I guess you could call me a Lincoln stalker. For several years now, I have gone to great lengths to walk in the footsteps of the man I call “our greatest American.” I have traveled many miles and devoted long hours to visiting, reading and learning all there is to know about our 16th president.
Is this so wrong?
There are Trekkies. And Star Wars geeks. Some people have been known to follow bands like The Grateful Dead and Phish from city to city. Adolescent girls of all ages worship the Twilight series of books and films.
Heck, we downright encourage young readers to obsess over Harry Potter.
So, is my admiration for my hero really such a bad thing? I mean, if you’re going to study and try to emulate someone…you could do worse than Abraham Lincoln, right?
Truth is — I don’t feel guilty or ashamed. I love Lincoln.
He was a flawed man. He was depressive at times. He was an overly indulgent father to his boys. He gave far too much latitude to bad generals during the Civil War. He abetted his wife’s craziness and over-ambition.
But still, he saved the country. He led by example. And he was funny.
I proudly attempt to walk in his shoes.
Hodgenville, Kentucky. I have visited the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park at least three times. For me, this piece of ground takes on quasi-religious signification. I walk in awe under the tall, beautiful, leafy green trees. I climb the 56 steps (one for each year of the great man’s life) to the marble temple at the top of the hill, containing…a log cabin. I don’t care that it’s probably not the actual cabin in which Nancy Hanks Lincoln gave birth to Abraham. It still means something profound to me. I walk the path down to Sinking Spring (where the family drew its water) like a pilgrim on haj circling the Kaaba .
Knob Creek, Kentucky. “My earliest recollection is of the Knob Creek place,” wrote Lincoln on June 4, 1860. He and his family rented 30 acres on this site between the years when Abe was two to seven years old. It is located in a vee-shaped valley, known as a “holler” in Kentucky. One can easily understand how the creek flowing down from the hills (or knobs) would wash away virtually anything planted during heavy rains. Abraham learned to do chores here. He carried water and gathered wood for fires. His mother read the Bible to him. He and his sister walked to school. I recently read that, in Kentucky, the family name was pronounced “Linkhorn.” Childhood friend, Austin Gollaher, saved Lincoln’s life when he fell into the swollen creek here.
Site of Lincoln’s School House. Two miles east of the Knob Creek site on the Bardstown Road stands a sign marking the site of the ABC school that he attended. This was the only formal education Abraham Lincoln ever received.
Hardin Thomas House, Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Abraham’s father, Thomas Lincoln occasionally worked as a carpenter or joiner. It is believed that he constructed the staircase and other fixtures in this home. I am glad that I took the time to visit this site in 2001. In 2009 (the year of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s Kentucky birth), it was destroyed by arson.
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, Indiana. Lincoln’s family moved here in 1816 and lived on this site until 1830. These were Abe’s formative years. Nancy Lincoln died here supposedly after contracting “milk sickness,” a disease thought to be transmitted to drinkers of milk from cows who consumed white snake weed. Afterward, Tom Lincoln left his children here to travel back to Elizabethtown, KY. He returned with a new wife and step-children. Abe’s step-mother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, was kind and patient. In retrospect, she may have been one of the most important influences in Lincoln’s young life. Abe’s sister, Sarah Lincoln Grigsby, married and then died in childbirth here. In Indiana, Lincoln grew physically and intellectually into a man.
New Salem, Illinois. When Abe was 21, the family moved again. Life was hard in 19th century frontier America. Plus, Tom Lincoln was not successful in his ventures. Abe helped his family move across the Wabash River at Vincennes, IN, into Illinois. Once they had settled, Abe was emancipated by his father as he had come of age. After his famous flatboat trips down the Mississippi, Lincoln began his various business ventures in the start-up community of New Salem. Click here to read our family’s recent visit to this historical site.
Springfield, Illinois. Abe moved to this developing town on April 15, 1837. He was 28-years old. In a strange coincidence, he had (to the day) exactly 28 years left to live. As an Illinois legislator, he had a hand in moving the state capital to Springfield from the town of Vandalia in 1839. In Springfield, he began his new career as an attorney, courted and married Mary Todd, and began his family. In the only home Lincoln ever owned, he and Mary raised four boys. Our family’s adventures in Springfield are found at this link.
New York, New York. On February 27, 1860, Lincoln delivered an important speech at Cooper Union in Manhattan. In the speech, he elaborated his views on slavery, affirming that he did not wish it to be expanded into the western territories and claiming that the Founding Fathers would agree with this position. Some argue that the speech was responsible for giving Lincoln the exposure he would need to become president.
