One Man Great Enough: Abraham Lincoln's Road to Civil War

One Man Great Enough: Abraham Lincoln's Road to Civil War

by John C. Waugh

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From the author of The Class of 1846: “A swift-paced narrative of Lincoln’s pre-presidential life.” —The Washington Post Book World

How did Abraham Lincoln, long held as a paragon of presidential bravery and principled politics, find his way to the White House? How did he become the one man great enough to risk the fate of the nation on the well-worn but cast-off notion that all men are created equal?
Here, award-winning historian John C. Waugh takes readers on Lincoln’s road to the Civil War. From his first public rejection of slavery to his secret arrival in the capital, from his stunning debates with Stephen Douglas to his contemplative moments considering the state of the country he loved, Waugh shows us America as Lincoln saw and described it. Much of this wonderful story is told by Lincoln himself, detailing through his own writing his emergence onto the political scene and the evolution of his beliefs about the Union, the Constitution, democracy, slavery, and civil war. Waugh sets Lincoln’s path in new relief by letting the great man tell his own story, at a depth that brings us ever closer to understanding this mysterious, complicated, and truly great man.
“Lively prose backed with solid research.” —Publishers Weekly
“[Waugh’s] judicious use of the historical record and his dramatic prose make for an enjoyable read.” —Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547350738
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 02/13/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 450,982
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

John C. Waugh is the award-winning author of One Man Great Enough and four other books about the Civil War, two of which—Reelecting Lincoln and The Class of 1846—were Main Selections of the History Book Club. A former bureau chief of the Christian Science Monitor, his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Civil War Times Illustrated. He lives in Pantego, Texas.

Read an Excerpt


The Dark and Bloody Ground

Abraham Lincoln's ancestral line, like so many others in the New World, followed a southwesterly drift — from England to Massachusetts, into New Jersey and Pennsylvania to Virginia, then through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. In the late 1700s, Lincoln's Grandfather Abraham followed the flood of migration to the Wilderness Road through that Gap, the "great cleft" in the mountains, past dark cliffs "so wild and horrid" in aspect "that it is impossible to behold them without terror."

The Wilderness Road itself, that track through Kentucky beyond the Gap, was just as terrorizing — "a lonely and houseless path" into "a wild and cheerless land." The road was an ancient Indian warrior path over a hunting ground still bitterly disputed by fierce, unwelcoming, massacre-minded Shawnee, Iroquois, Cherokee, and Chickasaw. Kentucky, crossed by that rough Indian road, was faithful to its reputation and definition — "the dark and bloody ground."

But these pioneers were pilgrims, drawn irresistibly over this "gash through the wilderness," to an abundant, rich, and beckoning promised land. The abiding presence of instant death by rifle, tomahawk, or arrow seemed worth the cost for such ground. Moses Austin, himself a pilgrim to Texas, said of them, "hundreds Travelling hundreds of Miles, they know not for what Nor Whither, except its to Kentuckey ... the Promised land ... the land of Milk and Honey."

Lincoln's grandfather pushed "on the crest of the wave of Western settlement," deep into this land of milk and honey to settle on over 5,000 acres of ground near Bear Grass Fort, the site of present day Louisville. There he built a log cabin, and soon the dark and bloody ground claimed him. In an unprotected moment, as he was sowing a crop of corn with his three sons, Indians killed him.

The youngest of those surviving sons was Thomas, only eight years old when his father died. But he lived to grow up and become a carpenter, and to meet a woman named Nancy Hanks. A frontier child like him, she had also mourned the early death of a parent and was a woman "of sorrows and acquainted with grief." She had come to Kentucky and to her destiny, like Tom, through the Cumberland Gap over the Wilderness Road.

Tom was short, stout, and strong, raven-haired and black-eyed, a man of "uncommon Endurance." He was illiterate, but he had a knack for telling a story, and he was a good carpenter, said to have the best set of tools in Washington County. He was thought to be "good, clean, social, truthful and honest ... a plain unpretending plodding man," who "never thought that gold was God" and "didn't drink an' cuss none."

Nancy was said to be tall, slender, and delicate of frame — "Spare made" with dark hair and hazel eyes. She struck people as spiritually inclined, amiable, kind, charitable, affectionate, even-tempered, tender, and intelligent, but sad by nature. It was said that she was "touched with the divine aptitudes of the fireside," mistress of the arts of "the skillet, the Dutch oven, the open fireplace."

