By Jim Woodard
Even though it’s been 200 years since the birth of Abraham Lincoln, new stories are constantly surfacing about this very exceptional 16th president of the United States. Some of the stories are well documented and totally accurate. Others are legendary, perhaps not factual in every detail, but are great stories and reflect the strong character of Abe Lincoln.
Here is one of those stories: It happened on the day after Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address in November, 1863. He was still feeling bad about his three-minute dedication speech the day before on the 17-acre site that had been acquired for a national cemetery. His words had followed an elegant two-hour address by Edward Everett, the most famous orator of that day. Lincoln was sure his short speech was a failure. Now, the day after the dedication ceremony, Lincoln had some time in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, before he was scheduled to leave by train for his return trip to Washington. He decided to use that time by visiting soldiers who were wounded in the fierce Battle of Gettysburg during the past July. These soldiers were lying in beds and makeshift cots in many buildings throughout the Gettysburg area.
There wasn’t nearly enough room for all the living casualties of the battle in the Gettysburg hospital. Lincoln, accompanied by a few aides and security men, went from room to room in several buildings, visiting with and consoling the patients. Finally, an aide told him it was time to go to the train depot.
As Lincoln was walking out of that last room, he noticed a cot pushed into the dark corner of the room near the exit door. The soldier lying on the cot was so severely wounded it was apparent he would probably not live through the night. Lincoln noticed a piece of cardboard attached to the foot of the cot. He leaned his 6 foot 4 inch body over to see the words scrawled on that cardboard. “Jess Cotter.”it said. Lincoln leaned over further to read the smaller word under the soldier’s name. “Confederate,” it read.
Lincoln pulled a chair next to the cot, sat down, held the soldier’s hand and said, “Jess, is there anything I can do for you, anything you need or want?”
Cotter just kept looking at the ceiling, having no idea who his famous guest was.
“No thanks,” he said. “I don’t need anything now, before they lay me in that new cemetery. He was silent for a moment, then added: “If you asked that question yesterday, I would have said the one thing I’d really like before I die is just to see President Lincoln in person. Oh, I know he’s the leader of the enemy forces fighting us, but I’ve always admired that man. “Yesterday, they wheeled me out to the dedication ceremony. I was sitting there at the back of the crowd, but there he was – President Lincoln. So today I don’t need anything more, except maybe one thing. If I could have anything at this point, I’d like to just shake Mr. Lincoln’s hand.”
Lincoln squeezed Cotter’s hand and shook it. “Jess, I am President Lincoln, and I’m honored to shake your hand. The Union Army is not fighting a war against the people of the south. It’s fighting the rebellious system that would divide our country. If we are victorious, we will welcome your family as citizens of a united and free nation.”
Jim Woodard was a professional storyteller and, for many years, a resident storyteller at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. He made many contributions to Storyteller.net over the years and we’re grateful to have had the chance to work with him.
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