Lincoln, Shakespeare, and the Wilderness

“My God! My God! twenty thousand poor souls sent to their final account in one day,” President Lincoln lamented after the battle of the Wilderness. “I cannot bear it! I cannot bear it!” 

Newspaperman John Weiss Forney—who enjoyed special access to Lincoln—recounted Lincoln’s “outburst of uncontrollable emotion” years later in his memoir Anecdotes of Public Men (vol. 2, pp 180-1). Forney said the battle put Lincoln into one of his periods of depression, and it was in that condition that the journalist found the president one evening. “He was ghastly pale, the dark rings were round his caverned eyes, his hair was brushed back from his temples, and he was reading Shakespeare when I came in,” Forney later wrote.

“Let me read you this from ‘Macbeth,’” Lincoln said, adding that the verse came to him “like a consolation”:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

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