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Life Behind the Legend

4 minute read

From his obscure birth to his shocking death, Abraham Lincoln provided all the ingredients for a myth that grows with each passing generation. A hardworking, self-taught farm boy grows up to become President, leads the nation through a wrenching cataclysm and is killed at the moment of victory.

Behind those bare facts are many Lincolns: lawyer, master politician, storyteller, warrior, jokester and man of near constant sorrow.

General WilliamT. Sherman, no soft touch, provides one epitaph: “Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.”


Abraham Lincoln born Feb. 12, 1809

AGE 2 Family moves a few miles for better farmland. Abe’s brother Thomas dies in infancy the next year. Abe also has an older sister, Sarah

AGE 7 Family moves to a new farm in southern Indiana

AGE 9 Lincoln’s mother Nancy dies from “milk sickness” after drinking milk from a cow that has eaten poisonous snakeroot. Lincoln would later write of sorrow coming to him with “bitterest agony” when he was young

AGE 10 Abe’s father Thomas Lincoln remarries, bringing Sarah Bush Johnston and her three children into the family. She and Abe had a warm relationship. Years later, she called him “the best boy I ever saw”


AGE 22 Lincoln works on a river flatboat, then moves to New Salem, Ill., and works as a clerk and a surveyor. Interest in politics begins

AGE 23 Lincoln enlists in a militia during the Black Hawk War but sees no fighting. He would later joke about his time in combat: “I fought, bled, and came away … I had a good many bloody struggles with the musquetoes.”

AGE 25 On his second try for public office, Lincoln is elected to the Illinois legislature. He would go on to serve four terms

AGE 27 After years of studying in his spare time, Lincoln gets a state law license. The next year he moves to Springfield, Ill., and begins a law partnership while living above a store

AGE 33 After a rocky courtship, Lincoln marries Mary Todd, 23, from a well-to-do Kentucky family. Their first child, Robert, is born nine months later. Mary would live to bury three of her four children


AGE 37 Elected to U.S. House of Representatives. Lincoln serves only one term but remains active in party politics

AGE 40 Declines offer to become Governor of Oregon

AGE 45 Elected again to Illinois legislature but resigns to run for U.S. Senate. He loses

AGE 47 Attends first Republican Party Convention

AGE 49 Accepting the nomination to run for U.S. Senate against Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln declares: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” Lincoln loses the race but gains national attention


AGES 51-56 Elected the 16th President of the U.S. with 40% of the vote in a four-way race. Within months, seven Southern states secede to form the Confederacy. Four more would follow. The Civil War begins

As the war drags on, political and military necessity drives Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863

Lincoln is re-elected in 1864. Five days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Lincoln goes to a play at Ford’s Theatre

APRIL 14, 1865

The First American Presidential Assassination

“Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done,” famous actor and Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth said. “I am sure that posterity will justify me.” During Act III, Scene II of a farce called Our American Cousin, he struck

THE SCENE President and Mrs. Lincoln were seated in a box with Major Henry Rathbone and his fiance Clara Harris. General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife had been expected but begged off at the last minute

1 – Booth, well known in the theater, enters the presidential box and bars the door behind him

2 – About 10:15 p.m., he points a derringer at the back of Lincoln’s head and fires once

3 – Rathbone tries to grab Booth, but Booth slashes him severely with a hunting knife

4 – Booth leaps to the stage, but his spur catches on a draped flag. He breaks his leg in the fall. Fleeing, Booth shouts “Sic semper tyrannis” (Thus always to tyrants), the state motto of Virginia. Some say he added, “The South is avenged”

DEATH OF A PRESIDENT Lincoln never regained consciousness and died in a house across from the theater at 7:22 the next morning


Marries Mary Todd …. Died 1882

Son Robert …. Died 1926

Son Eddie …. Died 1850

Son Willie …. Died 1862

Son Tad …. Died 1871

Sources: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; National Park Service; Speeches and Writings of Abraham Lincoln (Library of America); Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman (Library of America); Lincoln by David Herbert Donald (Simon & Schuster)

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