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Abraham Lincoln’s only military experience was as a 23-year-old militia captain in the Black Hawk War.

Abraham Lincoln may have been one of the most active commanders in chief in American history, but he came to the job with a decided lack of military experience. Indeed, when compared to his counterpart, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a Mexican War hero and former United States secretary of war, Lincoln was almost comically unprepared for the task before him.

What little military background Lincoln did have stemmed from the abortive 1832 Black Hawk War on the Western frontier. At the time, Lincoln was living in New Salem, Ill. When a call went out from Illinois Governor John Reynolds for volunteers to beat back a new Indian threat, Lincoln unhesitatingly joined other townsmen in rushing to sign up. (The fact that he had just lost his job as a store clerk did wonders for Lincoln’s martial spirit, as did his plans to run for the state legislature later that year.)

Black Hawk, chief of the Sac and Fox Indians, had returned to his homeland at the head of a band of 450 warriors, intent on forcibly reversing the treaty he had signed 28 years earlier that ceded control of the tribe’s ancestral home in northwestern Illinois to the U.S. government.

The 23-year-old Lincoln assembled with his New Salem neighbors on April 21, 1832, for the time-honored ritual of selecting a company captain. A well-known sawmill owner named William Kirkpatrick fully expected to be chosen captain. But some of Lincoln’s friends, aware that Kirkpatrick had cheated their friend Abe out of two dollars a few months before, proposed Lincoln for the post. “We’ll fix Kirkpatrick,” one of them said.

To Lincoln’s everlasting satisfaction, the men formed in a line behind him that was twice as long as Kirkpatrick’s. Despite having no military experience, Lincoln was duly elected captain. Years later, after he had served in the Illinois State Legislature and the U.S. Congress and was well on his way to the White House, Lincoln would still say that his election as militia captain had given him more pleasure that any he had had since.

Once he was captain, Lincoln was actually expected to lead his company. This proved rather more difficult than expected–the first order Lincoln gave to the men elicited the terse reply, “Go to hell.” When the marching company approached a fence, Lincoln could not remember how to order them to pass through it two-by-two. He simply ordered a brief halt and had the company reform on the other side.

Lincoln used his renowned physical strength to help him assert his authority. One day an old Indian blundered into camp after the company had ventured up the Rock River into northern Illinois. Some of the men wanted to kill the Indian–that was what they had enlisted to do, they reasoned–but Lincoln quickly stepped in front of the trembling prisoner and defied anyone to kill him. “If anyone thinks I am a coward,” said Lincoln, “let him test it.” No one did.

As it was, the company found few Indians to kill during the summer-long campaign. Mostly, as Lincoln joked later, the company made war on the surrounding farms, freely confiscating pigs and chickens for their evening meals and once switching milk cows with another company.

On one occasion, the men did see the brutal face of war, coming upon a group of five white men who had been killed and scalped in a recent skirmish. “The red light of the morning sun was streaming upon them as they lay heads towards us on the ground,” Lincoln recalled, “and every man had a round, red spot on top of his head about as big as a dollar, where the redskins had taken his scalp. The red sunlight seemed to paint everything all over.”

As was typical of Lincoln, legends grew out of his temporary service, although not the typically flattering kind. It was said that Lincoln had twice been court-martialed: once for allowing his men to break into their officers’ supply of whiskey and get roaring drunk, and once for permitting someone to shoot off a pistol inside the camp. According to the account, Lincoln had been forced to carry a wooden sword for two days, a report that, if true, Lincoln never mentioned in later years. All he would say of his service was that he “had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes, and although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry.”

At the end of the Black Hawk War, during which he never fired a gun in anger, Lincoln left the military for good. He promptly used his militia pay to finance his campaign for the state legislature. In the subsequent election he ran eighth in a field of 13 candidates, the only time, he was careful to note, that he “was ever beaten on a direct vote of the people.” But in his own precinct of New Salem, he received 277 of the 300 votes cast. Like many other politicians before and after, Lincoln discovered–however accidentally–that his stint as a soldier had helped pave the way for a successful career in politics. R.M.

Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War