With malice toward none and charity for all, President Abraham Lincoln made a rare Alexandria appearance on Presidents Day at the Lyceum. Portrayed by Pennsylvania-based actor Jim Getty, the character of Lincoln came alive for a captivating chat with a group of 50 or so attendees — lending the holiday a personal medium.
It was not the president’s first trip to Alexandria. As he noted to those in attendance, he arrived here with Gen. George McClellan to plan the “peninsula campaign” of 1862 — a giant armada that launched from the port of Alexandria transporting 121,500 men, 44 artillery batteries, 1,150 wagons, 15,000 horses and tons of equipment and supplies. But McClellan fell out of favor with Lincoln as the star of Gen. Ulysses Grant began to rise.
“Grant hated to retreat as much as McClellan hated to advance,” he said, prompting chuckles in the second-floor ballroom at the Lyceum.
In the same room where former President John Quincy Adams once spoke in opposition to the “particular institution” of slavery, Lincoln explained that opposition to slavery was a major factor in the creation of the Republican Party and his election to the presidency in 1860. Although the war created a massive body count — still unmatched in American history — Lincoln said that the Civil War was necessary to preserve the union he had inherited from George Washington.
“Before the war, people in Europe referred to our country as those United States,” said Lincoln. “After the war, they started calling us the United States.”
IN AN HOURLONG appearance, Lincoln talked about his family history, explained his position on slavery, defended his actions as president and remembered his friend Elmer Ellsworth, who died in the early days of the war when his Zouave unit tried to remove a Confederate flag from the Marshall House in the 400 block of King Street.
“He worked in my law office before the war,” said Lincoln. “He was like a dear son to me.”
He also recalled his congressional record, in which his anti-war stance presented some uncanny similarities to modern day politics. For example, he supported a nonbinding resolution to criticize the Mexican War, which he opposed. His opposition to the war was later used during the infamous 1958 Senate election, when Democrat Stephen Douglas was able to successfully use Lincoln’s anti-war stand to criticize him as a someone who did not support the troops.
“It was a lie,” said Lincoln. “I was very angry about it, and I thought the war was a mistake.”
THE PRESIDENT ALSO responded to several questions, creating a lively exchange between the past and the present. Alexandria resident Greg Paspatis used William Hurd’s 1989 book, “Alexandria, Virginia 1861-1865” to form one of the afternoon’s most memorable questions.
“In the election of 1860, you only got two votes in Alexandria,” said Paspatis. “To this day, it seems that the Republican Party is still having problems. What advice do you have for them?”
“At that time, the Republican Party was still being created,” said Lincoln, pausing to think about how to answer the question. “Maybe some day it will catch on.”
In response to a question about his favorite sports, Lincoln answered that he enjoyed wrestling, horseshoes and marbles. When asked about his plan for Reconstruction, he said that he would have preferred to let the South rejoin the North without punishing them with excessive military occupation. Responding to a question about family tragedy, he explained how only one of his four sons survived to adulthood. After one woman asked about the preparation of the Gettysburg Address, he joked that he wrote a short speech so the press wouldn’t misquote him.
“I think I was most impressed by his answer on Reconstruction,” said Anne Marie Bradford after the event was over. “He said that he didn’t want to punish the South, and you have to wonder what would have happened if he had remained president.”