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Biography of Abraham Lincoln


Home > Social Studies > Holidays > Presidents Day > Abraham Lincoln > The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln > Captain Lincoln

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Lincoln's Childhood The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Lawyer Lincoln

Chapter II. Captain Lincoln

By this time the Lincoln homestead was no longer on the frontier. During the years that passed while Abraham was growing from a child, scarcely able to wield the ax placed in his hands, into a tall, capable youth, the line of frontier settlements had been gradually but steadily pushing on beyond Gentryville toward the Mississippi River. Every summer canvas-covered moving wagons wound their slow way over new roads into still newer country; while the older settlers, left behind, watched their progress with longing eyes. It was almost as if a spell had been cast over these toil-worn pioneers, making them forget, at sight of such new ventures, all the hardships they had themselves endured in subduing the wilderness. At last, on March 1, 1830, when Abraham was just twenty-one years old, the Lincolns, yielding to this overmastering frontier impulse to "move" westward, left the old farm in Indiana to make a new home in Illinois. "Their mode of conveyance was wagons drawn by ox-teams," Mr. Lincoln wrote in 1860; "and Abraham drove one of the teams." They settled in Macon County on the north side of the Sangamon River, about ten miles west of Decatur, where they built a cabin, made enough rails to fence ten acres of ground, fenced and cultivated the ground, and raised a crop of corn upon it that first season. It was the same heavy labor over again that they had endured when they went from Kentucky to Indiana; but this time the strength and energy of young Abraham were at hand to inspire and aid his father, and there was no miserable shivering year of waiting in a half-faced camp before the family could be suitably housed. They were not to escape hardship, however. They fell victims to fever and ague, which they had not known in Indiana, and became greatly discouraged; and the winter after their arrival proved one of intense cold and suffering for the pioneers, being known in the history of the State as "the winter of the deep snow." The severe weather began in the Christmas holidays with a storm of such fatal suddenness that people who were out of doors had difficulty in reaching their homes, and not a few perished, their fate remaining unknown until the melting snows of early spring showed where they had fallen.

In March, 1831, at the end of this terrible winter, Abraham Lincoln left his father's cabin to seek his own fortune in the world. It was the frontier custom for young men to do this when they reached the age of twenty-one. Abraham was now twenty-two, but had willingly remained with his people an extra year to give them the benefit of his labor and strength in making the new home.

He had become acquainted with a man named Offut, a trader and speculator, who pretended to great business shrewdness, but whose chief talent lay in boasting of the magnificent things he meant to do. Offut engaged Abraham, with his stepmother's son, John D. Johnston, and John Hanks, to take a flatboat from Beardstown, on the Illinois River, to New Orleans; and all four arranged to meet at Springfield as soon as the snow should melt.

In March, when the snow finally melted, the country was flooded and traveling by land was utterly out of the question. The boys, therefore, bought a large canoe, and in it floated down the Sangamon River to keep their appointment with Offut. It was in this somewhat unusual way that Lincoln made his first entry into the town whose name was afterward to be linked with his own.

Offut was waiting for them, with the discouraging news that he had been unable to get a flatboat at Beardstown. The young men promptly offered to make the flatboat, since one was not to be bought; and they set to work, felling the trees for it on the banks of the stream. Abraham's father had been a carpenter, so the use of tools was no mystery to him; and during his trip to New Orleans with Allen Gentry he had learned enough about flatboats to give him confidence in this task of shipbuilding. Neither Johnston nor Hanks was gifted with skill or industry, and it is clear that Lincoln was, from the start, leader of the party, master of construction, and captain of the craft.

The floods went down rapidly while the boat was building, and when they tried to sail their new craft it stuck midway across the dam of Rutledge's mill at New Salem, a village of fifteen or twenty houses not many miles from their starting-point. With its bow high in air, and its stern under water, it looked like some ungainly fish trying to fly, or some bird making an unsuccessful attempt to swim. The voyagers appeared to have suffered irreparable shipwreck at the very outset of their venture, and men and women came down from their houses to offer advice or to make fun of the young boatmen as they waded about in the water, with trousers rolled very high, seeking a way out of their difficulty. Lincoln's self-control and good humor proved equal to their banter, while his engineering skill speedily won their admiration. The amusement of the onlookers changed to gaping wonder when they saw him deliberately bore a hole in the bottom of the boat near the bow, after which, fixing up some kind of derrick, he tipped the boat so that the water she had taken in at the stern ran out in front, and she floated safely over the dam. This novel method of bailing a boat by boring a hole in her bottom fully established his fame at New Salem, and so delighted the enthusiastic Offut that, on the spot, he engaged its inventor to come back after the voyage to New Orleans and act as clerk for him in a store.

