Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky on February 12, 1809, to parents who could neither read nor write. He went to school on and off for a total of about a year, but he educated himself by reading borrowed books. When Lincoln was nine years old, his mother died. His father—a carpenter and farmer—remarried and moved his family farther west, eventually settling in Illinois.
As a young adult, Lincoln worked as a flatboat navigator, storekeeper, soldier, surveyor, and postmaster. At age 25 he was elected to the local government in Springfield, Illinois. Once there, he taught himself law, opened a law practice, and earned the nickname "Honest Abe."
He served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives but lost two U.S. Senate races. But the debates he had about the enslavement of people with his 1858 senatorial opponent, Stephen Douglas, helped him win the presidential nomination two years later. (Lincoln opposed the spread of slavery in the United States.) In the four-way presidential race of 1860, Lincoln got more votes than any other candidate.
A NATION DIVIDED
When Lincoln first took office in 1861, the United States was not truly united. The nation had been arguing for more than a hundred years about enslaving people and each state’s right to allow it. Now Northerners and Southerners were close to war. When he became president, Lincoln allowed the enslavement of people to continue in southern states but he outlawed its spread to other existing states and states that might later join the Union.
Southern leaders didn’t agree with this plan and decided to secede, or withdraw, from the nation. Eventually, 11 southern states formed the Confederate States of America to oppose the 23 northern states that remained in the Union. The Civil War officially began on April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, when troops from the Confederacy attacked the U.S. fort.
Lincoln’s primary goal as president was to hold the country together. For a long time, it didn’t look as if he would succeed. During the early years, the South was winning the war. It wasn’t until the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania during July 1863 that the war turned in favor of the Union.
Through speeches such as the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln encouraged Northerners to keep fighting. In this famous dedication of the battlefield cemetery, he urged citizens to ensure "that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Earlier that same year Lincoln called for the end of the enslavement of people in his Emancipation Proclamation speech.
When the war was nearly over, Lincoln was re-elected in 1864. Civil War victory came on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Some 750,000 soldiers had died during the four-year conflict.
Seeing the Union successfully through the Civil War was Lincoln’s greatest responsibility, but it wasn’t his only triumph during his presidential years. Together with Congress, he established the Department of Agriculture; supported the development of a transcontinental railroad; enacted the Homestead Act, which opened up land to settlers; and crafted the 13th Amendment, which ended the enslavement of people.
Less than a week after people celebrated the end the Civil War, the country was mourning yet again. Lincoln became the first president to be assassinated when he was shot on April 14, 1865.
The night he was shot, he and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, were watching a play in Washington, D.C. The entrance to their box seats was poorly guarded, allowing actor John Wilkes Booth to enter. Booth hoped to revive the Confederate cause by killing Lincoln. He shot Lincoln in the back of the head, then fled the theater. He wasn’t caught until two weeks later. He was shot during his eventual capture and died from his wounds.
The wounded and unconscious president was carried to a boardinghouse across the street, where he died the next morning, April 15, 1865. Lincoln’s presidency was tragically cut short, but his contributions to the United States ensured that he would be remembered as one of its most influential presidents.
• The Lincoln family ate at the White House dinner table with their cat.
• Lincoln sometimes kept important documents under the tall black hats he wore.
• Lincoln was taller (at six feet four inches) than any other president.