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March 4

Our students are rushing around today to attend to the remaining odds and ends before departing for Spring Break. A few of them–my students who have studied Abraham Lincoln–received my email this morning reminding them that this is the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. The Library of Congress website has a rich and wonderful link through “Today in History” to the images and drama of that day.

Of course, we read history retrospectively; but those who witnessed the inauguration in 1861 or who read about it in the press, had to experience Lincoln’s presidency prospectively. None of them could have imagined the turmoil of the next four years, or the “new birth of freedom” that transformed the nation under Lincoln’s wise guidance.

Among those who couldn’t have imagined the immediate future was Fr. Anthony Ciampi. He was then in his second term as rector/president of Holy Cross–the president who, up to now, was longest in service in that office (eleven years) after Father Brooks. Fr. Ciampi had helped to salvage the future of the College after the fire of 1852;  in 1857 he returned to complete the restoration of the school. We owe a lot to him.

But we also owe him accuracy of memory. He was not an admirer of Lincoln–at least, not at first. Early in April of 1861, little more than a week before the attack on Fort Sumter, he wrote to his provincial that a late-season snowstorm was “as bad as Abe Lincoln to this country.” Whom did this transplanted Roman support in the Election of 1860? History is silent on that point. Did he come around to Lincoln’s point of view? I hope so, but I haven’t searched his documents for evidence.

What we do know is that Ciampi was succeeded in August of 1861 by Fr. James Clark, a West Point graduate and classmate of Robert E. Lee. Fr. Clark succeeded in gaining a charter for the College at last; and he had a well dug uphill from Fenwick Hall to provide water in case of another fire. Fr. Clark backed the Union in time of war; but on the night in April of 1865 while the students were celebrating victory on the front Fenwick lawn, Clark spent the evening alone, walking slow circles in the dark, behind the building. Why? My presumption is, that he was remembering, and praying for, former classmates and comrades who had perished in the great struggle. He would also, I think, have said a prayer for Robert E. Lee and his adjustment to the circumstances attending military defeat.

By the time Fr. Ciampi returned for his third term as rector/president (1867-73), the reputation of Lincoln was secure.

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