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"Get down you damned fool"

July 11, 2011 - Lee Smith
So, to continue a theme ...

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. Our nation’s most outstanding president served during the war, and its end coincided with his assassination at Ford’s Theatre in Washington on April 14, 1865.

But did you know that Abraham Lincoln put himself directly in harm’s way throughout his tenure in office? Part of this had to do with the near total lack of security afforded presidents during that era. But part of it also had to do with Lincoln’s own wishes, such as his visit to Richmond, Va., after it fell to union troops near the end of the war. The president literally walked through the Confederate capital city. Fortunately for him, he was greeted by grateful freed slaves and not embittered Confederates.

My favorite story in this vein involves Lincoln’s trip to Fort Stevens in the summer of 1864. Confederate General Jubal Early and 15,000 men had surprised the union defenders around Washington, D.C., by marching unopposed toward the nation’s capital. Union armies were not present because they were busy trying to reach and take Richmond, where the bulk of the two contending armies were concentrated.

In July 1864, Jubal’s army was five miles north of Washington. Union Gen. Grant dispatched a corps to D.C. to shore up defenses. This would discourage a direct assault by Early.

But on July 12, during skirmishing at Fort Stevens, Lincoln appeared on the scene to witness first-hand the combat into which he had sent 1 million men over the previous three years.

Lincoln was warned to be careful, but he repeatedly stood up to peer over the parapet, as Confederate sharpshooter’s bullets whizzed nearby. Out of the corner of his eye, a captain of the 6th Corps — not knowing it was Lincoln — kept seeing a lanky civilian pop up. The captain yelled, “Get down you damned fool, before you get shot.”

The president is said to have taken this advice seriously and with good humor.

The captain who perhaps saved the president’s life was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who would go on to become one of the nation’s legendary jurists, serving on the Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932. He is perhaps most well-known for his doctrine on free speech, which he sought to protect. However, he noted that free speech is not absolute, and does not extend to falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.


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