They were married on June 12, 1806. He was twenty-eight years old and she was twenty-three. The wedding vows were read by Jesse Head, an itinerant Methodist minister, one of the best known in that part of Kentucky. The bride wore a rough wedding dress stitched by a friend, and afterward there was the typical frontier infare (post-vows reception). One guest remembered it for the bear meat, venison, wild turkey, duck, a barbequed sheep, eggs wild and tame, coffee, syrup in big gourds, and "a race for the whisky bottle."

Thomas took his young bride to live in Elizabethtown, a new, swiftly growing Kentucky settlement, a good fit for a good carpenter. There a little daughter, Sarah, was born. When she was eighteen months old, Tom moved wife and daughter to Nolen Creek, fourteen miles south of Elizabethtown and three miles from Hodgenville, on the edge of the "barrens," a 70-mile-long, 60-mile-wide slice of mostly treeless land burned off by Indians to make a buffalo grazing ground.

There, in a rough one-room log cabin above an oak-shaded sinking spring, young Lincoln was born. Dennis Hanks, Lincoln's older cousin, later recollected Tom "comin' over to our house one cold mornin' in Feb'uary an' sayin' kind o' slow, 'Nancy's got a boy baby.'" Dennis remembered that "Mother come over and washed him an' put a yaller flannen petticoat on him."

In 1811, the year the first steamboat paddled down the Mississippi, when Lincoln was two years old, they moved again — this time to 230 acres in Knob Creek valley ten miles north of Nolin Creek and six miles east of Hodgenville. Their next cabin stood on the bank of the creek that emptied into Rolling Fork, which emptied into the Salt, which emptied into the Ohio twenty-four miles below Louisville. It sat between two steep-rising knobs beside the Cumberland Road from Louisville to Nashville, the heaviest-traveled highway on the Kentucky frontier.

But Tom had a hankering to drift west. The Kentucky of his childhood was gone. Clear title to land was hard to come by in the once dark and bloody ground. And it was dark for another reason: It was a slave state, and Tom was at heart an anti-slavery man. It was said that he and Nancy were "just steeped full of notions about the wrongs of slavery and the rights of men."

Dennis Hanks said, "Tom got hold o' a better farm [at Knob Creek] after while but he couldn't git a clear title to it, so when Abe was eight year old, an' I was eighteen, we all lit out for Indiany. Kaintucky was gittin' stuck up, with some folks rich enough to own niggers, so it didn't seem no place fur pore folks any more. ... [Nancy] piled everything they had wuth takin' on the backs o' two pack hosses."

They set out for slave-free southern Indiana in late 1816 when the ground was hard with frost, arriving in mid-December, the same month and year that territory became the nineteenth state in the young Union.


The Hoosier Years

There were but thirteen thinly settled counties in Indiana when it became a state, all bunched along the Ohio and the southern stem of the Wabash. The upper two-thirds of the new state was still Indian hunting ground. There was not a mile of turnpike, plank road, or canal linking the towns anywhere in Indiana, just Indian trails that could only be traveled by horseback.

The Lincolns had to cut their way through a grapevine tangle, teeming with wildlife, where there was no prairie to break the wilderness. There were "woods, woods, woods, as far as the world extends," and but one family of settlers for every four square miles. It was said: "When one could see the smoke of a neighbor's chimney the country was too crowded for comfort."

Later in life Lincoln was to write of this wilderness:

When first my father settled here,
Dennis Hanks said of life on that frontier line, "We wasn't much better off 'n Indians, except we tuk an interest in religion an' polyticks." It was, he thought, a "mighty interestin' life fur a boy, but thar was a good many chances he wouldn't live to grow up."

The Lincolns settled in a little cabin in Spencer County near Gentryville on Little Pigeon Creek sixteen miles north of the Ohio River. When he was growing up and not yet nine years old, Tom put an axe in his son's hands, and many later believed the axe became an extension of his being. Dennis Hanks was to say of Lincoln as he grew to manhood, "You'd 'a' thought there was two men in the woods when he got into it with an ax."

The year of the axe was also the year when a deadly, mysterious pestilence called the "milk sick" fell on Spencer County. Only after a time did men understand that it came from the milk of a cow that had fed on an evil chalk-blossomed weed called white snakeroot. It killed Nancy Lincoln.

