Extremely rare photo of President
Abraham Lincoln and Bear. Note
the subtle amusement about the
President's lips as he tries to
maintain the perfect stillness
the photography of the day
required despite the
Cordially yours, the Bear
The Bear applauds the newfound interest in the Civil War - or at least its monuments - by youthful scholars, and was moved to write his recollections of that conflict's beginning from the perspective of an eyewitness. It is obvious that the President was exercising his well-known dry sense of humor on the doltish General Poppinjay, while the great man reserved serious conversation for the Bear.
And yet, those familiar with the difficulties facing the President at the outset of the war will recognize truth even in the presidential playfulness. He could not find an aggressive general for his main army. He could barely find one willing to be prodded out of camp. Part of the problem were wildly inflated reports of rebel numbers by Pinkerton agents. And so forth.
As Everybody Knows...
As everybody knows, the South owned slaves and treated them brutally. The North discovered this and was horrified, so it elected Abraham Lincoln to free the slaves, which he did in his inaugural address. This made the Northern Americans happy, so long as the former slaves did not come up to their towns and cities. However, Lincoln still had to punish the Southern Americans.
The problem was that he could not find a general who would actually lead an army.
The Bear happened to be an uninvited, yet tolerated, guest in the Lincoln White House during the early months of the war. The Bear believes everybody assumed he was an hallucination engendered by the stress of imminent war, so no one mentioned him. The following is exactly as he recalls a typical conversation between President Lincoln and one of his generals.
Bear Facts Eyewitness to History: the Lincoln White House
General Doolittle Poppinjay - "Lead an army, you say? With all due respect, preposterous. First of all, despite 18 hours of close-order drill a day, my men still can't properly execute a left oblique while counter-marching by column of companies. They're simply not ready. And has the President considered that we might lose? What then? Robert E. Lee demolishing the Lincoln Memorial is what."
President Lincoln - "Oh, I suppose I hadn't thought of that. Could you just, I don't know, maybe go on a march in the general direction of Montgomery? Maybe five miles?"
General Poppinjay - "I'll have to doublecheck that, but I think Jefferson Davis moved the center of his insurrection to Richmond, Virginia."
Lincoln - "Is that closer than Montgomery?"
General Poppinjay - "Very much so, sir. It's only 100 miles away."
Lincoln - "Well, we need to get the Pinkertons on this capitol thing. But 100 miles? That would be even better! They can't stop us! I'll take up my good ax and show you how to lead an army myself!"
General Poppinjay - "Sir, with all due respect, do you recall an incident during the Blackhawk War where you had to get your regiment through a gap in a fence?"
Lincoln - "Maybe."
General Poppinjay - "And you didn't know the proper drill commands, did you?"
Lincoln - "I - I have heard that story, but -"
General Poppinjay - "So you said, 'Fall out and fall in on the other side of the fence, didn't you?"
Lincoln - "It's true. I could never lead an army. Why did I even start this stupid war? We're all going to die. But, couldn't we at least go down fighting? Uh, not to change the subject, but do you see a bear sitting in yonder chair reading a newspaper?"
General Poppinjay - "Uh, I.. Do you?"
Lincoln - "A bear? Here? In the White House?"
General Poppinjay - "That's a good one, Mr. President. A bear!"
[Both laugh uproariously. The Bear winks at the President,]
General Poppinjay: - "It might catch on, though. Stuffed toy bears. 'Abraham Bears.' Doesn't quite have a ring, though."
Lincoln - "No, you're right, but I like the concept. Let's design the bear now and we can come up with the name later."
[Several hours later, both men are resting their heads on the desk, crude sketches littering the floor around them.]
Lincoln - "Another failed enterprise. I'm getting depressed, Pop. How are we matched up, numbers-wise?"
|General Doolittle Poppinjay, O.G.|
Lincoln - "Trunks?"
General Poppinjay - "Yes, sir. Thank you. Cannonballs out of their trunks."
Lincoln - "And you find this report credible?"
General Poppinjay - "The Pinkertons are the very best there are, sir."
Lincoln - "I don't care! I have an idea. We'll get the Irishmen drunk and tell them the Pope's behind the elephants. He's handing out 'sin-free sex-with-anyone' passes to the first 100 to reach him. Then, we'll coat them with pitch and set them on fire."
Bear - "Wow, Mr. President. That is just wrong on so many levels. Besides, no Catholic is going to believe a Pope would ever modify Church sexual teachings."
President Lincoln - "Did you -"
General Poppinjay - "Not a thing, sir."
Lincoln - "They'll scare the elephants and in their panic they'll destroy the Confederate Army for us! Everyone knows elephants are afraid of shrieking burning Irishmen running toward them. But, then, what am I saying? If we're outnumbered 100 to one, the war is already lost."
