John George Nicolay.

Abraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 online

. (page 7 of 31)
Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 7 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

written in Illinois "Minter," but a letter from Mr. Graham's daughter,
Mrs. Bell, says that her father's name is as given in the text.]
Graham, the schoolmaster, in regard to it, and learning the
whereabouts of a vagrant "Kirkham's Grammar," he set off at once and
soon returned from a walk of a dozen miles with the coveted prize. He
devoted himself to the new study with that peculiar intensity of
application which always remained his most valuable faculty, and soon
knew all that can be known about it from rules. He seemed surprised,
as others have been, at the meager dimensions of the science he had
acquired and the ease with which it yielded all there was of it to the
student. But it seemed no slight achievement to the New Salemites, and
contributed not a little to the prevalent impression of his learning.

His name is prominently connected with an event which just at this
time caused an excitement and interest in Salem and the neighboring
towns entirely out of proportion to its importance. It was one of the
articles of faith of most of the settlers on the banks of the Sangamon
River that it was a navigable stream, and the local politicians found
that they could in no way more easily hit the fancy of their hearers
than by discussing this assumed fact, and the logical corollary
derived from it, that it was the duty of the State or the nation to
clear out the snags and give free course to the commerce which was
waiting for an opportunity to pour along this natural highway. At last
one Captain Vincent Bogue, of Springfield, determined to show that the
thing could be done by doing it. The first promise of the great
enterprise appears in the "Sangsmo Journal" of January 26, 1832, in a
letter from the Captain, at Cincinnati, saying he would ascend the
Sangamon by steam on the breaking up of the ice. He asked that he
might be met at the mouth of the river by ten or twelve men, having
axes with long handles, to cut away the overhanging branches of the
trees on the banks. From this moment there was great excitement, -
public meetings, appointment of committees, appeals for subscriptions,
and a scattering fire of advertisements of goods and freight to be
bargained for, - which sustained the prevailing interest. It was a day
of hope and promise when the advertisement reached Springfield from
Cincinnati that "the splendid upper-cabin steamer Talisman" would
positively start for the Sangamon on a given day. As the paper
containing this joyous intelligence also complained that no mail had
reached Springfield from the east for three weeks, it is easy to
understand the desire for more rapid and regular communications. From
week to week the progress of the _Talisman_, impeded by bad weather
and floating ice, was faithfully recorded, until at last the party
with long-handled axes went down to Beardstown to welcome her. It is
needless to state that Lincoln was one of the party. His standing as a
scientific citizen of New Salem would have been enough to insure his
selection even if he had not been known as a bold navigator. He
piloted the _Talisman_ safely through the windings of the Sangamon,
and Springfield gave itself up to extravagant gayety on the event that
proved she "could no longer be considered an inland town." Captain
Bogue announced "fresh and seasonable goods just received per
steamboat _Talisman_," and the local poets illuminated the columns of
the "Journal" with odes on her advent. The joy was short-lived. The
_Talisman_ met the natural fate of steamboats a few months later,
being burned at the St. Louis wharf. Neither State nor nation has ever
removed the snags from the Sangamon, and no subsequent navigator of
its waters has been found to eclipse the fame of the earliest one.



[Sidenote: 1832.]

A new period in the life of Lincoln begins with the summer of 1832. He
then obtained his first public recognition, and entered upon the
course of life which was to lead him to a position of prominence and
great usefulness.

The business of Offutt had gone to pieces, and his clerk was out of
employment, when Governor Reynolds issued his call for volunteers to
move the tribe of Black Hawk across the Mississippi. For several years
the raids of the old Sac chieftain upon that portion of his patrimony
which he had ceded to the United States had kept the settlers in the
neighborhood of Rock Island in terror, and menaced the peace of the
frontier. In the spring of 1831 he came over to the east side of the
river with a considerable band of warriors, having been encouraged by
secret promises of cooperation from several other tribes. These failed
him, however, when the time of trial arrived, and an improvised force
of State volunteers, assisted by General E. P. Gaines and his
detachment, had little difficulty in compelling the Indians to re-
cross the Mississippi, and to enter into a solemn treaty on the 30th
of June by which the former treaties were ratified and Black Hawk
and his leading warriors bound themselves never again to set foot on
the east side of the river, without express permission from the
President or the Governor of Illinois.

