The hero of Fort Sumter, Brigadier-General Robert Anderson, has turned over restive Kentucky to the administration of Brigadier-General William Tecumseh Sherman. Will Sherman be up to the task? There are rumors that Sherman is going insane.
While he faces a divided state with “marauding bands” who “are doing all the injury they can to those who will not join them in their accursed warfare,” as Anderson put it in a letter of October 7th, Sherman is said to have speculated that with 200,000 men, he could finish the war in the area. The vastness of this request makes the man look unbalanced.
Is he? Like our President, Sherman is a man of melancholy mien. He is pessimistic about the war and he has always said the army is unprepared and the nation does not recognize the magnitude of the conflict. He is not sanguine about the outcome and is rumored to suffer from “the hypo”—what President Lincoln calls his own black moods of despair.
Lincoln was known for such moods in Illinois. It is said that when Abraham Lincoln came to the stage in Decatur, Illinois to accept the Republican nomination, “the roof was literally cheered off” because some awnings collapsed from the reverberations of the thunderous ovation. Yet candidate Lincoln did not seem happy. A spectator commented that he looked like one of “the worst plagued men I ever saw.”
After the convention, the lieutenant governor of Illinois said he came upon Mr. Lincoln sitting alone in the deserted convention hall with his face buried despairingly in his huge hands. He tends to see the world as a grim and dismal place, full of suffering. A friend of his from his lawyer days said, “No element of Mr. Lincoln's character was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.” Other close associates said that the man was drenched in melancholy.
Given to writing lugubrious verses about death and the gloomier aspects of life, our President has at times worried friends so much that they made sure, as he himself made sure, that there were no blades in his room or his pocket that he might use against himself.
Now we all know that the President is full of humorous stories, wisecracks, and scintillating one liners that show a deep-seated and canny appreciation of life and its ironies as well as its beauty and truth. As a young man, he very much enjoyed contests of strength, foot racing, telling yarns, and he was markedly sociable. He was interested in marriage and the life-affirming prospect of fatherhood.
At the same time, Lincoln is rumored to be the author of an 1838 melancholy verse about a man about to commit suicide alone in the woods. The first lugubrious verse goes: “Here, where the lonely hooting owl, Sends forth his midnight moans, Fierce wolves shall o'er my carcass growl, Or buzzards pick my bones.”
The whole poem is so depressing as to make the reader think: “This man’s got the hypo badly!” However, the most telling line of the poem is that the suicide is considering doing his dastardly deed because he hopes it will “ease me of this power to think.”
Is it possible that men of melancholy mien, like Brigadier-General Sherman and President Lincoln, are that way for good reason—because of their ability to see what other men do not see? Both men look at situations unblinkingly and are able to endure the bright, hard, cold light of agonizing truths. They are strong enough look at situations unflinchingly, and while the vision causes them fierce pain, it also enables them to act in accordance with realities, albeit with great sadness. They act effectively to ameliorate the awfulness they so accurately see.
Perhaps such men of melancholy mien are just what are needed at this tragic time, for the conflict looks to be long, awful, and costly beyond calculation—costly in life and limb, costly in mind and matter, costly to the very idea of America and with outcome uncertain. Happier, less realistic men might not have the mettle to face the times.