Feb. 9, 2009
I joined about 200 people yesterday in Annapolis for a re-tracing of President Lincoln's February, 1865, walk. He came to Maryland's capital only once--to catch a ship to steam down the Chesapeake Bay. He went there to discuss peace terms with Confederate commissioners at Fortress Monroe. Annapolis' Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission was determined to make a great event of Lincoln's brief encounter with our town. Lincoln had to get off his special one-car train at the depot and walk across town to the Naval Academy to embark on his short sea voyage.
The handsome tribute booklet published by our Maryland State Archives titles Lincoln's sojourn "The Extra Mile." They tell us everything we could want to know about his cross-town walk except where they got the phrase the extra mile. It comes from the Bible. Jesus tells us we should "walk the extra mile" when required to go one mile. In Jesus' time, Roman soldiers could force Israelites to carry their heavy armor and gear one full mile. Jesus wanted us to do more than what was minimally required of us.
This fine booklet is another example of what the late Prof. E.D. Hirsch wrote on cultural literacy. Hirsch believed that we could not be culturally literate without a working knowledge of the Bible. I don't know if Hirsch believed the Bible, but he certainly understood its influence on our culture. He cited India as an example. That giant nation has more than 450 language groups. Only the English language unites the people of India, and only the Bible enables them to understand the language they use.
President Lincoln was literally walking the extra mile for peace. He knew that the peacemakers are blessed. Lincoln had read the Sermon on the Mount. His trip was a spur-of-the-moment thing. He slipped out of the Executive Mansion without his faithful secretary John Nicolay even knowing he was gone. General Grant had persuaded the President that he was needed at Fort Monroe. Even if the Confederates' peace offerings were unacceptable-and so they ultimately proved to be-Lincoln needed to show his own Union soldiers that he would spare no effort to bring peace.
So Lincoln strode purposefully through Annapolis, a distance of 1 14 miles. He passed by the Union soldiers' hospital at St. John's College on his left. As well, he passed the Old State House on his right. The Maryland legislature was in session then, debating ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery. Lincoln worked hard to get Congress to approve the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln went so far as to sign the Thirteenth Amendment, even though the President's signature is not required for a constitutional amendment.
Our little town of Annapolis made the most of Lincoln's briefest of walk-throughs. They did a fine job. We learned who carried Lincoln's toothbrush and the fact that he always got seasick. But if the program organizers had noted the origins of that beautiful phrase, "the extra mile," they might have given us a better insight into the Great Emancipator's heart.