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From Rail Splitter to President
Article and Photos (except as noted) by Kathleen Walls


Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Memorial
(Credit NPS)
I've devoted a lot of space to Confederate persons and sites. I'm a Southerner, what else can I say. Still, in all fairness, the Federal side deserves some space. So this Civil War Trails will look at the Union's top man,  Abraham Lincoln. In particular one town that begun his catapult to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Illinois gets most of the recognition for Lincoln sites you need to visit but don't forget–shame on you if you didn't know it–Lincoln was born in Kentucky near Hodgenville.   Ironically less than a year and about a hundred miles separate the time and places of Lincoln and his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis' birth in Fairfax, Kentucky

Knob Creek Cabin at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site
Knob Creek Cabin (credit NPS)
The Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site is your first chronological stop on the trail of Honest Abe. In 1911, a neo-classical memorial was dedicated on the site known as Sinking Springs where Abraham Lincoln was born. This elaborate Memorial Building features 16 windows, 16 rosettes on the ceiling, and 16 fence poles, representing Lincoln's being the 16th president. It has 56 steps leading up to the entrance represent his age at his death. In spite of the building's beauty, what people from around the world come to see is a simple 12 by 17 foot log cabin that was placed inside. The cabin is similar to the one in which the 16th president was born.

Lincoln lived at Sinking Spring until he was two years old, then because of a title dispute his father, Thomas, moved the family a few miles northeast to another farm on  Knob Creek, where they remained until young Abe was seven years old.

The Knob Creek site is preserved at the Birthplace Site as well. On this portion of the site, there is a 19th century log cabin that may have belonged to neighbors of the Lincolns and was moved to the spot where the original Lincoln cabin once stood. The Lincolns lived there until Abe was seven.

The next move brought the growing family to Indiana. Besides Abraham, the Lincolns had a daughter, Sarah,  two years older than Abraham. There had been another boy born while the family was living at Knob Creek around 1811. It is believed the child, named Thomas after his father,  died in 1815 and was buried in the Redmon Cemetery near Knob Creek.

Living hstory museum at Lincoln Boyhood site
Living history at the Lincoln Boyhood site
(credit NPS)
The next stop on your "Discover Lincoln Trek" is the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial near present day Lincoln City, Indiana. The museum here provides a film about young Lincoln's years in Indiana. Naturally the museum is filled with artifacts related to Lincoln and his family. The actual footprint of the Lincoln home is still visible and preserved here.  A short distance from the original cabin site you will find a living history site complete with a replica farm house. Rangers in full period clothing reenact the everyday life of a poor farm family so you are given a glimpse of what life was like for the Lincolns and their neighbors. The rangers actually  cultivate crops, raise livestock, and use the traditional farm implements of the period. If you are serious about immersing yourself in this lifestyle,  you can take classes and learn more  about the 1820s-style farm lifestyle. The Living Historical Farm is open seasonally, from mid-spring to early fall.

Perhaps this is where young Lincoln began to form his early anti-slavery beliefs. His father left Kentucky, a slave state, to move to a free state in part because he couldn't compete with larger slave operated farms in Kentucky. Here, too, is where the family joined the small Little Pigeon Primitive Baptist Church. This church had split with the main body of Baptists because they opposed slavery.

It was while they lived here that Abraham's mother, Nancy Lincoln, died of Milk Fever, an illness caused by drinking milk or eating meat from cows who had eaten white snakeroot plant whick contained a deadly toxin. She is buried nearby in the Pioneer Cemetery. Sarah Lincoln also died here and is buried with her husband and children across the street in the Little Pigeon Baptist Church Cemetery.

The church is located I the Lincoln State Park. The present church is the third one built on the site all that remains of the original is a corner stone propped against the present church wall.

Statures of Linclon and Steven Douglan in Alton, Illinois
Lincoln Douglas Square in Alton
Photo Credit Alton CVB

But one place that was vitaly important as a springboard from Young Abe Lincoln, the  lawyer, to President Lincoln, The Great Emancipator, is a town where  Lincoln did not actually live but visited often and is considered where he first achieved national prominence; Alton, Illinois. The town has a well marked Lincoln  and Civil War Legacy Trail of 10 sites you do not want to miss. You can pick up the brochure at the CVB office or access it on your cell by calling (618) 767-6122 then enter the site number (1-10) then the pound key.

