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Home » Stories, True and Otherwise

Who Here Gave Their Lives

Submitted by on September 11, 2011 – 6:08 PM69 Comments

Abraham Lincoln passed his last hours in a cramped back bedroom in a boardinghouse across the street from Ford's Theater, mercifully unconscious, folded awkwardly onto a bed too short for him, laboring to breathe. A doctor had declared Lincoln's head wound mortal on the scene, so the dignitaries and friends gathered around him had only to wait. Shortly after dawn, the inevitable arrived. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, bereft, brought his emotions under control long enough to say, "Now he belongs to the ages."

…Unless Stanton actually said, "Now he belongs to the angels." Adam Gopnik wrote a wonderful piece on that debate for The New Yorker a few years ago and concluded, among other things, that either version is believable because either version is apt. But whichever word Stanton used, it occurs to me that Lincoln had always belonged to the ages; the ages lent him to us for a time. Out of the mythically humble beginnings, the awkward landscape of crags and dogged cowlicks that over the years became a map of grief and honor, the horror over which he found himself presiding and the straightforward sorrow with which he spoke of it to us, we built ourselves a saint. Once we had done this, the ages retrieved Lincoln, in the grisly and dramatic fashion accorded his status. And the angels must have, also.

Lincoln, I think, sensed this about himself — that he had a narrative destiny. On the narrow point, his life is a triumph of tragic plot-craft. The deaths of two of his sons seemed to bow him, physically, and sent his already high-strung wife into an accelerating tailspin of séances and compulsive shopping. His Cabinet initially held him in, at best, contempt; he had to fire and rehire the ineffectual George McClellan several times, then defeat him for a second presidential term.

But Lincoln had a gift for narrative as well, for what the nation should (or would) hear, and how. He could craft a powerful phrasing; he also understood when the phrasing, the words, would mean nothing. Interesting that the Gettysburg Address has become a rhetorical exemplar when Lincoln says, in effect, that there is nothing to say and no way to say it in the second place, that the dead and their sacrifice have already spoken. That the fallen, and where they fell, belong to the ages.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

It is elegant and structurally balanced. Lincoln both hints at and warns against a hopelessness too dark and solid to lift. You can imagine Lincoln's heavy lids, slowly closing against pain, and a prayer gathering in his mind as he wrote on the back of an envelope on a rattling train — a plea. Let something grow out of this ground that is black with blood. Any small thing. But he knows a speech is like daisies against a cannonade here, so he admits this, and he sits back down before the photographer can get set up. He puts his hat in his lap and vows to do right by these dead who belong to the ages. Or…the angels.

Don could belong to both, but the first slice of cake definitely belongs to him. Happy birthday, friend.

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  • Allyson Beatrice says:

    Every year, that essay is the one I remember, and I think, "I hope Don is okay." And I'm so glad he was there with you.

  • kategm says:

    Beautiful. Thank you, Sars. Thank you, Don.

  • lsn says:

    Happy birthday Don. And lest we forget.

  • Angie says:

    Beautiful as it always is, Sars. And happy birthday, Don.

  • Alicia says:

    Every year I hope that somehow Don will turn up.

    Wishing you and everyone well on this anniversary.

  • Alitria says:

    I always come here to see what you've written, on this day, because it seems so much more perfect and so much more eloquent than any of the other coverage I always read on this day.

  • Andrea says:

    I think about you every year, Sars, and wonder if you'll ever find Don. As always, you have written an amazing tribute. Thank you.

  • Ansley says:

    I've been hitting refresh all day waiting for your post. Thank you for your insights that give me something to think about but not telling me what to feel.

  • Renee from GA says:

    I come to this site every year on 9-11. Thank you, Don and Sars.

  • Chris says:

    Eloquent and fitting, as always, Sars. Happy Birthday, Don.

  • Jenn Perryman says:


  • Katie L. says:

    Thanks, Sars. Good to read this.

  • rayvyn2k says:

    It's become my own annual tradition to visit your site (and by extension you and Don) every year. Still hope you find Don one day.

  • Bo says:

    Thank you, Sars.

  • cmcl says:

    I've been wondering what you would post today. Very appropriate, and also a good commentary on the way the media is handling this day. Thank you.

  • Melissa says:

    Another touching 9-11 entry. I hope that this is the year where Don finally finds you again…

  • Angela says:

    Thank you Sars, and Don, on your birthday. And Wing, who took care of Sars, and us on her various sites that day.

  • Rachel says:

    Thanks Sars. And, Lincoln, of all people.

  • Tisha says:

    I shared your original post with some new friends today.

    Every year, I hope you hear from Don. I'll never stop hoping for that.

  • Bitts says:

    Thank you for helping to do the Remembering. Your writing is a huge part of the way I remember 9/11.

    Happy birthday, Don. I hope the decade has done you well.

  • Michelle says:

    Every year I think about your story, and the man you met. Thank you for sharing it with all of us.

  • Shanna says:

    "Happy birthday, Don," was one of my first thoughts this morning, and I was also waiting to read what you would write for today. Thank you.

  • McKenzie says:

    Like Shanna, one of my first thoughts this morning was "Happy Birthday, Don. I wonder if Sars found him yet."

    Thank you for your consistently thoughtful and measured reflections on this day. It provides solid ground through all of the other noise.

  • Jean says:

    I remember how the TWoP forums, and friends I met there, were a big part of helping me get through that day. Thank you, Sars, for that, and for this. And happy birthday, Don.

  • Lori says:

    Thank you, Sars, this was beautiful as always. Spare and haunting and fitting, like Lincoln's speech.

