By Michael Swanger
April marks the 150th anniversary of two important events in our nation’s history: the end of the American Civil War (when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865) and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (who was shot at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865 and died the following morning).
Iowa’s direct and indirect connections to both events have been chronicled in the pages of Iowa History Journal. Last year, we wrote about the heartbreaking tale of the Littleton brothers, all six of whom from Louisa County died in the Civil War; the heroic efforts of the 22nd Iowa Volunteer Infantry, which fought in the Eastern and Western theaters; and how Iowa Gov. William Milo Stone, who helped carry Lincoln’s body from Ford’s Theater to a boarding house across the street where he died, rode the train that transported Lincoln’s body to Springfield, Ill., and was a pallbearer at the president’s funeral.
Those stories are just a few examples of Lincoln’s ties to Iowa, though there are more that deserve our attention as we mark the sesquicentennial of his death.
As a young man, Lincoln’s brief military experience included serving with the Illinois militia that assisted the U.S. Army in tracking and defeating Native Americans in the Black Hawk War of 1832. Later, Lincoln was given two tracts of Iowa land in Crawford and Tama counties. Reportedly, he never visited them.
Lincoln, however, left a bigger imprint on our state as a lawyer and politician.
He played a key role in a lawsuit between riverboat interests and the railroads regarding a dispute about the first bridge to be built across the Mississippi River. Built in 1856, it connected Davenport and Rock Island, Ill., and was hailed as an important advancement for western travel and commerce. Lincoln, who was already an experienced railroad lawyer, defended the bridge company in the case, which was dismissed and solidified his reputation as a great trial lawyer.
During the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Lincoln traveled to Burlington to make a political speech, and the following spring he ventured to Dubuque.
In August 1859, Lincoln journeyed to Council Bluffs to meet with railroad engineer Grenville M. Dodge, who convinced him that the transcontinental railroad should be routed through western Iowa. Lincoln spent three days in Iowa, but made a lasting mark on the state and its economy as a result of his determination to connect the Mississippi and Missouri River Railroad with the proposed Union Pacific Railroad.
After being elected president in 1861, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Enabling Act into law on July 1, 1862. Every town from Sioux City to Kansas City located along the Missouri River wanted to be the initial point for the Union Pacific Railroad, but Lincoln chose the township that included Council Bluffs. Construction of the railroad began at Council Bluffs in December 1863 and upon its completion by the end of the decade, Council Bluffs became a major railroad center.
As president, Lincoln also appointed Samuel F. Miller of Keokuk to the U.S. Supreme Court and James Harlan of Mount Pleasant as U.S. Secretary of Interior. Harlan, perhaps more than any Iowan, benefitted the most from his relationship with the president. He served as an occasional advisor to Lincoln and led his fundraising efforts for reelection in 1864.
Yet it was the romantic relationship between their oldest children that drew the Lincoln and Harlan families closer. At Lincoln’s second inauguration celebration, Robert Todd Lincoln escorted Mary Harlan, a match approved by the First Family. They wed in 1868 and Lincoln’s widow wrote, “A charming daughter will be my portion and one whom my idolized husband loved and admired.”
The couple and their children spent considerable time at Harlan’s house in Mount Pleasant, which is located on the campus of Iowa Wesleyan College. It was placed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and contains a collection of Harlan and Lincoln memorabilia, including a collar fragment from the coat believed to be worn by Lincoln when he was assassinated.
Thanks for reading.