[Sidenote: Reynolds, "Life and Times," p. 325.]

[Sidenote: Ford, "History of Illinois," p. 110.]

But Black Hawk was too old a savage to learn respect for treaties or
resignation under fancied wrongs. He was already approaching the
allotted term of life. He had been a chief of his nation for more than
forty years. He had scalped his first enemy when scarcely more than a
child, having painted on his blanket the blood-red hand which marked
his nobility at fifteen years of age. Peace under any circumstances
would doubtless have been irksome to him, but a peace which forbade
him free access to his own hunting-grounds and to the graves of his
fathers was more than he could now school himself to endure. He had
come to believe that he had been foully wronged by the treaty which
was his own act; he had even convinced himself that "land cannot be
sold," a proposition in political economy which our modern socialists
would be puzzled to accept or confute. Besides this, the tenderest
feelings of his heart were outraged by this exclusion from his former
domain. He had never passed a year since the death of his daughter
without making a pilgrimage to her grave at Oquawka and spending hours
in mystic ceremonies and contemplation. He was himself prophet as well
as warrior, and had doubtless his share of mania, which is the
strength of prophets. The promptings of his own broken heart readily
seemed to him the whisperings of attendant spirits; and day by day
these unseen incitements increased around him, until they could not be
resisted even if death stood in the way.

He made his combinations during the winter, and had it not been for
the loyal attitude of Keokuk, he could have brought the entire nation
of the Sacs and Foxes to the war-path. As it was, the flower of the
young men came with him when, with the opening spring, he crossed the
river once more. He came this time, he said, "to plant corn," but as a
preliminary to this peaceful occupation of the land he marched up the
Rock River, expecting to be joined by the Winnebagoes and
Pottawatomies. But the time was passed for honorable alliances among
the Indians. His oath-bound confederates gave him little assistance,
and soon cast in their lot with the stronger party.

This movement excited general alarm in the State. General Henry
Atkinson, commanding the United States troops, sent a formal summons
to Black Hawk to return; but the old chief was already well on his way
to the lodge of his friend, the prophet Wabokishick, at Prophetstown,
and treated the summons with contemptuous defiance. The Governor
immediately called for volunteers, and was himself astonished at the
alacrity with which the call was answered. Among those who enlisted at
the first tap of the drum was Abraham Lincoln, and equally to his
surprise and delight he was elected captain of his company. The
volunteer organizations of those days were conducted on purely
democratic principles. The company assembled on the green, an election
was suggested, and three-fourths of the men walked over to where
Lincoln was standing; most of the small remainder joined themselves to
one Kirkpatrick, a man of some substance and standing from Spring
Creek. We have the word of Mr. Lincoln for it, that no subsequent
success ever gave him such unmixed pleasure as this earliest
distinction. It was a sincere, unsought tribute of his equals to those
physical and moral qualities which made him the best man of his
hundred, and as such was accepted and prized.

[Sidenote: Reynolds, "Life and Times," p. 363.]

