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Some Virginians claim Lincoln’s greatness arises from his Old Dominion heritage.

Abraham Lincoln spent time in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, as well as Washington, D.C. Not surprising, then, that the bicentennial of his birth is being celebrated throughout those states and the District with an impressive list of festivities continuing through 2009. But Lincoln’s family actually had its roots in a state that joined the Confederacy during the Civil War.

While the 16th president himself never lived in the Old Dominion, his ancestors came from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where for the past 33 years locals have annually been commemorating their connection to the Great Emancipator. Each February 12 at 2 p.m. a brief ceremony is held at a rural cemetery near Broadway, in Rockingham County, where many of Abe Lincoln’s relatives are buried, including his great-grandparents. In fact the president’s father, Thomas, was born in 1778 in a brick farmhouse that still stands near the cemetery.

Leading Broadway’s commemorative ceremony each year is Phillip Stone, president of Bridgewater College. As a seventh-generation Virginian with several Confederate veteran ancestors, Stone would seem an unlikely Lincoln fan. But he is inspired by the wartime president’s extraordinary sense of honor and integrity. “One could believe in Abraham Lincoln,” he says. “When he said something, he meant it and one could rely on it. On matters of honor and principle, he not only spoke clearly and firmly, he could not be budged from that position even in the face of overwhelming opposition and the prospect of almost certain defeat.”

Stone conducts an informal ceremony at the rural cemetery each February, “held rain, sleet or snow.” The brief graveside chat sometimes draws as many as 100 people, but Stone recalled one February when the weather was so bad that no audience showed up—it was just Stone and his St. Bernard, Shasta. True to his purpose, Stone said a few words, then hurried to get out of the cold. “The dog seemed disappointed when it was over,” he recalled.

In 1768 John Lincoln (sometimes referred to as “Virginia John” to distinguish him from other family members of the same name) moved to Virginia from Pennsylvania with his wife Rebecca and their nine children. They purchased 600 acres on Linville Creek in what is now Rockingham County, along present-day Route 42 and about four miles south of Broadway. The eldest son, Abraham, would serve in the Revolutionary War and marry Bathsheba Herring from Dayton, Va. They moved into a house across the creek from his parents, where five children were born, including Thomas, the president’s father.

Several years later the family moved to the present-day village of Springfield, Ky. When Thomas was about 6, he was clearing a field with his father and two older brothers when an Indian party attacked, killing Abraham. When an Indian also tried to grab Thomas, brother Mordecai rescued him, killing the attacker. The president later wrote that his father “literally grew up without education.” After Thomas married Nancy Hanks, they moved to a farm in Hodgenville, Ky., where Abraham and two siblings were born—one of whom died in infancy. When Abe was 9 the family moved to Indiana, where his mother died and his father remarried.

When Abraham was 21, the Lincoln family moved again, this time to Illinois, where he worked as a shopkeeper and postmaster in New Salem. He later moved to Springfield, where he became a lawyer and married Mary Todd. After serving for one term in the House of Representatives, he returned to Illinois to practice law until his election to president in 1860.

Lincoln was well aware of his Virginia roots. While serving in Congress, he wrote to David Lincoln, who was then living on the family land, to explain his connection with the Virginia branch of the family and ask for information about his relatives. “Just as Lincoln knew of his Virginia relatives,” Phillip Stone noted, “the Shenandoah Valley relatives were conscious of their ties to the president during the Civil War. At one point a cousin was asked if Abe Lincoln was related to him. He replied: ‘Yes, I would like to meet Cousin Abe. I would like to shoot him.’ Obviously, family connections could not override the partisanship of war.”

Buried at the Lincoln family cemetery are Lincoln’s great-grandparents, his great-uncle Jacob, his wife Dorcas and many other connections. Two family slaves, identified on their tombstones as Uncle Ned and his wife Queen, are also interred in the family plot, although their graves were not marked until years after their death.

The last interment at the plot took place in 1938 after the death of Kate Pennybacker, a great-granddaughter of Jacob Lincoln. In a 1937 interview with a Works Progress Administration representative, Pennybacker complained that many of Rockingham County’s records had been lost during the Civil War. “It may be well to note here that it was a detachment of Yankee soldiers who, in setting fire to Rockingham [County] Records, destroyed the records of Mr. Lincoln’s own ancestry,” she said. The Lincoln farm passed out of the family’s possession in 1874, and there have since been about six owners.

Stone formed the Lincoln Society of Virginia in 2004 to provide an honest, fair interpretation of Lincoln from the Southern point of view. In part, the society began as a response to protests that took place at Richmond’s American Civil War Museum when a statue of Lincoln was unveiled in 2003. As part of its mission, the group conducts a symposium at Bridgewater College each year. The 2009 program, scheduled for April 21, will feature James I. Robertson Jr., executive director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, speaking on “Lincoln, the Man.”

The Lincoln Society has also been negotiating with the estate of the Lincoln homestead’s last owner to purchase the house, cemetery and about 10 of the remaining 50 acres. Plans call for preserving the house and cemetery and opening them to the public.

In the concluding year of the nation’s celebration of the Lincoln legacy, the February 12 gathering at the Lincoln family plot will assume additional significance. As Stone pointed out, “Virginia has stronger claims as the ancestral home of the Lincolns than any other state. Since we Virginians are proud of our heritage, we are not reluctant to claim that Abraham Lincoln’s greatness must surely arise in part from his Virginia heritage.”


Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.