When Lincoln moved from New Salem, Illinois  to Springfield, the capital,  it was probably because he planned his destiny as a political personage. Did he aim higher than the Illinois senate?  Perhaps.

Lincoln's name is intertwined with the Free State- Slave State Issue. One of his first published speeches, the  Lyceum Address, was made to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield  on January 27, 1838. It was  titled "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions" and in it Lincoln made reference to the murder three months earlier of Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois.

Lovejoy Monument on Alton, Illinois's Lincoln Trail.
Lovejoy Monument on Alton's Lincoln Trail.
Lovejoy, a Presbyterian minister who published an abolitionist newspaper called The Observer. He originally published it in St. Louis, Missouri but when public sentiment became too strong against him, he moved across the river to Alton. He was not welcomed there with open arms. His press was taken three times and thrown in the river. The fourth time he vowed to defend it. He did and it cost him his life. No one was ever convicted for the murder. He is considered the first martyr for freedom of the press and, by some, the first casualty of the Civil War. His grave and monument is part of

Ryder Building in Alton Illinois
The Ryder Building
The Ryder Building is another site you want to visit. (Even if you are not a history buff, it now houses My Just Desserts, one of the best lunch restaurants in town. The pies are all homemade and glorious.)  During Lincoln's early law practice days, the building was used a s a courthouse, possibly where a jury acquitted the man accused of murdering Rev. Lovejoy was held.

At one time, Lincoln represented the owner of the Ryder Building in a matter of collecting a debt. There is a copy of a signed letter by Abraham Lincoln telling Simeon Ryder that he had won the case. The original is in the Hayner Public Library.

It was here, in 1840, that Lincoln made a speech supporting William Henry Harrison, the Whig presidential candidate.

Another little known fact about Lincoln occurred in Alton. Most people do not know he was involved in a duel. One that never actually happened. The scene of the duel was an island in the middle of the river that was out of Illinois jurisdiction as duels were illegal in the state at that time. The site is marked on the trail by a marker on the Riverwalk across from the Amphitheater. It was a comedy of errors from the beginning. Lincoln was a state legislator at the time. Shields who had been his friend although members of opposing parties, became State Auditor. Lincoln did not agree with Shields decisions and wrote a series of letters using a pseudonym lampooning Shields for his incompetence. Mary Todd and her friend Julia Jayne joined into the letter writing campaign and it became embarrassing for Mr. Shields. On finding out Lincoln was behind it, Shields challenged him to a duel.  Lincoln had no choice but to accept or be branded a coward and lose important votes down the line. Naturally, Lincoln accepted and as challenged party, had  the choice of weapons. He chose the largest broadsword available.

Lincoln's stature in Lincoln Douglas Square in Alton Illinois
Lincoln's stature in Lincoln Douglas Square
When they reached the island on September 22, 1842., Lincoln made a show of chopping branches overhead with his broadsword that the much shorter Shields could not even reach. Shields saw the error of his ways very quickly and agreed to settle if Lincoln would just write a letter acknowledging the newspaper letters. The two gentlemen returned to Alton once again friends, albeit a bit cooler than preciously,  and more important both alive.

Ironically, during the war, Lincoln commissioned Shields as a Brigadier General and spoke highly of his bravery under fire.

Another friend and political rival figured in Lincoln's rise to power. Lyman Trumbull. Trumbull and Lincoln were friends. Their wives were best friends and Julia Jayne Trumbull and Mary Todd Lincoln had been bridesmaids at one another 's weddings. In the U. S. senatorial race in 1854, Trumbull was pitted against  Lincoln, James Shields, former Illinois Governor Joel Matteson and several other lesser candidates. At that time the state legislature elected the U. S. senators. The big issue of the day was the recent bill, the Kansas -Nebraska Act, introduced by Steven Douglas and pushed through Congress allowing any territory to vote if they wanted to be aslave state or free state. (For more about this see

The Illinois legislature was split on this act. Lincoln and Trumbull were firm anti-Nebraskans, as those who opposed the bill were called. Shields was a strong Douglas supporter.  Matteson had taken no public stand on the issue but Lincoln knew that he was in fact a supporter of the bill. Lincoln had campaigned strongly and even resigned his state legislature seat pinning his hopes on this senatorial election but when it became clear the legislature was deadlocked. Shields had 41 votes and the anti-Nebraskans votes going 44 for Lincoln and five for Trumbull. Nine other votes were split between Matteson and lesser candidates. Then the Democrats switched their votes from Shields to Matteson. Lincoln fearing a Douglas supporter would win withdrew and tossed his votes to Trumbull. Trumbull remained a firm Lincoln supporter for the remainder of his career. He served eighteen years in the senate and as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, helped draw up the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. However, Mary Todd Lincoln refused to ever again speak to her former friend, Julia Jayne Trumbull.