At the Beardstown rendezvous, Captain Lincoln's company was attached
to Colonel Samuel Thompson's regiment, the Fourth Illinois, which was
organized at Richland, Sangamon County, on the 21st of April, and
moved on the 27th, with the rest of the command under General Samuel
Whitesides, for Yellow Banks, where the boats with provisions had been
ordered to meet them. It was arduous marching. There were no roads and
no bridges, and the day's task included a great deal of labor. The
third day out they came to the Henderson River, a stream some fifty
yards wide, swift and swollen with the spring thaws, with high and
steep banks. To most armies this would have seemed a serious obstacle,
but these backwoodsmen swarmed to the work like beavers, and in less
than three hours the river was crossed with the loss of only one or
two horses and wagons. When they came to Yellow Banks, on the
Mississippi, the provision-boats had not arrived, and for three days
they waited there literally without food; very uncomfortable days for
Governor Reynolds, who accompanied the expedition, and was forced to
hear the outspoken comments of two thousand hungry men on his supposed
inefficiency. But on the 6th of May the _William Wallace_ arrived, and
"this sight," says the Governor with characteristic sincerity, "was, I
presume, the most interesting I ever beheld." From there they marched
to the mouth of Rock River, and thence General Whitesides proceeded
with his volunteers up the river some ninety miles to Dixon, where
they halted to await the arrival of General Atkinson with the regular
troops and provisions. There they found two battalions of fresh
horsemen under Majors Stillman and Bailey, who had as yet seen no
service and were eager for the fray. Whitesides's men were tired with
their forced march, and besides, in their ardor to get forward, they
had thrown away a good part of their provisions and left their baggage
behind. It pleased the Governor, therefore, to listen to the prayers
of Stillman's braves, and he gave them orders to proceed to the head
of Old Man's Creek, where it was supposed there were some hostile
Indians, and coerce them into submission. "I thought," says the
Governor in his memoirs, "they might discover the enemy."


The supposition was certainly well founded. They rode merrily away,
came to Old Man's Creek, thereafter to be called Stillman's Run, and
encamped for the night. By the failing light a small party of Indians
was discovered on the summit of a hill a mile away, and a few
courageous gentlemen hurriedly saddled their horses, and, without
orders, rode after them. The Indians retreated, but were soon
overtaken, and two or three of them killed. The volunteers were now
strung along a half mile of hill and valley, with no more order or
care than if they had been chasing rabbits. Black Hawk, who had been
at supper when the running fight began, hastily gathered a handful of
warriors and attacked the scattered whites. The onset of the savages
acted like an icy bath on the red-hot valor of the volunteers; they
turned and ran for their lives, stampeding the camp as they fled.
There was very little resistance - so little that Black Hawk, fearing a
ruse, tried to recall his warriors from the pursuit, but in the
darkness and confusion could not enforce his orders. The Indians
killed all they caught up with; but the volunteers had the fleeter
horses, and only eleven were overtaken. The rest reached Dixon by twos
and threes, rested all night, and took courage. General Whitesides
marched out to the scene of the disaster the next morning, but the
Indians were gone. They had broken up into small parties, and for
several days they reaped the bloody fruit of their victory in the
massacre of peaceful settlements in the adjacent districts.

The time of enlistment of the volunteers had now come to an end, and
the men, seeing no prospect of glory or profit, and weary of the work
and the hunger which were the only certain incidents of the campaign,
refused in great part to continue in service. But it is hardly
necessary to say that Captain Lincoln was not one of these homesick
soldiers. Not even the trammels of rank, which are usually so strong
among the trailers of the saber, could restrain him from what he
considered his simple duty. As soon as he was mustered out of his
captaincy, he re-enlisted on the same day, May 27, as a private
soldier. Several other officers did the same, among them General
Whitesides and Major John T. Stuart. Lincoln became a member of
Captain Elijah Iles's company of mounted volunteers, sometimes called
the "Independent Spy Battalion," an organization unique of its kind,
if we may judge from the account given by one of its troopers. It was
not, says Mr. George M. Harrison, "under the control of any regiment
or brigade, but received orders directly from the Commander-in-Chief,
and always, when with the army, camped within the lines, and had many
other privileges, such as having no camp duties to perform and drawing
rations as much and as often as we pleased," which would seem to liken
this battalion as nearly as possible to the fabled "regiment of
brigadiers." With this _elite_ corps Lincoln served through his
second enlistment, though it was not his fortune to take part in
either of the two engagements in which General James D. Henry, at the
Wisconsin Bluffs and the Bad Axe, broke and destroyed forever the
power of Black Hawk and the British band of Sacs and Foxes.

