The Lincoln Connection

by Terry Hogan

Having a Lincoln connection is a little bit like having involvement with the Underground Railroad — everybody seems to want to have one. Of course, Galesburg’s primary connection- The Lincoln and Douglas Debates held at Old Main at Knox College is beyond dispute. Old Main is the only remaining site of the 1858 debates. But the Knox County area has more of Lincoln to claim than just the famous debate.

The Debates

I won’t say much about the debates. Galesburg folks know, or at least think they know, all they want to know about them. They are the subject of numerous books, essays and articles by better writers than me. But they were important to Galesburg, to Lincoln in helping him to form his thoughts on slavery and the Negro.

Lincoln Biographer

The debates were later important to a young Swedish lad who would take a short cut across the Knox campus from home to his part-time job. The boy stopped and read the plaque on Old Main and read about Lincoln and Douglas and the debate. Decades later, Sandburg would write the definitive 6-volume Lincoln biography, consisting of the 2-volume The Prairie Years and the 4-volume The War Years. Sandburg tied Galesburg to Lincoln in ways that would not have otherwise existed. Galesburg equates to Lincoln because of the debates and because of Sandburg.

Black Hawk War

During the Black Hawk War, Lincoln was elected as an officer. He and his men traveled from southern Illinois up through the state to Oquawka. According to some articles I have read, the steamboat that Lincoln was supposed to meet at Oquawka to get supplies was late. Thus Lincoln and his troops "lived off the land", which meant they helped themselves to farmers’ crops. Lincoln never "saw action" during the war, but he did use the experience as a source of self-deprecating humor.

U.S. Supreme Court Case- Warren County

Later, Lincoln represented (more or less) my wife’s ancestors in a land ownership case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The land was located in Warren County. The case was referred to Lincoln by Orville Browning, a Quincy lawyer, who was to become one of Lincoln’s closest advisors after Lincoln was elected president. Unfortunately, Lincoln failed to show up to present oral argument before the Supreme Court, nor did he submit a written brief. My wife’s ancestors obviously lost their case, being unrepresented before the court. This little bit of history was lost to time until a legal history of Lincoln was undertaken and the case was uncovered in the National Archives. For those who might be interested in this obscure Lincoln event, you can find more about it in a earlier Backtracking article entitled, Lincoln, A Supreme Court No-Show. The electronic version of the article is available on The Zephyr homepage ( Browning became a U.S. Senator, filling the remaining term of Senator Douglas after his death. Browning frequently was consulted by Lincoln concerning the Civil War and also about the monumental task of filling politically-appointed positions around the country. At that time in history, appointments went all the way down to local post offices.

Joseph Smith Court Case- Monmouth

Lincoln was also part of the high powered legal team involved with the Mormon leader’s trial held in Monmouth on June 9, 1841, although Lincoln did not attend the trial. This little trial, generally overlooked by history, is packed so full of future important names, and names of folks who would later interact in the important moments of history, I’m surprised it hasn’t been made into a movie. Lincoln was retained to help the state in its case. Orville Browning was retained to represent the defendant, Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet. The judge was none other than Stephen Douglas, as in the Lincoln and Douglas debates of 1858. And Browning is the same person who would complete Senator Douglas’ term after Douglas died of typhoid fever on June 3, 1861 in Chicago.

Railroad Attorney

Lincoln was also known as a corporate attorney, particularly as a railroad attorney. This is less spoken of as it appears to be inconsistent with the "homey" log cabin aura that is currently in vogue for him. But it is part of his history. Most of the time, he represented the railroads, with a few exceptions, like when he had to sue Illinois Central Railroad to get his fee. Lincoln frequently represented the Illinois Central Railroad. In fact, Lincoln’s last case representing the Illinois Central wasn’t decided until after he became President. Another example, which has an approximate tie to Galesburg, was that he once represented a plaintiff in a suit against the CB&Q railroad in 1855. The case involved the setting of compensation for the taking of lands for railroad use.

One of Lincoln’s more famous railroad cases had to do with a railroad bridge that crossed the Mississippi at Rock Island. A steamboat, the Effie Afton, hit the bridge and burst into flames, burning the boat and part of the bridge in May 1856. The steamboat owners filed suit against the owners of the bridge. The steamboat owners had originally tried unsuccessfully to prevent the bridge from being built. Lincoln argued that the railroad had as much right to cross the river as the steamboat had to travel up the river, not unlike a person’s right to cross a road or to travel upon it, each without being impeded by the other. The jury did not reach a decision and Lincoln was paid $500 by the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad. The case was resolved, later, in 1862 before the US Supreme Court, consistent with Lincoln’s argument.


Hogan, Terry, Lincoln a Supreme Court No-Show. In Backtracking. The Zephyr.

Hogan, Terry, Abe Lincoln, Railroad Attorney. In Backtracking. The Zephyr.

Hogan, Terry, In a Monmouth Courtroom. In Backtracking. The Zephyr.

Sandburg, Carl. 1953. Always the Young Strangers.

Starr, John W. 1927. Lincoln and the Railroads. Dodd, Mead and Company. 325 pages.