The Trumbull House is a private residence located at 1105 Henry Street in Alton. It is considered a National Landmark.

It became increasingly clear that Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were inevitably pitted against t each other. One favoring  limiting slavery to existing states and one for allowing Popular Sovereignty to decide the issue in each new territory. Lincoln's  generous gesture of throwing Trumbull the senate seat in 1854 was more than a selfless act of principal. It was also a brilliant political maneuver. It proved to the anti-Nebraskans that Lincoln put the party's principals above all else. The anti-Nebraskans evolved into the Republican Party. Lincoln was their choice for  the Senate seat in 1858. The incumbent he needed to defeat was Stephen Douglas.

The candidates agreed on a series of seven debates. The last to be held in Alton. Lincoln was offered a grand welcome at the Franklyn House  (now called the Lincoln Lofts) the largest and fanciest hotel in Alton at the time. He was given a lavish reception and then set up his headquarters there.

Douglas was entertained at the Post House owned by William Post. a former riverboat captain and mayor of Alton.

On Oct 15, 1958, the two men met in front of City Hall to debate. Over 6,000 spectators from all over Illinois and neighboring slave state of Missouri gathered to listen. Lincoln lost the election but the debates put him front and center in the public view and paved the way for his successful run for the presidency in 1860. In the square today, you will see life-sized statures of Lincoln and Douglas poised in heated debate over the future of the country. 

Confederate Memorial in Alton Cemetary
Confederate Memorial
Immediately  after Lincoln's election the southern states began succeeding from the Union and formed a new country, The Confederate States of America. (This is why Southerners object to the use of the technically incorrect term "Civil War" since a civil war is a war between two factions of one country. By 1861, southern states had formed a new country, thus it was not a civil war but a war between two separate countries. Since the term "Civil War"  is shorter than its other nomenclatures,  it is very commonly used. )

During that war, over 600,000 Americans in both of  the countries were killed by other Americans. Two cemeteries in Alton are filled with these soldiers. The National Cemetery at 200 Pearl Street contains a lot  of them and  an unknown number at the Confederate Cemetery at 635 Rozier  Street . In 1909, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a 58' high granite obelisk to commemorate the Confederate soldiers buried here or on Smallpox Island.  The monument contains names of 1,354 Confederate soldiers who died  either in the Alton Prison or on Tow Head Island, later named Smallpox Island.

Monument to Confederate dead on Smallpox Island
Monument to Confederate dead on Smallpox Island
Photo Credit: Gene Kunz/Alton Regional CVB
The Island got its name after the old Alton Prison which had been closed down in 1860 mainly due to the complaints of its unsanitary conditions lodged by social reformer Dorthea Dix. In 1862, Lincoln ordered it reopened as a place to hold the mounting number of Confederate prisoners. The maximum capacity of Alton prison was estimated at 800; in the last year of the war it held close to 1,900 Confederate prisoners. Through the three years it was in use, over 11,764 Confederates passed through its gates.

Although it was not the harshest of the prisons, it was rife with disease. Smallpox was common. In an effort to curb the death rate, officials quarantined smallpox victims on Tow Head Island in the Mississippi River. Those who died of the disease were buried on the island rather than with the other prisoners at the Confederate Cemetery. Due to flooding and ravages of the river over the years, the graves and markers have vanished. A monument is all that remains there today.

Alton's Prison
Remnant of Alton's Prison
The memories of this war will linger forever. Alton is filled with historic mementoes of it and the Union Army's Commander in Chief, Abraham Lincoln. Some consider him an American hero and some don't. No matter how you view Abraham Lincoln, you must admit he was a man who raised himself from his humble beginnings to the highest office in the land. If you follow his trail from Hodgenville. Kentucky through Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. be sure to visit Alton and learn a lot of the lesser known story of this man who made such a mark on American History.

For More Info:

Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park

Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Site

Indiana Lincoln State Park

Alton's Lincoln and Civil War Legacy Trail




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