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‘Honest Abe’ Served Nation as Captain Lincoln

By Renee Hylton
Special to American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., Feb. 13, 2009 – Many people know Abraham Lincoln as the 16th American president or the man who brought an end to slavery. But not many know of his military service.

Abraham Lincoln, who is considered by many historians and political scientists to be the greatest U.S. president, was born 200 years ago yesterday in a one-room Kentucky log cabin.

“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 that marked his presidency.

Many historians believe the outcome of the war might have been different if Lincoln had not been president. Over the years, historians have speculated that without Lincoln’s political skills, 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 became a student of military tactics and strategy. However, Lincoln was not without military experience of his own. In 1832, he served in the Illinois militia for three months during the Black Hawk War.

Lincoln, known for his humor and willingness to poke fun at himself, downplayed 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 also was elected company commander. During this time, many militia companies elected their officers.

Thirty years later, his three months in the field as an officer and a private likely influenced his attitude toward the great armies of citizen-soldiers -- who fought on both sides in the Civil War.

As the nation celebrates the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War is not far behind. It probably will be commemorated, in the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, now chiseled on the walls of his memorial, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

(Renee Hylton is a historian for the National Guard Bureau.)

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