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A Hungry Young Lincoln Spoils for a Fight

A quartet of documents recently uncovered at the National Archives offers a rare glimpse of a young man who would be president: Abraham Lincoln, Captain, 31st Regiment, Illinois Militia. At 23, Lincoln volunteered to take up arms during what came to be known as the Black Hawk War. The conflict takes its name from the Sauk chief who from May through August 1832 led members of his tribe, along with Meskwaki and Kickapoo warriors, in skirmishes with settlers in and around northwest Illinois.

Lincoln enlisted before hostilities began and was elected captain by the men of his company. In that capacity he signed documents volunteers could use to pursue claims for federal land offered as compensation for mustering. (Lincoln himself would claim two parcels in Iowa.) Three of the newly found relics are discharge papers from 1832 signed “A. Lincoln Capt.”; the fourth is an affidavit from 1855. “We only know of about 14 to 16 discharge papers signed by Lincoln,” says Daniel Stowell, director and editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project at the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

After less than two months as an officer, Lincoln relinquished command but re-upped twice as a private. Serving three of the war’s four months, he never saw combat. “I had a good many bloody struggles with the musquetoes,” he quipped in an 1848 speech. “And although I never fainted from the loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry.”

Sweat-Stained Satchmo Hanky From Sweden Comes Home

One of Louis Armstrong’s trademark gestures was mopping his brow and horn as he made glorious music. A recent major gift to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, N.Y., of rare recordings, letters, photos, posters, news clippings and discographies is all the more prized because it includes a well-used handkerchief. The Armstrongiana—a bequest from Swedish Satchmo devotee Gosta Hagglof, who died in 2009—adds relics not collected Stateside. The museum has a few hankies, but director Michael Cogswell is excited to welcome another. “Perhaps there’s some DNA in there that we could use with cloning or such,” he jokes.

Texas Town Rises From the Deep

As Texas endures its driest period on record and water levels drop precipitously, new research opportunities have surfaced at the original town site of Bluffton, which was flooded in 1937 by a dam project. With Lake Buchanan down 25 feet, Bluffton’s bones are showing: the scales of a cotton gin, the foundations of a Texaco station and a hotel, remains of headstones abandoned in the relocation of nearly 400 graves. “The drought is affecting a lot of people negatively,” says area chronicler Alfred Hallmark, co-author of Old Bluffton Revisited: Where Progress Destroyed a Way of Life. “As a historian, an evil side of me says, ‘I might be able to see something.’”

Digging Perot

Paleontologists with the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas named a species of two-horned dinosaur recently unearthed in Alaska Pachyrhinosaurus perotorum after H. Ross Perot, underwriter of a museum building that will bear his name.

Sagamore Shutdown

Theodore Roosevelt’s summer home at Sagamore Hill has closed for a three-year, $6.2 million renovation. For the duration an outbuilding on the Long Island site will display TR memorabilia, including his White House china.

Lewis and Clark Take the Stand

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark recently testified, indirectly, before the Supreme Court—on both sides of the same case. The state of Montana wants $53 million in back rent for riverbeds beneath hydroelectric dams owned by PPL Montana. Upon becoming a state in 1889, Montana assumed ownership, under common law, of its navigable rivers. The utility claims its dams occupy only non-navigable stretches. Both parties’ briefs quote the explorers’ journals— a reference to rivers being “so navigable,” for example, versus an account of a 33-day portage around Great Falls. There are ambiguities, says Gary Moulton, an emeritus history professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, who edited the definitive edition of the journals, as well as a one-volume abridgement, and who consulted with the power company. “It’s not a problem with Lewis and Clark,” he says. “It’s a problem with present-day readers and how they interpret the journals.”

Student Seeks Stamp of Approval for Slave

Go to the YouTube channel for Jackson Davis V and you’ll experience retail politics at its finest. “Hi, everybody. I’m Jackson,” the sixth grader chirps in about a dozen clips thanking allies who have endorsed his push for a stamp to honor York, a slave who participated in the Lewis and Clark expedition. He’s posted shout-outs to Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who represents his neighborhood, and all signers of his petition to commemorate York. “Lewis and Clark got stamps. Sacagawea got a coin and a stamp,” Davis told a Washington, D.C., TV station. “I thought it would be cool if York got a stamp, too.” The Postal Service stamp advisory committee, which will consider Davis’ campaign, includes Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who has already pledged support.


Originally published in the April 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.