As she lay dying, she called her little son to her bedside and said, "I am going away from you Abraham, and I shall not return. I know you will be a good boy, that you will be kind to Sarah and your father. I want you to live as I have taught you, and love your heavenly Father." She was laid to rest in a rude coffin whipsawed and planed into planks by Tom and held together by wooden pegs whittled by young Lincoln. It seemed to one neighbor that in the year of the milk sick, "Tom was always making a coffin for some one."

"Oh Lord, oh Lord, I'll never furget it," Dennis Hanks said, "the mizry in that cabin in the woods when Nancy died." Dennis believed Lincoln "never got over the mizable way his mother died," and that "Sairy was a little gal, only 'leven, an' she'd git so lonesome, missin' her mother, she'd set an' cry by the fire."

Tom Lincoln could only stand that misery so long — he without a wife, his two children without a mother. He remembered a woman in Elizabethtown named Sarah Bush Johnston. She had married, the keeper of the Hardin County jail. But he had since died, leaving her widowed with three children. So the year after Nancy died, Tom rode back to Elizabethtown to try his luck.

He went direct to the point with Sarah Johnston: "Well, Miss Johnson [sic], I have no wife & you have no husband. I came a purpose to mary you[,] I knowed you from a gal & you knowed me from a boy. I have no time to lose and if you are willing, let it be done Straight off."

Sarah is said to have said, "Tommy I know you well & have no objection to marrying you, but I cannot do it straight off as I owe some debts that must first be paid." Tom paid her debts that same day, and the next day, December 2, 1819, they were married straight off.

They packed all she owned — and her three children, ages nine, seven, and five — in a four-horse wagon and left for Indiana. They came, Dennis Hanks remembered, with a "wagon load o' goods; feather pillers an' homespun blankets, an' patchwork quilts an' chists o' drawers, an' a flax wheel, an' a soap kettle an' cookin' pots an' pewter dishes."

But it wasn't the load that impressed Dennis the most. It was Sarah herself. "Cracky, but Aunt Sairy was some punkins!" he said.

Sarah was tall, like Nancy, fair complexioned, handsome, sprightly, talkative, kind-hearted, quick-minded, industrious, and good humored. She was also said to be proud, brave, patient, and enduring. It didn't take her long to clean up the cabin, the children, and the situation. "You jist had to be somebody when Aunt Sairy was around," Dennis Hanks said.

There was springtime beauty everywhere around the rough Indiana cabin, wildflowers in abundance overflown by armadas of passenger pigeons, which gave the Little Pigeon Creek its name. They swarmed in the western skies "as far as the eye could reach" and roosted in the limbs of the great trees. It was said that in the migrating months of September and October, wild pigeons swarmed in numbers so dense they blackened the sky, with a roar of wings so deafening that it drowned out speech.

No less abundant, it seemed, was the number of people roosting in the cabin since Sarah and her children had come. Three Lincolns, four Johnstons, and Dennis Hanks, taken in after his folks had died of the 1818 milk sick, were crammed into the windowless cabin that measured 18 feet by 20 feet. As a saying of the time in southern Indiana had it, "There wasn't room to cuss the cat without gittin' its hairs in your teeth."

From the beginning, in this crowd, Sarah and little Abraham connected. Dennis Hanks remembered, "Aunt Sairy thought a heep o' Abe, an' he did o' her, an' I reckon they'd 'a' done most anything fur one another."

Lincoln was to say of Sarah that she "proved a good and kind mother." She was to say of him, "His mind & mine — what little I had seemed to run together — move in the same channel." She said he never gave her a cross look or refused to do anything she asked him to do. "He never told me a lie in his life — never Evaded — Equivocated, never dodged." He "treated every body & every thing kindly. ... the best boy I Ever Saw or Ever ... Expect to see." Dennis Hanks also thought him good and kind, but of a "somewhat wild nature."

This good, somewhat wild boy was already marvelously spindly for his age, "a long tall dangling a[wk]ward drowl looking boy." He was rapidly growing into what he would someday become a human tower, like the trees he felled to clear the land.

"He ... cared nothing for clothes — so that they were clean & neat," Sarah said, "fashion cut no figure with him." Already there was a widening gap of bare shinbone visible between the top of his shoes and the hem of his buckskin britches. It was a gap that was to become his sartorial trademark throughout much of his life. No clothes ready-made ever would fit him. He was "notoriously good natured," one of his boyhood friends remembered — temperate in all things — too much so at times, Sarah thought. He was "witty & Sad and thoughtful by turns," his boyhood friend remembered. But he was a boy's boy, not seeming to care much for the company of girls.

