Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln came out yesterday in a few select cities that somehow did not include any in Connecticut – so a week to see it, hard to take after the fantastic reviews from the New York Times, Peter Travers, et al. In the meantime, I thought I’d take this opportunity to post a chapter from the second Hanlin book, a scene from November, 1861, it takes place in Washington . . . It is William’s one and only interaction with the President and comes a few weeks after William was forced to preside over the court martial of a New Hampshire private. The court martial is real, as is Lincoln’s actions and McClellan’s non-action.
I arrived at Mac’s house on H Street twenty minutes early, as behooved a Lieutenant Colonel summoned to attend to a Major General. It was a home appropriate for the Commander-in-Chief of the Nation’s Armies, brick, well appointed without being opulent. The Chases’ in miniature, with restraint – hardly a bad thing.
I was greeted at the door by a house servant, a welcome relief from self-important, self-appointed keepers of the Keeper of the Keys. I was escorted without comment to a comfortable reading room, lamps on low, a fireplace bright and crackling. I could easily have been home in Hartford. I envied, for the first time, Mac his position.
I snatched the latest Harper’s off a side table, Mac’s likeness, inevitably, on the cover. The Grand Review was covered as breathlessly as they would have the Second Coming. The illustrations, quickly done to meet deadline, were intricate, stirring, handsomely drawn and not the least bit accurate.
I was, however, happily engrossed and did not immediately take note that the time for my meeting had come and gone. I looked at my watch only when I heard a knock on the front door, followed by voices from the front hall. It was nine-twenty. I assumed Mac, known to work late into the night and into early morning, had scheduled someone immediately after me and was running late.
I went back to my weekly and almost did not bother to look up when someone entered the room. I did so, really, only out of slight curiosity and measurable pique at being interrupted. I glanced up from a description of Port Royal to stare full into the face of the President of the United States.
I jumped to my feet, Harper’s slid to the floor and landed with a slapping thud that sounded like the retort of a parrot gun in the almost silent room.
“Mr. President,” I hoarsed out, my body uncomfortably stuck in a half-at-attention, half-about-to-salute position while I idiotically wondered if I should pick up the magazine lest the mess on the floor offend Mr. Lincoln.
His big, somewhat sad eyes lit up in amusement at his instant perception of my predicament, one he endeavored to solve by extending a hand, “No formalities necessary, Colonel. It is I who intrudes on you.”
“Not at all, Mr. President,” I stammered, angry in an instant at my performance thus far. At that point in my life I had met three presidents (four if one counted Jefferson Davis),several kings, one Pope, and hosts of Sumner-like would be kings and had managed to keep a cool head. And there I was with, in hindsight, the most tragically accessible leader in our history and acting like a rube.
I managed to take the offered hand, surprised when it completely engulfed my hand and wrist. It was enormous and it was powerful.
“Lieutenant Colonel William Hanlin,” I managed to say with some authority. I tried to squeeze back before he tore my arm off and used it as a back-scratchier. I failed but he must have picked up on my distress for he let go.
He took a chair closer to the fire, slouched back, splayed his long legs across half the room. I had seen him before, when he spoke at Hartford City Hall, and was immediately struck by how much he had aged since that early March evening – it was as clear in his face as the deep fissures and deep bags under the eyes.
“You are waiting for our Commanding General?” He inquired languidly.
“I am, sir.”
“Hanlin, eh?” He smiled and studied the shadows playing across the ceiling, “the name seems familiar, where you from, Colonel?”
“Connecticut, sir, I’m with the Twenty-first Connecticut, but temporarily assigned as General McClellan’s Judge Advocate liaison.”
“Ah, Hanlin, that’s it, JAG,” his face took on a serious visage, “the death penalty case. I’ve been meaning to have you in to discuss it — I’ve had a great deal of correspondence concerning the verdict.”
“I’m not surprised,” I said as evenly as possible.
“That was remarkably carefully stated,” he sighed, gave me a frank look of appraisal, “as it appears, our General is indisposed, perhaps we can make use of our time together and discuss this now.”
“Certainly, Sir,” I replied immediately.
“Do you requite notes?”
“No, Sir, I tend to remember the details of death penalty cases.”
