Along the Lincoln Trail
by Justice Greg Hobbs
Semiconsciously (the growing-up state of passing through but not comprehending until you get to go back through it with a grandchild), I started here. Dad was assigned to the Pentagon from 1952 to 1955. Brothers Ed, Will, and I sailed boats in the reflecting pool at the foot of the Lincoln steps where Martin Luther King, Jr., a decade hence, would confront what the Civil War Amendments had etched into the Constitution but not delivered—dedication to liberty’s unfinished work.
K.J. and I get the “National Treasure Tour,” heading into the basement of Mount Vernon. You remember the scene where Nicolas Cage slips up from the boat dock, crashes the lawn party, and threads the subterranean tunnels of this plantation mansion to grab the president? Normal visitors who didn’t pre-order this “special ticket” get only the ground and upper floor tour, which empties out past the slave quarters.
K.J. spots our ancestor’s grave near Arlington’s McClellan Arch—the general, whose waffling (“Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?”) drove Lincoln through a series of commanders to Ulysses S. Grant. Up through the hilly green and blooming dogwood, we walk to John Kennedy’s grave, nearby his brother Robert. What national events in K.J.’s lifetime will continue to puncture his heart? Jefferson is taller in his dome than comfortable, while FDR in his wheel chair accommodates a stalwart companionable photo. The Korean War soldiers are ghostly in their hunched-up March through the twilight. Drained, the cracked reflecting pool is being mended. Ford’s Theatre is closed for an evening performance. The Spy Museum crackles with intrigue. I go out for another cup of coffee while K.J. engages a special mission with a group of fellow agents on spring break from other schools.
We are shaken by thousands of people-less shoes at the Holocaust Museum.
We decamp from our Leesburg motel and jump to Harper’s Ferry, where the Shenandoah and the Potomac rivers forge an anvil at the point of John Brown’s 1859 arsenal raid. Here, in 1803, Lewis and Clark obtained the rifles that would keep them alive through the buffalo plains, and the curious collapsible metal boat that didn’t work in the Continental Divide country. We climb to Jefferson’s lookout rock. He called what he looked at, “wild and tremendous.” We visitors from the land of the Louisiana Purchase he never visited would like to reassure him, “It surely is!”
We arrive at Antietam in a cold March mist. This bloody battle in 1862 blunted Lee’s advance after a series of ghastly Union defeats, allowing Lincoln a bridge head for issuing the already drafted Emancipation Proclamation. A near term result, nearly 180,000 black soldiers would reinforce the Union Army. We cross open ground near Mumma Farm in the midst of the battlefield before a driving rain propels us on to Gettysburg.
For 66 years, this place has eluded me. In moving on through Eisenhower’s interstate highway system to Seattle, then by boat to the territory of Alaska in 1955, we bypassed it. I don’t know why. My parents worshiped Ike. He had a farm at Gettysburg to which he invited Cold War leaders. My grandfather on my mother’s side was also a Kansas Republican. Born in Dodge City in 1890, just 34 years after William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence killed 150 persons and John Brown’s retaliatory murder of Kansas neighbors, “Pa” earned his chemical engineering degree at the University of Kansas then moved east to help invent coal tar technology at Koppers Company in Pittsburgh.
K.J. and I circle around the Seminary Ridge backside of the Confederate lines west of Gettysburg in sight of the Eisenhower farm and proceed south around the perimeter to Little Round Top and Devil’s Den, through the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield, up to Cemetery Ridge.
To stand where Lincoln stood and delivered his most perfect vision of death, redemption, and rebirth is like being in the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon. The chasm that haggard tall man had to navigate gaped with destructive hazards. Amidst the hastily buried dead of the North and the South, spare and unfinished himself, Lincoln invoked the defining work of being dedicated to all persons, equal and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, however hard and long the struggle might be.
It is good for Coloradans to come here. Carved out of Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, and Utah territories on Feb. 28, 1861, at the outset of the Civil War, our first great accomplishment was stopping Texas confederates from invading newly discovered gold fields. The streets at the heart of our Civic Center in Denver are Lincoln, Sherman, and Grant. On Aug. 1, 1876, we gained admission to the Union as the Centennial State, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Increased devotion to that new birth of freedom Lincoln declared at Gettysburg is our state’s natural lineage.
Valley Forge is next. Lincoln revered Washington: At the age of 28 in Springfield, proclaiming in his Lyceum speech, “Let reason be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws: and, that we improved to the last … free to the last … shall awaken our Washington!”
Greg Hobbs is a justice of the Colorado Supreme Court.