5. He had a brief military career during the Black Hawk War
From April to July, 1832, Abraham Lincoln was a captain of militia, in command of a company of volunteers, during the brief conflict known as the Black Hawk War. He was never involved in combat during his brief service, although his unit did dig graves for some of the dead. Black Hawk was the leader of a band of Sauk, supported by Potawatomi, Fox, and Kickapoo braves, who attacked settlements east of the Mississippi in an attempt to drive out the settlers and reclaim their tribal lands. They were supported by British agents, which led to Black Hawk’s thousand or so warriors described as “British Bands”. On May 27 1832, Lincoln’s company of volunteers was discharged from the service, and Lincoln reenlisted as a private in another company, commanded by Elijah Iles.
Again mustered out in early July when the company disbanded, Lincoln reenlisted yet again, in a company assigned to federal service as a spy (reconnaissance) unit. Lincoln later explained to his law partner William Herndon that he did so because he was otherwise out of work, and, “there being no more danger of fighting, I could do nothing better than enlist again”. Abraham Lincoln’s military service was of short duration, and became the fodder for jokes and more malicious tales about him among his political enemy’s years later, but his brief experience of army life had a life-long effect on him. In a later speech before Congress he admitted his lack of fighting experience with any Indians, but noted, “I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes, and though I never fainted from the loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry”. His brief experience in the field taught him much about the plight of the common soldier, which he remembered in the 1860s.
6. He personally fought with river pirates to defend his cargo
In the days before the railroads, shipping cargoes overland by wagon was slow, subject to weather, across roads which were little more than mud trails. A far more economically feasible method was by water, down the tributaries of the Mississippi and thence to New Orleans. The traffic on the river and the remote nature of the journey led to gangs of thieves forming – river pirates – many of whom adopted the attitude of their seafaring brethren that dead men tell no tales. In 1828 a nineteen year old Lincoln and a partner, Allen Gentry, journeyed down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and New Orleans, carrying a load of goods provided by Gentry’s father, an Indiana storekeeper. During the journey the two men were attacked by a gang of pirates, all black, intent on stealing their cargo.
Using boat poles, clubs, firearms, and fists, Lincoln and Gentry defended their boat and cargo, preventing the pirates from coming aboard as they continued downstream. After several failed attacks, and undoubtedly with more than one throbbing head, the pirates gave up and returned to their lair to await a less belligerent victim. Lincoln and Gentry reached New Orleans, sold their cargo, and for the first time Abraham Lincoln explored a city of the old south, witnessed a slave auction, and returned to his home in Indiana by steamboat. On a second trip to New Orleans in 1831, Lincoln experienced the hazards of navigation on the Mississippi caused by obstructions, which led him to invent a method for floating vessels over shoals using inflatable bladders, for which he eventually was awarded a patent.
7. Lincoln entered politics before he earned his law license
During his second trip to New Orleans the boat on which Lincoln traveled encountered difficulties passing the mill dam at the village of New Salem, Illinois. Lincoln was impressed enough by what he saw of the town to return to it in 1831 after completing his journey to New Orleans. Taking a job in a general store, Lincoln soon developed a reputation for honesty and hard work. He also became a wrestler of note in the community and his physical strength and sense of humor made him a popular member of a group of young men known as Clary’s Boys. He also organized a debating society, where his performance in political discourse drew the attention of the leading citizens of the town, including James Rutledge. In 1832 Lincoln lost in his first attempt to gain election to the legislature.
In 1834 he ran again and won. He went on to win four consecutive terms in the Illinois House of Representatives, where he argued against the development of railroads and for the improvements on the rivers which improved their navigability. It was while serving in the legislature that Lincoln began his study of law, which would serve him well financially in the two decades which preceded his election to the presidency. It was also the rough and tumble nature of frontier politics at the local level which honed his considerable political skills and instincts. It was during Lincoln’s service in the legislature that he was challenged to a duel by State Auditor James Shields, who was incensed at articles Lincoln had written in the SangamonJournal. Lincoln accepted the challenge.
8. Lincoln prepared to fight a duel in 1842, though it was a bloodless combat
In 1842 the Sangamon Journal, a Springfield newspaper, published an article submitted in the form of a letter from the wife of a local farmer, signed by Aunt Becca. The letter had been written by Lincoln, edited by Mary Todd, his future wife, and was critical of State Auditor James Shields, referring to him as “a fool and a liar” among other things. Unbeknownst to Lincoln, Mary Todd continued to write additional letters in similar vein. In another passage in the original letter, Lincoln wrote, “If I was deaf and blind I could tell him by the smell”. Shields demanded to know the true author of the letter and satisfaction, and when Lincoln admitted his authorship a duel was arranged to be fought in Missouri, since dueling was illegal in Illinois. The choice of weapons fell to Lincoln, he chose broadswords.
