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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- It continues to amaze me, more than 14 decades after his death, how Abraham Lincoln keeps surfacing in the news. All kinds of stuff.

Historical evidence now indicates he had just come down with a fairly mild case of smallpox the day before he delivered his Gettysburg Address. Eyewitnesses said he did seem faint and weak as he made the famous speech. A trusted valet who attended to him on the train back to Washington caught the dreaded illness and soon died.

New books advancing this or that theory about his assassination, or early life, or sexuality or true political feelings continue to march off the presses. One scrap of new information about the man who saved the Union, and a book can be born. More than 16,000 books have been written about this man, more than any historical figure other than Jesus Christ -- Napoleon Bonaparte comes in third. This is to say nothing of magazine articles.

Indeed, there is something ethereal and eerie about this president.

About a decade ago, I was assigned to cover an odd but vigorous dispute between the Catholic hierarchy and the Soldiers' Home, a still-in-use military retirement facility and adjoining cemetery dating back to before the Civil War that is located with the District of Columbia boundaries about three miles north of the White House.

The land just to the east is owned by the Vatican and several Catholic colleges, and a spiffy new Pope John Paul II center was coming to fruition in the 1990s. The Catholics coveted a bit of the Soldiers' Home acreage for parking and other uses. The military considered the Catholic offer penurious and the appraisal cheap and biased toward the religious leaders. Because the place was partially funded with federal allocations, congressional committees got involved, and the story grew.

I decided to visit the immense grounds of the old soldiers' home so I'd know what everyone was talking about. It was like stepping back in time.

It turns out this was Abraham Lincoln's favorite place during the time he was president. He would ride a horse down Pennsylvania Avenue, accompanied by a large contingent of sword-wielding cavalry officers, turn north as he approached Capitol Hill, and soon be in a place much more peaceful and cooler than downtown Washington's sweltering summer heat.

Starting in 1862, Lincoln for three summers of his presidency used a small cottage on the grounds as a close but hidden retreat -- sort of an early Camp David. Sometimes his children would join him. The cottage still exists, as do a couple of trees he and the family sat under and swung from.

As one of the "The New Yorker" magazine's very best writers, Adam Gopnik, puts it in the May 28 issue, "Every other place associated with him either predates the presidential years or has changed so much that it is unrecognizable. But Lincoln's cottage, which has been largely neglected, resonates with the period."

An administrative doyenne took me through the creaky old place, and indeed, even a first-time visitor could see how the simple cottage charmed Lincoln and gave him peace, even if Union dead were being buried nearby almost daily.

The administrator pointed me to a weathered, plain old desk with a stiff-back chair and indicated I could take notes there as I interviewed her. I asked several questions about the Catholic-military dispute, and about the charming Soldiers' Home grounds. Even as the interview went well, I felt -- imagined may be a better word -- some weird presence, a sort of "otherness" I find hard to describe even to this day. As I neared conclusion, the gracious woman, a slight smile on her face, said casually, "You know, that desk is said to have been used by Abraham Lincoln to write the first draft of his Emancipation Proclamation."

I remember the buzz -- a small, almost electric shock -- that started at my fingertips and ran up my right arm. OK, this may be personally overdrawn and a bit sensationalistic, but it happened, and it happened to me. I still haven't been able to discover if the proclamation connection has been proved, but even the historical theory is good enough for me. All I know is the thrill it gave me to be in a room where Lincoln worked and relaxed.

Gopnik's fascinating magazine article centers on another Lincoln mystery currently under the historical microscope -- what were the actual famous last words uttered at his bedside in a boarding house (to which he'd been carried) across the street from Ford's Theatre, the site of his assassination?

Standard history has it that Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's stern and commanding Secretary of War, said as the president drew his last breath shortly after sunrise the next morning: "Now he belongs to the ages."

Lots of new ink, however, is being given to the theory that Stanton -- once a dismissive political enemy but by his death President Lincoln's most trusted Cabinet member -- actually said, "Now he belongs to the angels."

The "perfectly chosen" words in the first quote, according to Gopnik, form "probably the most famous epitaph in American biography, and still perhaps the best" -- an evocation of a Lincoln "who belongs to history alone, their invocation not of an assumption to an afterlife but of a long reign in the corridors to time, a man now part of eternity."

This much-accepted "belongs to the ages" quote is the one we all learned in grade school, but now historians are turning to what they call the "ur-source" that supports the alternative "angels" quote. It is a stenographic record made in the tiny, crowded death bedroom that night by a young Union corporal named James Tanner. He had lost both legs at the Second Battle of Bull Run and walked on two peg legs. Mustered out of the Union Army, Tanner lived next door to the Petersen boarding house where Lincoln had been taken.

As the angry, grieving Secretary Stanton began to investigate the assassination and question eyewitnesses -- even as Lincoln lay dying -- he called for someone who could take notes in shorthand, one of Tanner's talents. He spent hours next to the bleeding, dying president, and as the Secretary of War's new secretary, recorded every syllable Stanton uttered.

Tanner, it turns out, jotted down that Stanton, "the tears streaming down his face … sobbed out the words: He belongs to the angels now."

This would seem to tilt the evidence toward the "angels" version of the quote, but the historical dispute continues.

What's interesting is the Soldiers' Home played a big part in the evolving relationship between Stanton and Lincoln.

According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stanton was a famous litigator in the 1850s, and once appeared on the same legal team as the up-and-coming Lincoln during a Cincinnati patent trial, but stiffed the junior Lincoln as an Illinois rube and one of little legal capability whom he wouldn't let present, argue or even consult with staff.

Lincoln, writes Gopnik, "didn't hold the incident against Stanton, a Democrat whose contempt for him even after he was nominated for president was almost open," and made him his quite effective Secretary of War.

Stanton also frequented his own cottage on the spacious Soldiers' Home property, and spent three summers there with Lincoln, eventually becoming the president's friend as well as colleague. Stanton was infamous in Washington for being "rude and offensive" but he, too, found relaxation and a gentler demeanor at the Soldiers' Home, sometimes playing mumbletypeg with soldiers, sometimes helping Lincoln in odd, gentle, unpresidential tasks.

The place had several pet peacocks roaming the grounds, and administrators had tied blocks of wood to the birds' feet to keep them from flying off. The lines would get snarled in the lower tree branches, and Lincoln -- with Stanton's help -- would untangle the distressed birds.

As Stanton came to know Lincoln, Gopnik writes, "he formed an opinion of his intellect so high that he said to one of his fellow lawyers 'No men were ever so deceived as we at Cincinnati.' It was a friendship deep enough, and famous enough, to make everyone in Lincoln's last room wait for Stanton to speak."

This was one reason I loved working in Washington for more than two decades. Innocent little reporting assignments had a way of running one smack-dab into the face of some occurrence in American history, almost on a daily basis. Sometimes you'd recognize it as it happened. Sometimes it dawned on you in retrospect. But the resonance with this great country's past was always there.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 29 2007