Two years ago with the celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, I decided to look into a family story about him.
Like most Americans, I am the product of a variety of cultures. The foreign ones seemed more interesting than the side of the family that had been here since 1750, settling in the Midwest, first in Illinois and later Missouri. My father spoke of an antecedent, Jack Armstrong, who had wrestled Lincoln. It didn’t seem very glamorous. But I googled names I knew anyhow.
I found out a lot about the family, Lincoln and a bit of American history.
Seems Lincoln’s father took his family to Macon County, Illinois. Abe, 22 at the time, decided to strike out on his own and canoed down the Sangamon River and took up residence in New Salem. He went to work for Denton Offutt at his dry goods store. Offutt thought Abe a fine specimen and declared his clerk could “lift more, throw farther, run faster, jump higher and wrestle better than anyone.” Residents didn’t like that and the local gang, the Clary’s Grove boys, decided to pit their best man, Jack Armstrong, against him to teach the upstart a lesson.
As Carl Sandburg tells it in “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years,” Lincoln won. “As Armstrong lay on the ground, a champion in the dust of defeat, his gang from Clary’s Grove started to swarm toward Lincoln, with hot Kentucky and Irish epithets on their lips. Lincoln stepped to where his back was against a wall, braced hinself and told the gang he was ready for ’em.
“Then Jack Armstrong broke through the front line of the gang, shook Lincoln’s hand and told the gang Lincoln was ‘fair,’ had won the match, and ‘He’s the best feller that ever broke into this settlement.’
“As the Clary’s Grove boys looked Lincoln over they decided he was one of them… Yes, he belonged; even though he didn’t drink whisky nor play cards, he belonged. They called on him to judge their horse races and chicken fights, umpire their matches and settle disputes. Their homes were open to him. He was adopted.”
My great, great, however many greats, grandfather Jack Armstrong, had done the right thing.
Lincoln was adopted by the Armstrong family. He lived with Jack and his wife, Hannah, for long spells. “Abe would come out to our house, drink milk and mush, cornbread, butter; bring the children candy,” she told a friend. When Lincoln completed his first surveying job in 1834, Hannah made the two buckskins he was paid into pantaloons for use in his work. He rocked the cradle of their son, William Duff. Jack became a sergeant in the Black Hawk War serving under Captain Lincoln.
Jack died in 1857, but Lincoln never lost touch with Hannah. When her son was accused of murder a year later, Lincoln rushed to defend the boy he had rocked in the cradle. Lincoln wrote her, “Aunt Hannah, I have just heard of your deep affliction and the arrest of your son for murder. I can hardly believe he can be capable of the crime alleged against him. It does not seem possible. I am anxious that he should be given a fair trial at any rate; and gratitude for your long continued kindness to me in adverse circumstances prompt me to offer my humble services gratuitously in his behalf. It will afford me an opportunity to requite, in a small degree, the favors I received at your hand, and that of your lamented husband, when your roof afforded me a grateful shelter, without money and without price. ”
One witness to the trial later recalled Mr. Lincoln’s summation to the jury: “He told of his kind feelings toward the mother of the prisoner, a widow. That she had been kind to him when he was young, lone and without friends. The last 15 minutes of his speech, was as eloquent as I ever heard and such the power and earnestness with which he spoke that, jury and all, sat as if entranced and when he was through found relief in a gush of tears. I have never seen such mastery exhibited over the feelings and emotions of men as on that occasion.”
Mrs. Armstrong recalled that Mr. Lincoln had said to her , ‘Hannah, your son will be cleared before sundown.” She said, “I went down to Thompson’s pasture” because she couldn’t bear to watch the trial. There she heard “that my son was cleared – and a free man. I went up to the court house – the jury shook hands with me – so did the court – so did Lincoln. We were all affected and tears streamed down Lincoln’s eyes.” Then Lincoln said, “Hannah, what did I tell you?”
“The story of how Abraham Lincoln secured the acquittal of murder suspect William Duff by making use of an almanac to discredit a witness’s description of the position of the moon on the night in question is part of Lincoln lore,” wrote the Library Journal. The Almanac case, as it came to be called, launched Lincoln’s career.
Before President elect Lincoln left for Washington, Hannah went to Springfield to say goodbye. She noted “that it was not every woman who had the good fortune and high honor of sleeping with a President,” referring to his early days under their roof. As she bid Lincoln good bye, she told him that she would never see him again and that he would be killed.
Lincoln smiled and replied, “Hannah, if they kill me I shall never die another death.”
Hannah reached out to Lincoln again, writing him to ask that her son be discharged from the army because of illness. She appealed for his discharge from an army hospital, which the president granted. He sent her a telegram: “I have just ordered the discharge of your boy, William, as you say now at Louisville, Ky.”
In researching the story it was interesting to find names I was familiar with pop up in history. I had heard the name Armstrong. My father’s middle name was Duff; I had not known much about them. A portrait of John Thomas Duff in his Civil War Union suit has hung in our house from childhood. I knew we had people who fought on both sides and wondered what that must have been like for a family.
I like the story of the Armstrongs and Lincoln because it seems so quintessentially American. Ours was a country and people that did not hold grudges. There was too much country to tame, too many chores to do to waste time with vendettas. Jack realized it’s better to make friends than enemies. A country had to be built.
Abraham Lincoln is, to me and many, our greatest president. And the first Republican one, too.