Lincoln was 6’4″, while Shields stood closer to the average height of the day a 5’9″, and Lincoln had a correspondingly large advantage of reach, which he demonstrated by swinging his sword and lopping off a branch from a tree which was clearly out of his opponent’s reach as their seconds were going through the formalities preceding the duel. Whether Shields recognized the improbability of his prevailing over his opponent following this demonstration or whether cooler heads were already intervening between the seconds, hoping to avoid a fight, the duel was ended with both parties declaring themselves satisfied and no blows exchanged. Lincoln and Shields eventually became good friends, and at one point during the Civil War Lincoln offered his former adversary command of the Army of the Potomac, which Shields declined for personal reasons.
9. Lincoln’s anti-slavery leanings emerged while he was in the state legislature
In the 1830s abolitionist societies, supported by newspapers which argued their anti-slavery position, began to emerge in the northern and western states. The Illinois legislature introduced a resolution condemning the formation of abolitionist societies, which claimed that the right of, “property in slaves is sacred to the slaveholding states”, and that “they cannot be deprived of that right without their consent”. Lincoln was one of the six legislators who voted in opposition to the resolution, against the 77 who supported it, though his vote at the time was made without him voicing his argument. Lincoln had more pressing goals on his political agenda at the time, and again demonstrating his political savvy he decided to wait until he had achieved his main goal of the session (relocating the state capital to Springfield) before entering the slavery debate for the first time.
On March 3, 1837, his other goals achieved, Lincoln submitted a written opposition to the legislature’s action, stating “the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy”. Lincoln was equally critical of the abolitionist societies, which he believed exacerbated the issue by inflaming the debate, overwhelming reason with rhetoric, and justice with vengeance. Lincoln both condemned the practice of slavery and defended the sanctity of the rights of the people in the states which allowed it, writing that only they, through their congressional representatives, could abolish slavery in their own state, and not because of an overwhelming majority of anti-slavery votes from outside states. When Lincoln wrote his autobiography 23 years later, he stated that his attitude towards slavery at the time remained more or less the same.
10. Lincoln’s religious beliefs remain in question 150 years after his death
Abraham Lincoln’s knowledge of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, was comprehensive. It was one of the books from which he learned to read in his youth, and he read it while living in the environment of a devout Baptist community, utterly intolerant of any dissenting view. After growing up in such an atmosphere, part of the Great Awakening, Lincoln settled in the community of New Salem at a time when it had a tavern (which did a brisk business) but no churches. He did not seem to miss one. Throughout his life Lincoln never joined any church, nor attend services on a regular basis (other than escorting his Presbyterian wife to services as president, which she viewed as a social event). According to Lincoln’s longtime friend Jesse Fell, it was a topic Lincoln seldom addressed in conversation, and when he did it was with the expression of doubt, rather than devout piety. He was particularly questioning on the subject of divine intercession through miracles.
When Lincoln ran for Congress in 1846 his opponent Peter Cartwright, an evangelist, accused him of being an “infidel”. Lincoln responded with a handbill, in which he agreed that he was not a member of any church, but that “I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general…” In a later debate, Cartwright posed the question to Lincoln of whether his opponent had the intention of going to either heaven or hell, stating that he had expressed no interest in going to either via his religious views, and demanding to know where he intended to go. Lincoln’s answer was, “I did not come here with the idea of being singled out, but since you ask, I will reply with equal candor. I intend to go Congress”.
11. Abraham Lincoln suffered physical abuse at the hands of his wife
Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd were married in November, 1842, and eventually the couple had four sons together, only one of which, Robert Todd Lincoln, would live to adulthood. Mary Todd was socially ambitious, a daughter of the south whose brothers served in the Confederate army. She was both verbally and physically abusive of her husband, beginning as early as the 1840s, when her violent fits of temper arose with alarming frequency. Lincoln’s law partner wrote of an incident in which Lincoln was attempting to lay a fire in their Springfield home when she struck him across the face with a piece of firewood, unhappy that he was taking so long to light the fire. She threw food at him during tirades at table, and once through a cup of coffee in his face.
Even in the White House Lincoln was not free from his wife’s burst of temper, which bordered on insanity according to some biographers. She launched several spending sprees, rehabilitating the White House and her wardrobe at the President’s expense, incurring his anger at the profligate spending, for which he could do little but admonish her, though he tightened his control of his accounts. His increased attention to her spending their savings led her to open credit accounts with merchants outside of Washington, away from the President’s increasingly watchful eye. A decade after Lincoln’s death, her only surviving son, Robert, had her committed to an asylum due to her erratic behavior. She began a letter campaign to publicly embarrass the family, which led her to be allowed to live in the home of a sister. Modern scholars have postulated that Mrs. Lincoln may have been bipolar, others have attributed her behavior to physical disorders, but there is no question that Abraham Lincoln endured life with an abusive spouse throughout their marriage.