General Poppinjay - "Not necessarily, sir. Not if we do absolutely nothing."
Lincoln - "But we can't win that way. Or, uh... what else was it we were we doing?"
Bear - "Freeing the slaves, sir."
Lincoln - "Yes. Free the slaves."
General Poppinjay - "We can't lose, either."
Lincoln - "Two can play this sneaky-hide-your-capitol game. What's the farthest place from Richmond?"
General Poppinjay - "My rough guess would be off the western coast of Australia. But, with all due respect, shouldn't a country's capitol be in the country? And, um, on land?"
Lincoln - "Those are not unsound considerations, General. See here. What if we just paid the slave owners for their slaves and be done with it? I eat a little crow, the Union is restored, slavery ended, no war, hundreds, maybe thousands of American lives saved. We could even give every former slave 40 acres and a mule. It would all cost about two years of mule fodder for your fancy-pants do-nothing army. Tell me the downside of that idea."
General Poppinjay - "But, Mr. President. You can't have states rebelling and then just buy them off with cash. It would be unseemly. There just has to be a war. And all that drill gone to waste, too."
Lincoln - "But you won't fight one for me."
General Poppinjay - "I never said that. I said I just needed a little time to get the Army of the Potomac ready. Another year or two, perhaps. Ten at the most."
Lincoln - "Thank you, General. That will be all. Maybe you can collect those drawings. I'd like you to continue working on them to the exclusion of all other duties."
[General Poppinjay leaves with bear drawings in hand.]
Lincoln - "I might appoint you in charge of the Army of the Potomac, my phantasmal friend."
This was one of those moments when the deep, inwardly-distracted eyes showed a twinkle of merriment that warmed anyone of the slightest acquaintance with the man. Yet there was a serious intent behind the joke, the Bear detected, and he accepted the invitation to pursue a more realistic conversation.
Bear - "No thank you, Mr. President. This will be no place for the Bear for the next several years. Once a war starts, somebody always gets the idea that the Bear might be useful in some cockeyed scheme. These are man's problems. Slavery is unknown among beasts, and so is forcing other creatures to be part of your Woodlands if they don't want to be. This is man's fight, and the Bear does not envy you."
Lincoln - "So, where will you go?"
Bear - "Back home to Germany. But if you really want this war, Mr. Lincoln, know that while you will be remembered as the Great Emancipator and will preserve the Union, you will meet your Maker with the blood of 620,000 Americans on your hands, by accurate Bear mathematical forecasts. The South has not invaded the North. It is not a threat to Northern hearths, but to a union one half no longer desires, and the governing philosophy of your country."
Lincoln - "Do you now you play Banquo to my MacBeth, who leaves judgment to God, but says, 'I fear thou play'dst most foully for 't.' Am I to be the villain of the piece?"
Bear - "The Bear thinks few will say so, Mr. President. But he also thinks this doleful piece will play on long after you are gone. This storm has been a long time coming and blame is shared with many on both sides who saw this day and did nothing to change course while there was still time."
Lincoln - "Blame or not, I was elected by the United States and I will not see my country divided as long as I am its president. Surely, you understand my motivation for this war. Secession does attack the United States as surely as an invasion! Every American is lessened by this painful division, which I wonder if even an animal prodigy such as yourself can appreciate. However, I would not part on an argument, but humbly ask your counsel."
Bear - "You will win because the armies of both sides will be led by mediocrities. It will be a meat grinder because tactics have not kept pace with modern weapons. All that talk about drill is nonsense, but typical. The South has fewer Americans to start with. And it will run out of American blood to fight this war before the more populous North will. The Bear is sorry, sir. He does not mean to add to your burdens, but the Bear fears the results of such radical surgery, even if it is the physician's only cure."
Lincoln - "Force is all-conquering, but its victories are short-lived, it is true. And, again you are right. The ship of state is already upon the rocks. I deem your estimate of casualties too pessimistic, though. If I can find a general who will fight, this war will be a short one and few of its evils will visit civilians of the North or the South. We are Americans all. It is impossible to imagine a spirit of vengeance animating brothers in arms, though marching under different flags. A doleful piece, indeed. If you'll wait, I'll send you off with a basket of fresh rolls and honey."
And so the Bear left America, and his predictions were uncannily accurate. He has always wondered if the objectives of reunification and emancipation could have been achieved with time and cool tempers. He wants to say "yes," but those were two cards President Lincoln had not been dealt.
The question of whether and how "this doleful piece" does still play on is for the comment box.
The Bear was sad when he learned of Mr. Lincoln's death, but not surprised. He was a man chosen by Providence for a particular time, and did not outlive it. More importantly, though, he had haunted eyes that lent both a warmth and distance to a face that is spectacularly homely in pictures, but when animated was not less homely, but held an element of attraction, or at least fascination, as well.