A Community for Abraham Lincoln & American History — For Collectors, By Collectors. More About Us.

Feature Articles

Overlooked Evidence: Lincoln in Pioneer Chicago

December 2, 2020

We will probably never know just when Abraham Lincoln first saw the city of Chicago, the great metropolis of the Great Lakes which, in 1860, sent the prairie lawyer on towards immortality by holding the national convention that nominated him for the Presidency. Some surprising new evidence, however, may at last and at least kill the persistent but erroneous belief that Lincoln never visited Chicago until 1847. Fully three generations of authors have recorded that belief as “fact”, starting with Lincoln biographer and researcher, the Rev. Dr. William E. Barton, who first proclaimed it to be such in 1922. Barton based his assertion solely upon a short, unattributed, and uncorroborated newspaper “item” published in the July 6, 1847 issue of the Chicago Daily Journal. Why Dr. Barton chose to place his faith in the Journal statement and pass it on as gospel can only be surmised; but in doing so he simultaneously dismissed an extremely credible eyewitness testimony for an 1844 visit (given by federal judge Henry W. Blodgett) as well as a second-hand story suggesting that Lincoln had passed through Chicago as early as 1835 or 1836. A fuller examination of this topic, and particularly of the strong reasons to accept Judge Blodgett’s recollection, may be found in my article “Lincoln’s First Visit to Chicago: ReconSidering the Evidence”, published in The Rail Splitter for Winter 2001 (volume 6 num. 3, p. 1). But any first-visit claim will now have to be viewed in light of the aforesaid “surprising new evidence”, which consists of a letter written to Lincoln himself by noted United States Army officer and Civil War General David Hunter. Dated from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas territory on October 20, 1860, the bulk of the letter warns the President-elect about an assassination threat, but in a postscript Hunter reintroduces himself by reminding Lincoln that: “I had the pleasure of meeting you in early days at Chicago, and again at the great Whig convention at Springfield in 1840.”

This evidence is “surprising” in the sense that Hunter’s letter has been available for decades at the Library of Congress (as part of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln donated by his son Robert Todd Lincoln and opened to the public in 1947); and “new” in the sense that it has apparently never been publicized heretofore. It is especially interesting because of Hunter’s remark that he met Lincoln “again” in 1840, thus indicating that their initial contact in Chicago probably occurred during the 1830s. The letter’s mention of the “great Whig convention” refers to a mass meeting in the state capital on the third and fourth of June 1840. Usually called the “Young Men’s Whig Convention”, it was held primarily to whip up enthusiasm for the party’s presidential candidate William Henry Harrison, then in the midst of his “log cabin and hard cider”, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” campaign.

Although it didn’t occupy even two whole days the event is said to have brought an astonishing 20,000 men, women and children to Springfield (a number equivalent to five percent of the popul,ation of Illinois), including delegations from 59 of the state’s 89 counties. In the grand procession which kicked off the festivities, Chicago’s Cook County “took the lead” with a spectacular thirty-foot-Iong float that consisted of a “government yawl.. .rigged up” as a two-masted miniature brig, complete with a six-pounder cannon for firing salutes; Hunter was in command, and the “the brig” was accompanied by a brass band riding on a truck drawn by six bay horses. Aside from Hunter, the Cook County delegates included his brother-in-law, John H. Kinzie; pioneer, fur-trader, pork-packer and former state representative Gurdon S. Hubbard; and prominent attorneys John Y. Scammon and Giles Spring. Most if not all of these men were already known to Lincoln through legal, political, or legislative contact.

Hunter (1802-1886) had spent time at a number of frontier army posts following his graduation at West Point in 1822, among them historic Fort Deerborn in Chicago, where he was stationed from 1828 to 1831 and briefly held command (1830-31). After serving at still other posts and rising to a Captaincy in the dragoons, he reigned from the army in order to settle in Chicago in July 1836. He worked there as a real estate agent and speculator, but probably without signal success; poor timing found him in the city just as the panic of 1837 and its ensuing troubles collapsed the region’s fabulous land boom. In November 1841 Hunter rejoined the army as an Additional Paymaster, and he stayed in the service until 1866 when he resigned with the rank of Brevet Major General.

Since Hunter regularly lived in Chicago for only a few years after 1836, his first meeting with Lincoln must have fallen between that year and 1840. What could have drawn Lincoln to Chicago at so early a day is matter for pure conjecture. Aside from legal business, politics, or sheer curiosity (the city was rapidly becoming the commercial center of Illinois), an excellent candidate is the state’s internal improvement scheme, which Lincoln was whole-heartedly endorsing. Most of the scheme’s railroad, canal, and river projects-meant as a vast economic stimulus and public benefit- had Chicago as their focus, and many of Lincoln’s known Chicago associates were at one time or another involved with them in some capacity. Lincoln may well have come to view the Illinois and Michigan Canal, a vital waterway linking the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River, upon which construction had begun just outside of the city in 1836.

Whatever circumstances first brought the two men together, it is clear that David Hunter and Abraham Lincoln renewed their acquaintance via the mails in 1860, and they maintained a fairly substantial correspondence until at least the late summer of 1864. Hunter must have been well and favorably remembered by the President-elect since he was invited to be one of the escorts on board of Lincoln’s inaugural train for its February 1861 journey to Washington. Hunter accepted the honor although he did not travel the entire distance. This very letter of October 1860, warning Lincoln, may itself explain Hunter’s role as an inaugural escort, since there was pervasive fear that assassination would be attempted en route.

While Hunter’s early years, including his first contacts with Lincoln are poorly documented, there is an abundant record for his often notorious Civil War career. A man of strong anti-slavery convictions, while Commanding General of the Department of the South in 1862, Hunter blindsided the President by emancipating all of the slaves within his command, orders which Lincoln annulled because Hunter had thereby exceeded his authority. Undaunted, the general went on to authorize the Army’s first black regiment, the First South Carolina, an action which was upheld by Congress. In June 1864 he torched Virginia Military Institute and the home of Gov. John Letcher and was outlawed by the Confederacy for his trouble, being declared, “a felon to be executed ‘if captured.” That same month Hunter was repulsed at the Battle of Lynchburg by rebel Gen. JubaI Early and retreated, which enabled the latter’s frightening and potentially devastating attack on Washington, D.C. Eventually, Hunter resigned active command in favor of “Little Phil” Sheridan.

Following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Hunter reprised his role as a military escort, this time on the funeral train which carried the President’s remains back to Illinois for entombment in May 1865. Later that same month General Hunter began presiding over the military commission which tried the co-conspirators of assassin John Wilkes Booth, a task which proved to be the “last full measure of devotion” which Hunter actively rendered to his departed friend and Commander-in-Chief. ‘)

[Note: The main sources for this article were the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress (available online), a superb resource which combines digital images of original documents, many combined with annotated transcripts by Doug Wilson and the Lincoln Studies Center of Knox College. Also William E. Barton, The Influence of Chicago Upon Abraham Lincoln, published in 1922; also the transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society for 1914.]

– Timothy H Bakken