“As should we all, Colonel,” he nodded slowly, “I take it you have an opinion in this matter?”
“The president of the court is not supposed to have an opinion,” I replied with false piety.
“So I am correct,” he chuckled, “and judging by the formality of your quite proper response,” intelligent, empathetic eyes bored into me, “your opinion does not coincide with that of your court.”
My turn to stare in appraisal. For months I had heard Mac disparage Lincoln as the ‘original gorilla’, those the same months, I read in innumerable papers how Lincoln was ‘run’ by Seward and Chase, a dolt of a figurehead. I was disabused of all of that after ten minutes exposure to the man.
“It does not,” I answered, slowly, “I must confess, Mr. President, that I am opposed to the death penalty in all but the most egregious, disturbing cases. These men are not soldiers, they have volunteered. I did not enlist to kill my neighbors for violations of military protocol that they willingly subjected themselves to out of a sense of loyalty to the country.”
“Well said, Colonel,” his facile face conveyed his pleasure, “I suppose I should be surprised considering your assignment, but of course, you are a volunteer yourself.”
“I am, now, but in the interests of full disclosure I must confess I am a West Point graduate.”
He smiled knowingly, sat back and continued, “You were a classmate of General McClellan.”
He nodded, filed that away somewhere, “Why don’t you agree with the sentence,Colonel?”
“I don’t agree with the verdict, sir,” I corrected at once.
The lawyer in him understood at once, “Enlighten me.”
“The circumstances were extenuated. Yes, Private Scott fell asleep on duty, at post, on the picket line. Yes, I suppose it was technically a war zone, certainly it would have been a serious dereliction had we been across the river.”
“But, he had been on duty for thirty-six hours due to a scheduling error by his commanding officer – a martinet without experience of any kind beyond running an general store – and the nearest Confederates were ten miles away across a river too wide and deep to ford,” I was on my high-horse now, everything about Lincoln’s posture and expression encouraged me to continue, “The man was on picket duty in a war one only if by some chance Maryland seceded from the Union during the night.”
The man who had prevented just that succession smiled briefly and said, “Sounds to me, Colonel that had you defended him instead of presiding over the court, Private Scott would have been released and none of us would be saddled with this . . . mess.”
“The prosecutor was persuasive, well grounded in the law and presenting to battle tested officers, who –“
“You included in that description?”
“I was in Mexico.”
“And yet you do not agree with your colleagues.”
“Major Andre Coleman and Major Stephen Dixon, and, no, I did not agree. I was outvoted.”
“A major disagreement then, eh?” He grinned widely.
“I suppose so,” I tried not to shake my head, Lincoln looked entirely pleased with himself, “I did not agree because it was draconian and unwarranted at this stage of the war.”
“Not needed at this point, but -?”
“But, one never knows – but surely not today.”
“Hardly a boon to recruiting,” he grimaced a knowing smile, “shooting men for falling asleep under these conditions.”
“No,” I agreed readily, pushing it home, probably unnecessarily, “I thought from the beginning that the only crime here was the regimental commander’s failure to handle it at his level — no, that’s not quite true, it was his setting it up by failing to bend enough to let an exhausted man walk away from an onerous duty.”
I snapped that off quickly, unburdening myself. Unprofessional, but if felt good.
“I would venture to say, Colonel,” Lincoln intoned somberly, “you should be leading a regiment rather than ‘rasslin’ in the corridors of law.” It was clear he offered it as a compliment.
“Thank you,” I answered with feeling, he nodded, bemused, “I return to my regiment when in the presence of the enemy, it was my sole condition to General McClellan before I took the position.”
“Admirable, tho’ I think I can sense the sacrifice you’ve made forsaking the field for this city”.
“No sacrifice, sir,” I fumbled, “in forsaking a cot for a feather bed.”
He eyed me questioningly, half-smile affixed, made a church steeple of his hands, looked up at the shadows it made on the high ceiling.
“You know, I had dinner with Lord Lyons a few days ago,” he stared up, speaking as if I were informed of the comings and goings of our president and Queen Victoria’s ambassador on a regular basis, “it went well for a time, I think I was able to sound snobbish and condescending enough to be the equal of any Continental leader and thereby earning his approval.”
