Long before he was Lincoln the leader or Lincoln the lawyer, he was Lincoln the street fighter.
Not boxing, not wrestling, but bare-knuckled, no-rules street fights, and Lincoln fought and won hundreds of matches throughout his life. He never sought out fights, but with as word of his skill spread, the fights found him. It would be a mistake to say this young, well-read son of the American prairie was a violent man. He was not. But he didn’t shrink from violence either.
Lincoln partnered with a friend to open a general store in New Salem, a budding riverside town in central Illinois (and now a historic site). When Lincoln first strode into New Salem, several inches taller than most men and muscled from a life of manual labor, the town’s resident bad boy Jack Armstrong took an immediate disliking to Lincoln. Armstrong was renowned for his strength and had no fear of this lanky stranger, until the lanky rail-splitting stranger wrapped a hand around his neck.
What happened next was a legend that took several shapes and had several outcomes. In some stories, Armstrong and Lincoln fight to a draw. In others, Lincoln lifts Armstrong by the throat and slams him face-first into the ground. In a few Lincoln took a handful of prickly weeds and rubbed it into Jack’s face after the fight ended. THAT rumor was instantly shot down by the New Salem citizens.
“They went at it, and Lincoln just fooled with Armstrong until he had tired him completely out. Then he swung his long leg over Armstrong’s neck and made Armstrong run around holding him up in that position. Jack finally begged off, admitting he was beaten…”
~Daniel Butler, New Salem resident and witness
With all these dueling stories, it’s hard to know what’s rumor and what’s real, but they all share one commonality: none of the outcomes has Lincoln losing.
However it ended, Armstrong friends surrounded the angry and battered Lincoln and were about to pummel them. Our future president didn’t slouch away, but agreed to fight them as long as they came one at a time. Before they descended on him, Armstrong called them off and the two young men became close friends.
While in New Salem, Lincoln not only became friends with Jack Armstrong but assisted him at his home in exchange for lodging and meals. His wife Hannah Armstrong would wash and mend Lincoln’s clothes while Lincoln cradled their baby William Armstrong (nicknamed “Duff”) by the fire. The Armstrongs became Lincoln’s adopted family.
Besides making him a little side money (Lincoln could make as much in a single fight as he would in a week of labor), the fighting also jumpstarted his political career. He gained the respect of roughnecks for his physical strength and fighting skills. The even-tempered citizens of New Salem admired Lincoln for his level-headedness before, during, and after the fight. As word of this fierce but friendly spread through the riverside community, his reputation grew and when time came to form and captain a militia for future skirmishes (Illinois had just ended its tenure as a frontier state), Lincoln was quickly elected to lead.
Just before Lincoln plunged entirely into his political career, Jack Armstrong’s wife, Hannah, would ask Lincoln to defend William “Duff” Armstrong in a murder trial. This was the same baby Lincoln rocked to sleep while Hannah mended his clothing. Lincoln did so without hesitation, and without cost. That sensational trial would grow into a Lincoln legend…that also happened to be true.
During his many campaign speeches, Lincoln would mention his rustic upbringing, but rarely referenced his street-fighting days. Instead, word-of-mouth did that for him, often the best way to cultivate a legend. It was a reputation that followed him all the way to the White House. In fact, just eight days before his assassination, while visiting the wounded at a Virginia hospital, the soldiers collected around Lincoln asked if the stories of the “Rail-splitting Republican” were true. After a brief demonstration of his wood chopping skills, Lincoln performed a feat of strength that astonished the men.
The 56-year-old president took the chopping axe, which weighed between seven and ten pounds, between his index finger and thumb and then stretched his arm out, perpendicular to the ground. Smiling, the president held the axe in that position for a full minute before handing it back to the soldiers.
Not one soldier in that hospital, sick or healthy, could repeat the feat. It might seem a too neat and tidy to be true, but in all likelihood it is. Although tired and haggard as the war dragged on, his lingering physical strength, cultivated after decades of 12-hour work days, remained until his final days.