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When Lew Met Lincoln

Visitors often ask if Lew Wallace knew Abraham Lincoln. The answer, of course, is yes, though Lew’s brother-in-law Henry S. Lane was likely closer to Lincoln.

Lew Wallace in 1852, just a few years after his time in Mexico
Lew Wallace in 1852

Lew and Lincoln had a lot in common. They both spent their boyhoods in rural parts of Indiana along the Wabash River. They both lost their mother when they were young. Both men pursued the law as their career.

Lew and Lincoln were lawyers when they met in Danville, Illinois. Although Lew Wallace wrote about the encounter in his autobiography, he doesn’t provide a date. The meeting probably occurred sometime between May 1850 and May 1852. Lincoln returned to riding the Eighth Judicial Circuit in March 1849 after serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847 – 1849. Lew Wallace passed the bar exam in 1849 and began practicing law in Covington in 1850. By August of 1851, Lew had been elected Prosecuting Attorney in the First Circuit. 

Traveling to Danville

Lew’s friend and fellow lawyer Daniel W. Voorhees had opened a law practice in Covington about the same time as Lew. One afternoon, Voorhees had nothing to do, so he stopped by Lew’s office. Voorhees proposed they travel to Danville, Illinois.

From Lew’s autobiography:

We reached the town about dusk and stopped at the tavern. The bar-room, when we entered it after supper, was all a-squeeze with residents, spiced with parties to suits pending, witnesses, and jurors. The ceiling was low, and we had time to admire the depth and richness of the universal smoke-stain of the wooden walls. To edge in we had to bide our time. Every little while there would be bursts of laughter, and now and then a yell of delight. At last, within the zone of sight, this was what we saw: In front of us a spacious pioneer fireplace all aglow with a fire scientifically built. On the right of the fireplace sat three of the best storytellers of Indiana, Edward A. Hannegan, Dan Mace, and John Pettit.

Henry Clay Whitney, author of Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, gives us more information about these men, and puts the date at “probably about 1852.” Edward A. Hannegan was a U.S. Senator from Indiana. John Pettit was another U.S. Senator. Dan Mace was the congressman from the Lafayette, Indiana, district.

Lew’s account continues:

Opposite them, a broad brick hearth intervening, were two strangers to me whom inquiry presently identified as famous lawyers and yarn-spinners of Illinois.

One may travel now from the Kennebec to Puget Sound and never see such a tournament as the five men were holding; only instead of splintering lances they were swapping anecdotes. As to the kind and color of the jokes submitted to the audience, while not always chaste, they never failed to hit home.

Remembering Lincoln

Lew provides a detailed description of Lincoln in the account. I have to wonder how much his Civil War friendship with Lincoln colored his memory of their earlier meeting.

A photograph of Abraham Lincoln in 1857
Abraham Lincoln in 1857

The criss-crossing went on till midnight, and for a long time it might not be said whether Illinois or Indiana was ahead. There was one of the contestants, however, who arrested my attention early, partly by his stories, partly by his appearance.

Out of the mist of years he comes to me now exactly as he appeared then. His hair was thick, coarse, and defiant; it stood out in every direction. His features were massive, nose long, eyebrows protrusive, mouth large, cheeks hollow, eyes gray and always responsive to the humor. He smiled all the time, but never once did he laugh outright. His hands were large, his arms slender and disproportionately long. His legs were a wonder, particularly when he was in narration; he kept crossing and uncrossing them; sometimes it actually seemed he was trying to tie them into a bow-knot.

His dress was more than plain; no part of it fit him. His shirt collar had come from the home laundry innocent of starch. The black cravat about his neck persisted in an ungovernable affinity with his left ear. Altogether I thought him the gauntest, quaintest, and most positively ugly man who had ever attracted me enough to call for study. Still, when he was in speech, my eyes did not quit his face. He held me in unconsciousness.

About midnight his competitors were disposed to give in; either their stores were exhausted, or they were tacitly conceding him the crown. From answering them story for story, he gave two or three to their one. At last he took the floor and held it. And looking back, I am now convinced that he frequently invented his replications; which is saying he possessed a marvellous gift of improvisation.

Such was Abraham Lincoln. And to be perfectly candid, had one stood at my elbow that night in the old tavern and whispered: “Look at him closely. He will one day be president and the savior of his country,” I had laughed at the idea but a little less heartily than I laughed at the man. Afterwards I came to know him better, and then I did not laugh.

Later, of course, General Wallace came to know President Lincoln in a more official capacity. We’ll talk more about that in a future blog post. To learn more about Lew’s law career, join us this coming Thursday, June 13, for the next in our Dr. Howard Miller Lecture Series. Dr. Jamey Norton will present “Lew Wallace’s Career as a Criminal Lawyer.”