One of those girls, a neighbor, said Lincoln was "the learned boy among us unlearned folks." A neighbor boy said of him, he "soared above us," reading his books "whilst we played." He seemed, another said, despite his good nature, to have a "liking for solitude." The Indiana of Lincoln's youth was an "unvarnished society." But he seemed bent on applying some varnish to himself and the mind within his lank frame.

There wasn't anything in the way of long-term schooling in Gentryville, but Lincoln and his sister went for a time — "by littles," as he put it — to a blab school where they taught aloud "readin, writin, and cipherin, to the Rule of Three," the only disciplines the teacher was required to know. The teaching, like the schooling itself, was fundamental. "If a straggler supposed to understand latin happened to sojourn in the neighborhood," Lincoln later said, "he was looked upon as a wizzard." Lincoln learned to read and write and cipher to the rule of three. But the aggregate of all his schooling didn't amount to one year — part of it with two teachers at Knob Creek and the rest in the blab school in Indiana.

That didn't matter. After he learned to read that is all he wanted to do — read and learn. Sarah called him "diligent for Knowledge." Dennis Hanks said, "Seems to me now I never seen Abe after he was twelve 'at he didn't have a book in his hand or in his pocket ... constant and I may say stubborn reader." To Dennis "it didn't seem natural, nohow, to see a feller read like that."

Lincoln liked doing that unnatural thing lying down with his long legs shooting up against a tree —"sitting on his shoulder blades." Sarah brought three books with her in the wagon from Kentucky, Webster's Speller, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and The Arabian Nights. He read those and anything else he could get his hands on within fifty miles of Gentryville. And it wasn't easy. Books were hard to come by in that time and place and "book larnin'" wasn't seen as a very practical virtue.

But Lincoln filled his growing-up years with all the books he could: The Bible, the book in most common reach, and "more congenial books" suitable to his age — Aesop's Fables, Pilgrim's Progress, and Parson Weems's Life of Washington — one of the first and most lasting in his later memory.

And there were the books that augmented his "by littles" schooling: Thomas Dilworth's A New Guide to the English Tongue in Five Parts, Asa Rhodes's An American Spelling Book, Nicolas Pike's A New and Complete System of Arithmetic, Lindley Murray's English Reader, and Grimshaw's History of the United States with its antipathy for slavery and intolerance. He read William Scott's Lessons in Elocution, Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, Bailey's Etymological Dictionary, the Kentucky Preceptor, and Revised Statutes of Indiana (where he probably first read the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Articles of 1787 outlawing slavery in the Northwest Territory). Early on he also acquired a passion for newspapers that never cooled.


Excerpted from "One Man Great Enough"
by .
Copyright © 2007 John C. Waugh.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
The Uncoiling of the Serpent,
Who He Was and Where He Came From,
The Dark and Bloody Ground,
The Hoosier Years,
Making His Way,
New Salem,
The Issue's Dark Side,
Death in Alton,
Political Enemies and Female Enigmas,
Young Hickory,
The Ballyhoo Campaign,
Lincoln in Love,
On the National Stage,
The Steam Engine in Breeches and the Engine that Knew No Rest,
"Who Is James K. Polk?",
Laying Congressional Pipe,
Seeing Spots,
Lincoln's Other Life,
What He Had Become,
Clash of the Giants,
Lincoln Emerges,
Political Earthquake,
At the Crossroads,
Axe Handles and Wedges,
A House Divided,
The Debates,
On the Glory Road,
Spreading the Gospel,
Cooper Union,
Reaching for the Brass Ring,
From Ballots to Bullets,
The Four-Legged Race,
Firebell in the Night,
Getting There,
The War Comes,
Twilight of the Little Giant,
In Appreciation,
Sources Cited,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,

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One Man Great Enough 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
SteveGA More than 1 year ago
I didn't think there was anything else that hd not been written about Lincoln. However, like FDR, there are always new and interesting details and this book has them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
jclogic More than 1 year ago
President Lincoln had to much on his plate to make an objective conclusion about the Civil War and the how to handle the problem with slavery. Did he use the slave issue and the slaves to help the North win the war, or did he really wanted to free the slaves? If he had sat down with the South and decided upon a course of actio, states rights'and a compromise about slavery; do you think the war would have happened?