The hole plugged up again, and the boat's cargo reloaded, they made the remainder of the journey in safety. Lincoln returned by steamer from New Orleans to St. Louis, and from there made his way to New Salem on foot. He expected to find Offut already established in the new store, but neither he nor his goods had arrived. While "loafing about," as the citizens of New Salem expressed it, waiting for him, the newcomer had a chance to exhibit another of his accomplishments. An election was to be held, but one of the clerks, being taken suddenly ill, could not be present. Penmen were not plenty in the little town, and Mentor Graham, the other election clerk, looking around in perplexity for some one to fill the vacant place, asked young Lincoln if he knew how to write. Lincoln answered, in the lazy speech of the country, that he "could make a few rabbit tracks," and that being deemed quite sufficient, was immediately sworn in, and set about discharging the duties of his first office. The way he performed these not only gave general satisfaction, but greatly interested Mentor Graham, who was the village schoolmaster, and from that time on proved a most helpful friend to him.

Offut finally arrived with a miscellaneous lot of goods, which Lincoln opened and put in order, and the storekeeping began. Trade does not seem to have been brisk, for Offut soon increased his venture by renting the Rutledge and Cameron mill, on whose historic dam the flatboat had come to grief. For a while the care of this mill was added to Lincoln's other duties. He made himself generally useful besides, his old implement, the ax, not being entirely discarded. We are told that he cut down trees and split rails enough to make a large hogpen adjoining the mill, a performance not at all surprising when it is remembered that up to this time the greater part of his life had been spent in the open air, and that his still growing muscles must have eagerly welcomed tasks like this, which gave him once more the exercise that measuring calico and weighing out groceries failed to supply. Young Lincoln's bodily vigor stood him in good stead in many ways. In frontier life strength and athletic skill served as well for popular amusement as for prosaic toil, and at times, indeed, they were needed for personal defence. Every community had its champion wrestler, a man of considerable local importance, in whose success the neighbors took a becoming interest. There was, not far from New Salem, a settlement called Clary's Grove, where lived a set of restless, rollicking young backwoodsmen with a strong liking for frontier athletics and rough practical jokes. Jack Armstrong was the leader of these, and until Lincoln's arrival had been the champion wrestler of both Clary's Grove and New Salem. He and his friends had not the slightest personal grudge against Lincoln; but hearing the neighborhood talk about the newcomer, and especially Offut's extravagant praise of his clerk, who, according to Offut's statement, knew more than any one else in the United States, and could beat the whole county at running, jumping or "wrastling," they decided that the time had come to assert themselves, and strove to bring about a trial of strength between Armstrong and Lincoln. Lincoln, who disapproved of all this "woolling and pulling," as he called it, and had no desire to come to blows with his neighbors, put off the encounter as long as possible. At length even his good temper was powerless to avert it, and the wrestling-match took place. Jack Armstrong soon found that he had tackled a man as strong and skilful as himself; and his friends, seeing him likely to get the worst of it, swarmed to his assistance, almost succeeding, by tripping and kicking, in getting Lincoln down. At the unfairness of this Lincoln became suddenly and furiously angry, put forth his entire strength, lifted the pride of Clary's Grove in his arms like a child, and holding him high in the air, almost choked the life out of him. It seemed for a moment as though a general fight must follow; but even while Lincoln's fierce rage compelled their respect, his quickly returning self-control won their admiration, and the crisis was safely passed. Instead of becoming enemies and leaders in a neighborhood feud, as might have been expected, the two grew to be warm friends, the affection thus strangely begun lasting through life. They proved useful to each other in various ways, and years afterward Lincoln made ample amends for his rough treatment of the other's throat by saving the neck of Jack Armstrong's son from the halter in a memorable trial for murder. The Clary's Grove "boys" voted Lincoln "the cleverest fellow that had ever broke into the settlement," and thereafter took as much pride in his peaceableness and book-learning as they did in the rougher and more questionable accomplishments of their discomfited leader.

