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Did Lincoln Serve in the Military?

By 1830 wars and disease had reduced the Native American population north of the Rio Grande to about 500,000. Most of those had been pushed west of the Mississippi River. Some 85,000 members of the five Civilized Nations (Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Seminoles, and Chickasaws) had been forcibly removed from the southeastern portion of the United States to an area established for them just west of Arkansas.

In 1832 Sac and Fox tribes, led by Chief Black Hawk, attempted to forcibly reclaim ancestral lands in Illinois. The governor of Illinois issued a call for volunteers to put down the uprising, and Lincoln volunteered for a militia unit on April 21, 1832. To his surprise, he was elected captain of his regiment, calling for him to lead some 60 men.

Lincoln's enlistment lasted 30 days, at the end of which he reenlisted. All told he served three months but saw no battles. He mustered out at Black River, Wisconsin Territory and received $125 and a land grant in Iowa Territory for his service. His horse stolen, Lincoln was forced to walk home to New Salem.

In 1859 Lincoln told friends that his election as captain of his regiment was a "success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since." This three month stint in the militia represented Lincoln's entire military career.

As President, Lincoln was the first chief executive faced with the need for a draft. To be drafted carried the perceived stigma of not being patriotic enough to volunteer, and Lincoln always allowed an extended period of time between the announcement of the draft and the actual draft itself, hoping the announcement would spur many to volunteer.

Draftees could avoid serving by finding a willing substitute and paying a $300 commutation fee. This was a long established practice, and Lincoln defended the $300 fee by saying it prevented wealthier draftees from bidding up the price for a substitute.

On June 8, 1864 Lincoln recommended to Congress that the $300 commutation fee be abolished, a suggestion that Congress followed on July 4, 1864. Substitution remained legal, however, and Lincoln paid for a substitute for himself, John Summerfield Staples, of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

Frequently Asked Questions About Lincoln