I laughed, drew his attention from the ceiling, his smile broke the half way mark, “Well, after an hour or so of his supercilious prattle, during which time he continuously reminded us all, indirectly of course, of the wealth and power of the British Isles I grew god awfully sick of the man, began to wish I had never let Slidell and Mason go.”
He stretched out, daddy-long legs reaching across the fireplace, “Of course,” he began to chuckle, ”once the limeys start to hear Mason talk, they’ll beg us to take him back.
“Anyway, that windbag Lyons spouted carefully worded platitudes that were really just thinly disguised slanders – damn, the very in-artfulness of his way about it was insulting, like if we’d been French he would have been more inventive and discreet. Probably decided Americans are so crude there’s no need for more than basic, lazy subterfuge when insulting us.
“I finally got sick of it and I very undiplomatically – I have since been told – invited him to our Washington’s Birthday Ball. Well by then the man had become so emboldened – or drunk or both – that he made no attempt to hide his utter contempt for the day, the man, and the event. . . . Talented diplomat, he managed to convey all that in less than ten seconds and then blank his face out.
“In any event, I caught it all and it angered me. Greatly. So I regaled him with the story of Ethan Allen and George’s portrait.” With that he pushed further back in the chair and stared directly at me, thick, haggard eyebrow arched – the classic storytellers posture.
I eagerly indulged him, “I don’t think I am aware of that story, Mr. President.”
“No . . . well then,” he drawled with well practiced nonchalance, “allow me,” I motioned him a ‘go on’ he did not need, “sometime after the War of Independence Ethan Allen toured the British Isles – I understand he was somewhat of an attraction, too.”
“At some formal dinner somewhere along the line things got a little rowdy, a little ribald, and the host – another Lord, I am sure – said to Mr. Allen, ‘Did you know, sir, that your George Washington’s portrait is the most popular image in the land?
“Ethan was somewhat startled, but managed to rasp out something along the lines of, ‘Really, my Lord, I had no idea’.
“To which the noble wit – apparently completely ignorant of Mr. Allen’s reputation before the late unpleasantness – replied, ‘Yes, sir, we keep a steady supply of them in our outhouses.’
“Allen remained completely, utterly calm, and answered almost immediately, ‘I am not surprised, my lord, for in my experience, every time the British saw General Washington they shat.’”
I laughed deep and hard and he joined me, managing to finish with, “Lord Lyons shortly found himself indisposed and shuffled out. I believe he thinks me rather uncouth.”
“I do not and I’m glad I voted for you,” I sputtered out between guffaws.
“I hope you voted often,” he slapped his knees, “Colonel, I’ll tell you what, send me the death warrant and I’ll commute the sentence to time served and return the unfortunate Scott to duty, only one Scott per year should be run out of the army,” he finished without an edge, although I am relatively sure I cringed at the reference to our late general.
“No need to wait, sir,” I could not erase my smile, “I have it right here,“ I reached into my breast pocket and pulled out the well creased parchment.
“You carry it with you?”
“Why, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Silly precaution, probably rank superstition if truth be told, make sure it remains unexecuted until all reviews have been exhausted.”
“And then,” he bolted forward, “what then – assume we never had this conversation and you thought me a particularly bloodthirsty fellow?”
“In that case, we are governed by paperwork, Mr. President, as I am sure you understand, so much paperwork . . . sometimes things get lost.”
He stared, smile affixed. When he spoke it was apparent he was doing his best to sound stern, “I believe we have both sworn oaths to uphold the laws of the land, Colonel.”
“Luckily, none have been broken,” I wondered briefly at my temerity talking to the President in that maanner. All I can say is he invited casual candor.
“Excellent point,” he slapped me across the knee hard enough to make it sting, took the offered warrant and stood, “I will take care of this in the morning. Private Scott will be back on the picket line a wiser man by sundown.”
“Thank you, Mr. President,” I sighed, pleased to be free of a burden.
We both stood, he stared down at me with an odd expression, “A pleasure, Colonel,” he smiled and leaned into me, “go back to your boys as soon as you can, they deserve to have you.”
In two bounds he was out of the room. I glowed in the remnants of our conversation . . . until it was overtaken by the stone cold realization that my West Point friend, erstwhile Commandeer of the Armies of the United States, had just ignored a visit by the President.