Westfield, New York. On October 15, 1860, 12-year old Grace Bedell of Westfield sent a letter to then-candidate Abraham Lincoln advising him to grow a beard to improve his facial appearance (which some have called homely). Shortly thereafter, Lincoln grew his signature beard. He would wear the facial hair for the rest of his life. On the way to his inauguration, Lincoln’s train made a special stop in Westfield. During a speech there, he called Grace from the crowd and met her face-to-face.
In 1999, a statue commemorating this event was unveiled. Running Girl’s father grew up in Westfield. We attended the ceremony marking the statue’s debut with RG’s uncle and his family. It was a very memorable day.
In 1865, Lincoln’s funeral train backtracked over the same route that he had traveled four years earlier when he had traveled from Springfield to Washington. Funeral services were held in many cities along the way, including Buffalo.
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. There are so many good reasons to visit Gettysburg National Military Park. Most notably, the nation was preserved here during the days surrounding the Fourth of July in 1863. Another good reason is that one has the opportunity to stand in the spot where The Great Emancipator delivered a short address marking the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery on November 19, 1863.
Washington D.C. Running Girl, Subway Dude and I visited The White House in 1996. Although the Lincoln bedroom (it was actually his office) was not part of the tour, it was easy to picture Lincoln brooding in its halls while contemplating how to preserve the Union.
Perhaps no place captures the true spirit of Abraham Lincoln less than the Lincoln Memorial. The Rail Splitter was a simple man from the backwoods. His wife, Mary, had pretensions of upward mobility, not he. In the Springfield home, the Lincolns could not afford crown molding, so they had wallpaper borders. In a stark contrast, Lincoln Memorial is a grand, marble temple. It is less a monument to Lincoln himself than to what he meant to his country. That being said, it has served as the backdrop to some really memorable events in history.
Although the visit is painful, Ford’s Theater is a necessary stop for the true Lincoln-phile. Following the assassination, the building was used for several other purposes, including a government office building. In a strange twist of fate, at the exact moment that Edwin Booth’s (the well-known actor-brother of the assassin) funeral was taking place in New York, three floors of the building collapsed, killing 22 federal employees and injuring another 68.
At present, the entire interior of the structure has been restored to its 1865 appearance. One must retrace the footsteps of John Wilkes Booth to view the presidential box (the only means of access). It is extremely unsettling. In the basement is a museum devoted to the assassination. It contains important artifacts such as the derringer pistol used by Booth and the Brooks Brothers coat worn by Abraham on that fateful night.
Across 10th Street is the Petersen House, a boarding establishment where Abraham was taken following the shooting. In the early morning hours of April 15, 1865, our 16th president died there in a bed that was too short for his long body.
Fort McNair is a U.S. Army post located on the tip of a peninsula jutting out into the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. It is the home of “The Old Guard,” the president’s own military detachment. In 1995, while we were passing through town between military assignments, a friend who was stationed there showed us the courtyard where the Lincoln conspirators were hung. The legend on post is that the ghost of Mary Seurat haunts the buildings to protest of her innocence. To learn more, I recommend viewing Robert Redford’s excellent 2010 film, The Conspirator.
Bel Air, Maryland. Junius Brutus Booth, the father of John Wilkes built Tudor Hall on a 150-acre farm in Harford County after emigrating from England in 1821. On May 10, 1838, Booth’s mistress, Mary Ann Holmes, gave birth to John Wilkes Booth there. He was the ninth of ten children. His parents legally wed on John’s 13th birthday.
We toured Tudor Hall in 1997, shortly before moving from Maryland to Buffalo. It was a strange experience. At the time, the house was in private hands. The flighty tour guide took us through the house’s kitchen. The family who lived in the house sat at the table placidly peeling potatoes.
The tour guide showed us an etching of the initials “JWB” that the would-be assassin had scratched into a window of the home. She then showed us a photograph on the wall with a blurry reflection in the background that she claimed was a ghost.
Harford County bought Tudor Hall in 2006 after it failed to garner the minimum bid at auction. The county plans to use the site as an educational facility because of its history, its architecture, and the theatrical heritage of the notable Booths, a true “first family” of the American theater.
Yes, I have devoted some time to learning about my favorite American. I have, to a small extent, walked in his footsteps. But, I believe I am a richer person for the experience.