Lincoln himself was not so easily satisfied. His mind as well as his muscles hungered for work, and he confided to Mentor Graham, possibly with some diffidence, his "notion to study English grammar." Instead of laughing at him, Graham heartily encouraged the idea, saying it was the very best thing he could do. With quickened zeal Lincoln announced that if he had a grammar he would begin at once at this the schoolmaster was obliged to confess that he knew of no such book in New Salem. He thought, however, that there might be one at Vaner's, six miles away. Promptly after breakfast the next morning Lincoln set out in search of it. He brought the precious volume home in triumph, and with Graham's occasional help found no difficulty in mastering its contents. Indeed, it is very likely that he was astonished, and even a bit disappointed, to find so little mystery in it. He is reported to have said that if this was a "science," he thought he would like to begin on another one. In the eyes of the townspeople, however, it was no small achievement, and added greatly to his reputation as a scholar. There is no record of any other study commenced at this time, but it is certain that he profited much by helpful talks with Mentor Graham, and that he borrowed every book the schoolmaster's scanty library was able to furnish.

Though outwardly uneventful, this period of his life was both happy and profitable. He was busy at useful labor, was picking up scraps of schooling, was making friends and learning to prize them at their true worth; was, in short, developing rapidly from a youth into a young man. Already he began to feel stirrings of ambition which prompted him to look beyond his own daily needs toward the larger interests of his county and his State. An election for members of the Illinois legislature was to take place in August, 1832. Sangamon County was entitled to four representatives. Residents of the county over twenty-one years of age were eligible to election, and audacious as it might appear, Lincoln determined to be a candidate.

The people of New Salem, like those of all other Western towns, took a keen interest in politics; "politics" meaning, in that time and place, not only who was to be President or governor, but concerning itself with questions which came much closer home to dwellers on the frontier. "Internal improvements," as they were called--the building of roads and clearing out of streams so that men and women who lived in remote places might be able to travel back and forth and carry on trade with the rest of the world-- became a burning question in Illinois. There was great need of such improvements; and in this need young Lincoln saw his opportunity.

It was by way of the Sangamon River that he entered politics. That uncertain watercourse had already twice befriended him. He had floated on it in flood-time from his father's cabin into Springfield. A few weeks later its rapidly falling waters landed him on the dam at Rutledge's mill, introducing him effectively if unceremoniously to the inhabitants of New Salem. Now it was again to play a part in his life, starting him on a political career that ended only in the White House. Surely no insignificant stream has had a greater influence on the history of a famous man. It was a winding and sluggish creek, encumbered with driftwood and choked by sand-bars; but it flowed through a country already filled with ambitious settlers, where the roads were atrociously bad, becoming in rainy seasons wide seas of pasty black mud, and remaining almost impassable for weeks at a time. After a devious course the Sangamon found its way into the Illinois River, and that in turn flowed into the Mississippi. Most of the settlers were too new to the region to know what a shallow, unprofitable stream the Sangamon really was, for the deep snows of 183031 and of the following winter had supplied it with an unusual volume of water. It was natural, therefore, that they should regard it as the heaven-sent solution of their problem of travel and traffic with the outside world. If it could only be freed from driftwood, and its channel straightened a little, they felt sure it might be used for small steamboats during a large part of the year.

The candidates for the legislature that summer staked their chances of success on the zeal they showed for "internal improvements." Lincoln was only twenty-three. He had been in the county barely nine months. Sangamon County was then considerably larger than the whole State of Rhode Island, and he was of course familiar with only a small part of it or its people; but he felt that he did know the river. He had sailed on it and been shipwrecked by it; he had, moreover, been one of a party of men and boys, armed with long-handled axes, who went out to chop away obstructions and meet a small steamer that, a few weeks earlier, had actually forced its way up from the Illinois River.

Following the usual custom, he announced his candidacy in the local newspaper in a letter dated March 9, addressed "To the People of Sangamon County." It was a straightforward, manly statement of his views on questions of the day, written in as good English as that used by the average college-bred man of his years. The larger part of it was devoted to arguments for the improvement of the Sangamon River. Its main interest for us lies in the frank avowal of his personal ambition that is contained in the closing paragraph.

"Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition," he wrote. "Whether it be true or not, I can say, for one, that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellowmen by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed. I am young, and unknown to many of you. I was born, and have ever remained, in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations or friends to recommend me. My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of the county; and if elected, they will have conferred a favor upon me for which I shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate. But if the good people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined."

He soon had an opportunity of being useful to his fellow-men, though in a way very different from the one he was seeking. About four weeks after he had published his letter "To the People of Sangamon County," news came that Black Hawk, the veteran war-chief of the Sac Indians, was heading an expedition to cross the Mississippi River and occupy once more the lands that had been the home of his people. There was great excitement among the settlers in Northern Illinois, and the governor called for six hundred volunteers to take part in a campaign against the Indians. He met a quick response; and Lincoln, unmindful of what might become of his campaign for the legislature if he went away, was among the first to enlist. When his company met on the village green to choose their officers, three-quarters of the men, to Lincoln's intense surprise and pleasure, marched over to the spot where he was standing and grouped themselves around him, signifying in this way their wish to make him captain. We have his own word for it that no success of his after life gave him nearly as much satisfaction. On April 21, two days after the call for volunteers had been printed, the company was organized. A week later it was mustered into service, becoming part of the Fourth Illinois Mounted Volunteers, and started at once for the hostile frontier.