    It's worth remembering that his Address was almost an afterthought – that the main orator at Gettysburg, Massachusetts senator Edward Everett, spoke for two hours, but nobody remembers his speech today; instead they remember the words, so brief and humble and perfect, of America's greatest President.

  • meltina says:

    I've mostly been avoiding coverage of today (I mean, yeah, it's a big milestone, I get it, but are we saying anything that had not already been said on other anniversaries of the tragedy?), but I did poke in here to check on you and Don. I'm hoping he's reading the post too, and having a nice birthday.

  • Jenny says:

    It's hard to believe it's been 10 years, it almost seems like yesterday every time I think of that day.

    Beautiful words, Sars.

    And happy birthday, Don. I hope the years have treated you well.

  • ferretrick says:

    Thank you. I've avoided all the television specials because it's too much, but you always say it right.

  • Mystery Amanda says:

    Thank you for this. You said it just right, as usual.

    Happy birthday to Don, and a happy anniversary to my parents. Mystery Mom and Dad are celebrating 29 years today, and I think the shadow of the day makes the sunshine of it a little bit brighter.

  • Doriette says:

    Beautifully put, as always, Sars.

    Happy birthday, Don. Thank you for looking out for Sars.

  • I woke up this morning and thought "It's Don's birthday."

    Thank you for once again writing a fitting tribute.

  • Suzanne says:

    I can't really cope with the specials, and the timelines, and the news – but I always come here on this day, every year. And I think I always will. Take care, Sars.

  • Jo says:

    I always hope you hear from Don. I saw an article somewhere online (it may have been on a wire service, as I work at a newspaper) about people whose birthdays are on Sept. 11 and I read it hoping one of them would be named Don. No such luck. Like others have suggested, I've begun to wonder if he was an angel.

    Happy birthday wherever you are, Don.

  • JeniMull says:

    Happy Birthday, Don. Thank you for another excellent passage, Sars.

  • SashaPT says:

    Sars, "For Thou Art With Us" is as much a part of my memory of 9/11 as any newspaper or TV, and like so many others I come to your site every year to remember and pay tribute to Don and the other angels who showed kindness that day.

    That this year you have chosen to evoke Abraham Lincoln, whose words and likeness make me dissolve into tears practically at the mention of his name (heaving, blubbery sobs in the Smithsonian and at the Lincoln Memorial… it's a wonder I can even have pennies in the house) makes this anniversary even more poignant. Thank you, as always.

  • Kim says:

    All week I have thought, "Sarah will know what to say." And you do, always–what to say, and not, and what to let Lincoln say for you. Thank you again. I'm so grateful to have been reading you for well over a decade, and I still get a small sweet glow from imagining Don's reaction, the day he finally finds out that the entire Internet wants to buy him a beer.

  • Liz C says:

    Thank you, Sarah. Happy Birthday, Don.

  • missbanshee says:

    That was beautiful. Happy Birthday, Don.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    it's a wonder I can even have pennies in the house

    …Aw! (And "hee," a little. I kind of want to make/watch a short film about this. So sweet.)

    Thanks for all the kind words, everyone. I hope your days were uneventful and positive.

  • Bridget says:

    Happy Birthday, Don. This is the first year my oldest children (almost 11, 9 and 6) were really aware of what this day means. I think that next year I'll invite them to join me in my annual private commemoration, where I start reading from 2001 and work my way to this year's entry. Beautiful and heart-wrenching as always, Sars.

    Do you think Don has any idea how many people wish him well on this day, every year?

  • Annie F says:

    I also awoke this morning thinking of you, Sars, and Don, and hope this will be the year you find him. Thank you, as always, for your beautiful post.

  • Gina says:

    Every time I read the Gettysburg Address, I cry. Every single time. Very appropriate words for this day. And happy birthday to Don, wherever he is.

  • Seankgallagher says:

    Happy birthday, Don. And thank you, Sars. It's difficult for me to express how I feel about today, but I always get clarity when I come here.

  • bosch says:

    Thank you, Sars.

    I got to watch a little girl be born last night, and I've been thinking of your original post all day. It was so wonderful to see a small miracle happen on a day with so much sadness. Out of shadow comes sunshine. Out of tragedy comes life.

    Many thanks for so many years of wonderful writing, especially on days like today when it's easy to feel at a loss for words.

  • C says:

    Thanks Sars, we were waiting to hear what you had to say. Wonderful, as always. And Lincoln, gosh. Every time I think about him visiting Richmond VA, a little over a week before he was killed, and walking unprotected through the streets, I have that feeling you get when you know how a movie is going to end, but hope against hope it might turn out a different way. I love the angels & ages debate, and I must admit that I love how Chris Hitchens uses it to make a point about scepticism and belief, etc.

    Anyway, thanks Sars. And thanks, Don.

  • Deanna says:

    Take good care, Don. You are an angel for our age.

  • JennyA says:

    Happy Birthday, Don. Thanks, Sars.

  • Sandman says:

    Both spare and unsparing; beautiful as always. Thank you, Sarah. Happy birthday, Don.

  • FloridaErin says:

    My husband was remembering a former co-worker who told them once how she had to walk across the bridge to get home that day, and so I told him about Don. Because of you, I think of Don every year, and wonder how his story played out.

  • siren says:

    I have been avoiding all 9/11 stuff except for an NPR/Storycorps piece, and this… I wanted to check.
    I keep hoping you've found Don…
    Sometimes when I think of it I search for him online.

    Thank you.

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