12. More on Lincoln’s religious beliefs and positions
Following Lincoln’s murder in April 1865 he became a secular martyr almost immediately, one of the last casualties of the American Civil War. In the years since many Christian groups have tried to make him into a Christian martyr as well, noting, among other things, his death on Good Friday (it was actually the following day) and the many professions to God and Providence in his speeches and writings. Decades after his death many Christian ministers wrote of meetings with Lincoln as president in which he confessed to a conversion to Christianity, cited without evidence other than anecdotal commentary, often in meetings which could not be documented as having taken place. Those who knew Lincoln best during his lifetime before and during his presidency denied that he accepted Christian doctrine, and the divinity of Christ.
Judge David Davis, one of Lincoln’s closest friends and the executor of his estate, said of him, “He had no faith in the Christian sense of the term”. Colonel Ward Lamon, a friend from Illinois who was with Lincoln throughout his presidency, often as his personal bodyguard, wrote, “Never in all that time did he let fall from his lips or his pen an expression which remotely implied the slightest faith in Jesus as the son of God and the Savior of men”. Though many claimed otherwise, arguing that Lincoln was a pious Christian, nothing in his voluminous writings indicates that he was, and much indicates that he wasn’t. The argument over Lincoln’s religious beliefs has continued since his death and will no doubt continue for decades more, fed by the desire to adopt him as a member of a sect, rather than the desire to understand his true faith and its application to his life.
When the American Civil War erupted in the spring of 1861, Abraham Lincoln became the first American president to act as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Lincoln assembled the first truly modern General Staff at the war department, in reaction to Union defeats in the east, and successes in the west, and communicated directly with all of his commanding generals, in particularly close communication with his commanders of the Army of the Potomac, usually located in Virginia unless responding to Confederate incursions in Maryland and later in Pennsylvania. It was Lincoln who throughout the war stressed that the destruction of the Confederate Army under Robert E. Lee was the true goal of the war, rather than the capture of the Confederate Capital at Richmond. When generals allowed opportunities for that destruction to slip through their fingers, it was Lincoln who fired them.
Lincoln’s hands on approach to the conducting of the war was present in all theatres of operations. The latter stages of Grant’s operations during the siege of Vicksburg coincided with Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania and Lincoln remained in nearly constant communication with his commanders in both areas, even firing Joseph Hooker in Pennsylvania for his lack of aggression, replacing him with George Gordon Meade. When Grant used tactics with which Lincoln disagreed, the president later sent his general a letter in which he acknowledged his doubts and then informed Grant, “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong”. Lincoln suffered from incompetent generals in the field early in the war, including McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker, but by the end of the conflict he had created a reflexive and professional general staff on a stage not seen again until the Second World War.
14. The forgotten achievements of the Lincoln Administration
The Lincoln Administration was dominated by the Civil War, and its other goals which Lincoln had hoped to attain when campaigning for office were overwhelmed by the struggle to save the Union. Nonetheless, during his first term and the five weeks of his second, Lincoln achieved many other goals, forgotten due to the catastrophe which the war became. Numerous fiscal achievements included the issuance of paper money (called greenbacks) which were backed not by gold and silver reserves but rather than by the good faith and credit of the federal government. The first federal income tax was enacted. Congress established a tax on banknotes issued by private and state banks, and federal banknotes became the dominant paper currency in the United States.
The Homestead Act of 1862 opened the lands of the west to settlement, with federal land holdings made available for purchase under favorable terms and low costs. The same year the executive branch Department of Agriculture was created to address the issues of farmers across the United States. Congress passed, at the urging of the president, the Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864 to provide funding for the first railroad across the continent, completed in 1869 as the Transcontinental Railroad. In 1863 Lincoln designated the final Thursday of November as National Thanksgiving Day. Lincoln also supported and approved the designation of Yosemite as a protected land grant, the precursor for what eventually became Yosemite National Park. Two new states, Nevada and West Virginia, were admitted to the Union even as it struggled for its existence during the Civil War under Abraham Lincoln.