Lincoln's soldiering lasted about three months. He was in no battle, but there was plenty of "roughing it," and occasionally real hardship, as when the men were obliged to go for three days without food. The volunteers had not enlisted for any definite length of time, and seeing no prospect of fighting, they soon became clamorous to return home. Accordingly his and other companies were mustered out of service on May 27, at the mouth of Fox River. At the same time the governor, not wishing to weaken his forces before the arrival of other soldiers to take their places, called for volunteers to remain twenty days longer. Lincoln had gone to the frontier to do real service, not for the glory of being captain. Accordingly, on the day on which he was mustered out as an officer he re-enlisted, becoming Private Lincoln in Captain Iles's company of mounted volunteers, sometimes known as the Independent Spy Battalion. This organization appears to have been very independent indeed, not under the control of any regiment or brigade, but receiving orders directly from the commander-in-chief, and having many unusual privileges, such as freedom from all camp duties, and permission to draw rations as much and as often as they pleased. After laying down his official dignity and joining this band of privileged warriors, the campaign became much more of a holiday for the tall volunteer from New Salem. He entered with enthusiasm into all the games and athletic sports with which the soldiers beguiled the tedium of camp, and grew in popularity from beginning to end of his service. When, at length, the Independent Spy Battalion was mustered out on June 16, 1832, he started on the journey home with a merry group of his companions. He and his messmate, George M. Harrison, had the misfortune to have their horses stolen the very day before, but Harrison's record says:

"I laughed at our fate, and he joked at it, and we all started of merrily. The generous men of our company walked and rode by turns with us, and we fared about equal with the rest. But for this generosity, our legs would have had to do the better work, for in that day this dreary route furnished no horses to buy or to steal, and whether on horse or afoot, we always had company, for many of the horses' backs were too sore for riding."

Lincoln reached New Salem about the first of August, only ten days before the election. He had lost nothing in popular esteem by his prompt enlistment to defend the frontier, and his friends had been doing manful service for him; but there were by this time thirteen candidates in the field, with a consequent division of interest. When the votes were counted, Lincoln was found to be eighth on the list--an excellent showing when we remember that he was a newcomer in the county, and that he ran as a Whig, which was the unpopular party. In his own home town of New Salem only three votes had been cast against him. Flattering as all this was, the fact remained that he was defeated, and the result of the election brought him face to face with a very serious question. He was without means and without employment. Offut had failed and had gone away. What was he to do next? He thought of putting his strong muscles to account by learning the blacksmith trade; thought also of trying to become a lawyer, but feared he could not succeed at that without a better education. It was the same problem that has confronted millions of young Americans before and since. In his case there was no question which he would rather be--the only question was what success he might reasonably hope for if he tried to study law.

Before his mind was fully made up, chance served to postpone, and in the end greatly to increase his difficulty. Offut's successors in business, two brothers named Herndon, had become discouraged, and they offered to sell out to Lincoln and an acquaintance of his named William F. Berry, on credit, taking their promissory notes in payment. Lincoln and Berry could not foresee that the town of New Salem had already lived through its best days, and was destined to dwindle and grow smaller until it almost disappeared from the face of the earth. Unduly hopeful, they accepted the offer, and also bought out, on credit, two other merchants who were anxious to sell. It is clear that the flattering vote Lincoln had received at the recent election, and the confidence New Salem felt in his personal character, alone made these transactions possible, since not a dollar of actual money changed hands during all this shifting of ownership. In the long run the people's faith in him was fully justified; but meantime he suffered years of worry and harassing debt. Berry proved a worthless partner; the business a sorry failure. Seeing this, Lincoln and Berry sold out, again on credit, to the Trent brothers, who soon broke up the store and ran away. Berry also departed and died; and in the end all the notes came back upon Lincoln for payment. Of course he had not the money to meet these obligations. He did the next best thing: he promised to pay as soon as he could, and remaining where he was, worked hard at whatever he found to do. Most of his creditors, knowing him to be a man of his word, patiently bided their time, until, in the course of long years, he paid, with interest, every cent of what he used to call, in rueful satire upon his own folly, his "National Debt."

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Lincoln's Childhood The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Lawyer Lincoln

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The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln


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