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Captain Abraham Lincoln of the Illinois militia

By Renee Hylton | National Guard Bureau Historian | Feb. 12, 2009

ARLINGTON, Va. - Feb. 12, 1809, is the birth date of Abraham Lincoln, the man who gets the most votes from historians and political scientists as the greatest U.S. president.

A few decades after Lincoln's humble birth in a one-room Kentucky log cabin, upper-class presidential candidates who had been born in imposing brick plantations would try to claim the log cabin as their birthright.

But "Honest Abe" was the real thing, a self-educated man of the people, who rose to greatness guiding the country through the long and bloody Civil War, which marked his presidency.

If Lincoln had not been president, the outcome of the war might have been very different.

Over the years, historians have speculated that without Lincoln's political skills, keeping the country going until he finally found the right set of commanders to deliver the Confederacy its death blow, the war-weary Northern states would have agreed to make peace, rather than seek victory on the battlefield.

Between his inauguration in 1861 and his assassination in 1865, Lincoln made himself a student of military tactics and strategy.

But even as he assumed office, Lincoln was not without military experience. In 1832, Lincoln spent three months in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War.

Lincoln, known for his humor and willingness to poke fun at himself, played down his military service.

He once declared in a congressional debate: "I fought, bled, and came away … I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes."

In addition to serving as a private, Lincoln was also elected commander of his company. During this period, many militia companies elected their officers.

Thirty years later, the experience of having spent three months in the field, as both an officer and a private, must have influenced his attitude toward the great armies of Citizen-Soldiers – on both sides – who fought the Civil War.

As we celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches. It will probably be commemorated, in the words of Lincoln's great second inaugural address now chiseled on the walls of his stirring memorial, "with malice toward none, with charity for all."

Everyone in today's Army and Air National Guard can be proud that the man who wrote those words 145 years ago was even for a brief moment one of them.