In the first grade, my classmates and I were ushered into a bus one morning and taken to meet Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States. Lincoln had been dead a bit more than a century by that point, but he returned to us for a couple of hours through a stage play about the president’s early years.
I recall almost nothing about the play, produced by a community theater company up the road from us. What lingers is the image of a tall, lanky man, not yet bearded and crowned with stovepipe hat, who was twirling a smaller rival above his head. The scene was meant to tell us that long before he entered the White House, Lincoln had survived the rigors of the frontier, more than capable of prevailing in a brawl when the need arose.
All of this has come back to mind in these early autumn evenings as I dip into the pages of “Abe,” a big new biography of Lincoln by David S. Reynolds. Reynolds tackles Lincoln’s full life and career, but he’s most compelling in the story of The Great Emancipator before he became a statesman. Reynolds also reminds us that Lincoln could acquit himself pretty well when fists were raised. His most memorable altercation, it turns out, took place in Louisiana.
In his youth, as he bounced from one job to another, Lincoln took two flatboat trips to New Orleans. Such downriver journeys often brought produce for sale or barter in the slave states. On his first river odyssey, accompanied by friend Allen Gentry, Lincoln ran into trouble.
With their boat tied up for the night below Baton Rouge, the two men were assaulted by seven robbers. Lincoln and Gentry, though far outnumbered, managed to beat back their assailants, cut loose the boat and flee. But Lincoln didn’t escape unscathed. The incident, Reynolds notes, “left Abe with scars above his right eye and left ear.”
Lincoln’s visits to Louisiana probably marked him in other ways. Reynolds has a different take, though, on the popular belief that Lincoln’s exposure to the New Orleans slave markets deeply shaped his abolitionist views. As Reynolds puts it, “it’s difficult to identify a transformative moment in Abe’s feelings about slavery, which seem to have been negative from the start.”
In his last speech, on April 11, 1865, Lincoln outlined how Louisiana could be brought back into the Union, presumably as a model for how other Confederate states might be reconciled with the North now that the Civil War was over. He was assassinated four days later.
At more than 1,000 pages, “Abe” is as heavy as an anchor, but anchors aren't such a bad thing in a troubled time. In a divisive season, it’s been a comfort to come home each night and visit with Mr. Lincoln, who knew a thing or two about how to heal a wounded nation.