15. He had to be smuggled into Washington when arriving to enter the presidency
Maryland was a slave state in which a large faction was bitterly opposed to the election of Abraham Lincoln. For the president-elect, who remained in Springfield, Illinois during his election and for several weeks following, his route to Washington would be through Baltimore, Maryland, a city where anti-Lincoln (and Republican) sentiment seethed. Lincoln publicly announced that he would travel to the nation’s capital openly, with an announced itinerary which included stops during which he would speak to the electorate, including one in Baltimore, where he was scheduled to arrive at Calvert Street Station on February 23, departing from Camden Station ninety minutes later. It was to be his last stop before arriving at Washington.
In those days there was no Secret Service to provide protection to Presidents and Presidents-elect (Lincoln would sign legislation creating it on the last day of his life in 1865), and private security was called upon to protect Lincoln during his journey. In Baltimore, the Pinkerton Detective Agency uncovered a plot to assassinate the President-elect as he passed through the city. Lincoln, in disguise, slipped through the city on an earlier train than his own special, which arrived as scheduled but without its expected passenger. Newspapers, especially those which had opposed Lincoln during the election, ridiculed the president-elect, and accusations of cowardice were joined with the celebratory cheers for the new president before he took the oath of office in Washington the following month.
16. He was the second president to observe American troops in battle while in office
In 1814 James Madison became the first American president to view American troops on the field of battle while serving in office, though the battle was a short one. Madison watched an army made up of mostly militia, supported by American sailors and a few regulars, as it was routed by British troops at the Battle of Bladensburg. The defeat of the Americans was so resounding and the flight of the troops so brisk that the battle came to be known as the Bladensburg races. So when Lincoln went to Fort Stevens to observe an attack by Confederate troops under Confederate general Jubal Early it was not without precedent for a president to be on a battlefield. It was Lincoln’s first opportunity to view a battle since his militia days during the Black Hawk War, when he served as a Captain of the militia.
Lincoln watched the assault from a parapet atop Fort Stevens, conspicuous as the tall, lean figure wearing a tall, stovepipe hat. The president came under fire, a Union officer, a surgeon with whom the president had been conversing was wounded, and the president was immediately ordered to take cover. Some accounts state that he was pushed back from the exposed position on the parapet. The attack on Fort Stevens remains the only time the President of the United States has been under fire on a battlefield while serving in office. Lincoln returned to the White House later that afternoon, after stopping at the Soldier’s Home to visit wounded. The story that while there he discovered a bullet hole in his hat is most certainly apocryphal.
17. His sense of humor was legendary among his colleagues
Ward Hill Lamon related the story that once, when he was prosecuting a case before the circuit court in Bloomington, Illinois, he split the seat of his trousers. Without time to change he appeared before the court, where it was quickly apparent to the other circuit court riders in attendance that his attire was somewhat disheveled. One of the other lawyers present started a petition for each of the attending to donate a small sum with which the unfortunate Lamon could purchase new trousers, a joke on the embarrassed and exposed young attorney, which referred to his inability to properly wardrobe himself on his legal earnings. When the petition reached Lincoln, he scribbled on the paper, “I can contribute nothing to the end in view”.
Lincoln’s humor and wit remained with him through all but the darkest days of his lifetime, departing when he fell into depressive states, as when his sons died, or after another calamity on the battlefields of the Civil War. His taste for what some considered coarse tales contributed to his enemies depicting him as an uncultured and uneducated lout (he once called his own education “deficient”), but he continued to disarm and amuse visitors with tall tales and jokes, and loved hearing new stories from others. He once held up a receiving line of several hundred visitors when he encountered a visitor who had related a joke several days before, holding a lengthy whispered conversation. Later the visitor said that Lincoln remembered the joke, but had forgotten the punch line, and had desired his visitor to repeat it for his later use.
April 14, 1865, should have been a day of triumph for Abraham Lincoln. He had recently visited the captured Confederate capital of Richmond, and Lee’s surrender, though not ending the war, promised that it would end soon. His meetings of that day were focused on the reconstruction of the South and the reentry of the southern states into the Union. His health was good, he didn’t need to take the mercury based blue mass pills which he used to control his chronic constipation, as the condition eased as he relaxed. He signed a few papers at his desk, one a pardon for a captured Union army deserter sentenced to death by a court martial, another legislation creating the Secret Service, which would protect currency from counterfeiting as its first role.
It has been written by many biographers and historians that Lincoln had premonitions of his own death. But that day, Good Friday, Lincoln enjoyed an afternoon carriage ride in Washington with his wife, and spoke of his desire to visit the Holy Land after leaving the White House, before returning to Springfield and the practice of law. That night he was shot in the back of his head as he watched a play. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had the derringer used by his assassin misfired, as that particular model had a habit of doing. How would John Wilkes Booth have dealt with the former wrestler, who had once fought off river pirates with little but his hands and wits, and avoided a duel by intimidating his more diminutive opponent? Unfortunately, there is no answer.
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