After Lincoln was relieved of the weight of dignity involved in his
captaincy, the war became a sort of holiday, and the tall private from
New Salem enjoyed it as much as any one. He entered with great zest
into the athletic sports with which soldiers love to beguile the
tedium of camp. He was admitted to be the strongest man in the army,
and, with one exception, the best wrestler. Indeed, his friends never
admitted the exception, and severely blamed Lincoln for confessing
himself defeated on the occasion when he met the redoubtable Thompson,
and the two fell together on the turf. His popularity increased from
the beginning to the end of the campaign, and those of his comrades
who still survive always speak with hearty and affectionate praise of
his character and conduct in those rough yet pleasantly remembered

[Sidenote: MS. Letters from Thomas, Gregg and others.]

The Spy Battalion formed no part of General Henry's forces when, by a
disobedience of orders as prudent as it was audacious, he started with
his slender force on the fresh trail which he was sure would lead him
to Black Hawk's camp. He found and struck the enemy at bay on the
bluffs of the Wisconsin River on the 21st of July, and inflicted upon
them a signal defeat. The broken remnant of Black Hawk's power then
fled for the Mississippi River, the whole army following in close
pursuit - General Atkinson in front and General Henry bringing up the
rear. Fortune favored the latter once more, for while Black Hawk with
a handful of men was engaging and drawing away the force under
Atkinson, General Henry struck the main trail, and brought on the
battle of the Bad Axe, if that could be called a battle which was an
easy slaughter of the weary and discouraged savages, fighting without
heart or hope, an army in front and the great river behind. Black Hawk
escaped the fate of his followers, to be captured a few days later
through the treachery of his allies. He was carried in triumph to
Washington and presented to President Jackson, to whom he made this
stern and defiant speech, showing how little age or disaster could do
to tame his indomitable spirit: "I am a man and you are another. I did
not expect to conquer the white people. I took up the hatchet to
avenge injuries which could no longer be borne. [Footnote: It is a
noteworthy coincidence that President Lincoln's proclamation at the
opening of the war calls for troops "to redress wrongs already long
enough endured."] Had I borne them longer my people would have said:
'Black Hawk is a squaw; he is too old to be a chief; he is no Sac.'
This caused me to raise the war-whoop. I say no more of it; all is
known to you." He returned to Iowa, and died on the 3d of October,
1838, at his camp on the river Des Moines. He was buried in gala
dress, with cocked hat and sword, and the medals presented him by two
governments. He was not allowed to rest even in his grave. His bones
were exhumed by some greedy wretch and sold from hand to hand till
they came at last to the Burlington Museum, where they were destroyed
by fire.

[Illustration: BLACK HAWK]

It was on the 16th of June, a month before the slaughter of the Bad
Axe, that the battalion to which Lincoln belonged was at last mustered
out, at Whitewater, Wisconsin. His final release from the service was
signed by a young lieutenant of artillery, Robert Anderson, who,
twenty-nine years later, in one of the most awful crises in our
annals, was to sustain to Lincoln relations of prodigious importance,
on a scene illuminated by the flash of the opening guns of the civil
war. [Transcriber's Note: Lengthy footnote relocated to chapter end.]
The men started home the next day in high spirits, school-boys for
their holidays. Lincoln had need, like Horatio, of his good spirits,
for they were his only outfit for the long journey to New Salem, he
and his mess-mate Harrison [Footnote: George M. Harrison, who gives an
account of his personal experiences in Lamon, p. 116.] having had
their horses stolen the day before by some patriot over-anxious to
reach home. But, as Harrison says, "I laughed at our fate, and he
joked at it, and we all started off 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." It
is not hard to imagine with what quips and quirks of native fancy
Lincoln and his friends beguiled the way through forest and prairie.
With youth, good health, and a clear conscience, and even then the
dawn of a young and undefiled ambition in his heart, nothing was
wanting to give zest and spice to this long, sociable walk of a
hundred leagues. One joke is preserved, and this one is at the expense
of Lincoln. One chilly morning he complained of being cold. "No
wonder," said some facetious cavalier, "there is so much of you on the
ground." [Footnote: Dr. Holland gives this homely joke (Life of
Lincoln, p. 71), but transfers it to a time four years later, when
Lincoln had permanently assumed shoes and had a horse of his own.] We
hope Lincoln's contributions to the fun were better than this, but of
course the prosperity of these jests lay rather in the liberal ears
that heard them than in the good-natured tongues that uttered them.

