerance for “cussin’.”

It is true that Lincoln was known to enjoy telling some off-colored jokes occasionally, and he even used curse words when his temper was riled. But as a rule the president was very opposed to the use of profanity particularly in normal conversation. He was known to have corrected his generals for using such language without reason. Officers were subject to courts-martial if they were found guilty of using foul language. Enlisted men would have their pay docked for the same offense.

So, then, did all of this mean that there was virtually no swearing during the Civil War period (1861-65)? Of course not! It was a problem then as it is now, only then there was more of a civility and courtesy, particularly in the presence of women and children that we have lost in today’s society. Letters written home by soldiers during the Civil War often referred to the vices of their fellow soldiers, the greatest of these being, gambling, cussing, and whoring. One soldier commented that army camp life was a real test for the Christian because of all the bad habits that were so openly flaunted.

One of the words used a few times in the Lincoln movie was the repugnant F-word. Though this word was in use at the time in America, its origins are purportedly from England. The word had not become that familiar to the American form of English, nor did it carry the full meaning of the word in all of its vulgarity as it does today. It is highly unlikely that Mr. Lincoln used it, though we cannot be certain.

It can be fairly stated that Lincoln’s command of the English language is without question, and most notably demonstrated when he penned the Gettysburg Address while traveling by train to that noble, historic site to help commemorate a cemetery for the Union soldiers who fell in battle there. One of the ironies of this ceremony at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is that another individual was chosen as the guest speaker, and not the president! Edward Everett, member of the House of Representatives from Massachusetts, had a colorful career in public service. He was a member of the Whig Party, served as U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, the 15th Governor of Massachusetts, Minister to Great Britain, and United States Secretary of State. He also taught at Harvard University and served as president of Harvard. Mr. Everett spoke at Gettysburg for two hours prior to Lincoln. He later wrote the president, expressing his admiration for the Gettysburg Address by stating, "I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes."

Another of Lincoln’s masterful works was his Emancipation Proclamation, a speech which was crucial in opening the door for slaves to be free. On a web site about the Emancipation Proclamation I found this bit of insight: On September 22, 1863, soon after the Union victory at Antietam, President Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." While the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave, it was an important turning point in the war, transforming the fight to preserve the nation into a battle for human freedom (

My favorite “Lincoln Language” is his letters to the families of fallen soldiers. The following letter to a Mrs. Bates, exemplifies the president’s heart and compassion for those grieving for their loved ones. There is no greater challenge for a commander of troops, or the Commander-in-Chief, than to have to write a letter to a family regarding the death of their child/loved one.

Executive Mansion, Washington, Nov. 21, 1864

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom. Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

Abraham Lincoln

Little wonder that Abraham Lincoln was, and is, still so loved and revered by Americans.

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