Lincoln and Harrison could not have been altogether penniless, for at
Peoria they bought a canoe and paddled down to Pekin. Here the
ingenious Lincoln employed his hereditary talent for carpentry by
making an oar for the frail vessel while Harrison was providing the
commissary stores. The latter goes on to say: "The river, being very
low, was without current, so that we had to pull hard to make half the
speed of legs on land; in fact, we let her float all night, and on the
next morning always found the objects still visible that were beside
us the previous evening. The water was remarkably clear for this river
of plants, and the fish appeared to be sporting with us as we moved
over or near them. On the next day after we left Pekin we overhauled a
raft of saw-logs, with two men afloat on it to urge it on with poles
and to guide it in the channel. We immediately pulled up to them and
went on the raft, where we were made welcome by various
demonstrations, especially by an invitation to a feast on fish, corn-
bread, eggs, butter, and coffee, just prepared for our benefit. Of
these good things we ate almost immoderately, for it was the only warm
meal we had made for several days. While preparing it, and after
dinner, Lincoln entertained them, and they entertained us for a couple
of hours very amusingly." Kindly human companionship was a luxury in
that green wilderness, and was readily appreciated and paid for.

The returning warriors dropped down the river to the village of
Havana - from Pekin to Havana in a canoe! The country is full of these
geographical nightmares, the necessary result of freedom of
nomenclature bestowed by circumstances upon minds equally destitute of
taste or education. There they sold their boat, - no difficult task,
for a canoe was a staple article in any river-town, - and again set out
"the old way, over the sand-ridges, for Petersburg. As we drew near
home, the impulse became stronger and urged us on amazingly. The long
strides of Lincoln, often slipping back in the loose sand six inches
every step, were just right for me; and he was greatly diverted when
he noticed me behind him stepping along in his tracks to keep from
slipping." Thus the two comrades came back from their soldierings to
their humble homes, from which Lincoln was soon to start on the way
marked out for him by Providence, with strides which no comrade, with
whatever goodwill, might hope to follow.

He never took his campaigning seriously. The politician's habit of
glorifying the petty incidents of a candidate's life always seemed
absurd to him, and in his speech, made in 1848, ridiculing the effort
on the part of General Cass's friends to draw some political advantage
from that gentleman's respectable but obscure services on the frontier
in the war with Great Britain, he stopped any future eulogist from
painting his own military achievements in too lively colors. "Did you
know, Mr. Speaker," he said, "I am a military hero! In the days of the
Black Hawk war I fought, bled, and came away. I was not at Stillman's
defeat, but I was about as near it as General Cass was to Hull's
surrender; and, like him, I saw the place very soon afterwards. It is
quite certain I did not break my sword, for I had none to break, but I
bent my musket pretty badly on one occasion. If General Cass went in
advance of me picking whortleberries, I guess I surpassed him in
charges on the wild onions. If he saw any live fighting Indians, it
was more than I did, but I had a good many bloody struggles with the
mosquitoes; and although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can
truly say I was often very hungry. If ever I should conclude to doff
whatever our Democratic friends may suppose there is of black-cockade
Federalism about me, and thereupon they shall take me up as their
candidate for the Presidency, I protest that they shall not make fun
of me, as they have of General Cass, by attempting to write me into a
military hero."

[Relocated Footnote: A story to the effect that Lincoln was mustered
into service by Jefferson Davis has for a long time been current, but
the strictest search in the records fails to confirm it. We are
indebted to General R. C. Drum, Adjutant-General of the Army, for an
interesting letter giving all the known facts in relation to this
story. General Drum says: "The company of the Fourth Regiment Illinois
Mounted Volunteers, commanded by Mr. Lincoln, was, with others, called
out by Governor Reynolds, and was organized at Richland, Sangamon
County, Illinois, April 21, 1832. The muster-in roll is not on file,
but the records show that the company was mustered out at the mouth of
Fox River, May 27, 1832, by Nathaniel Buckmaster, Brigade-Major to
General Samuel Whitesides's Illinois Volunteers. On the muster-roll of

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 7 of 31)