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In November 1860, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, a self-taught lawyer, politician, and outspoken critic of slavery, was elected 16th president of the United States. Lincoln proved to be a shrewd military strategist and a savvy leader: His Emancipation Proclamation paved the way for slavery’s abolition, while his Gettysburg Address stands as one of the most famous pieces of oratory in American history. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth in April 1865, as the Union was on the verge of victory. Lincoln’s assassination made him a hero to the cause of liberty, and he is generally recognized as one of the greatest presidents in U.S history.
Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in a one-room log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky, to Nancy and Thomas Lincoln. In 1816, his family relocated to southern Indiana. Since he had to work hard to support his family, Lincoln’s formal education was reduced to three brief periods in local schools.
Lincoln’s family relocated to Macon County, Illinois, in 1830, where he found work on a river flatboat transporting freight down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. After settling in the town of New Salem, Illinois, where he served as a shopkeeper and a postmaster, Lincoln became active in local politics as a member of the Whig Party, winning election to the Illinois state legislature in 1834.
Lincoln studied law on his own and passed the bar exam in 1836. The next year, he relocated to Springfield, the newly named state capital. For the next five years, he served there as a lawyer and served clients ranging from local residents of small towns to national railroad lines.
In 1842, he married Mary Todd, a well-to-do Kentucky belle who had a slew of suitors (including Lincoln’s future political opponent, Stephen Douglas). The Lincolns went on to have four children together, though only one would live into adulthood: Robert Todd Lincoln (1843–1926), Edward Baker Lincoln (1846–1850), William Wallace Lincoln (1850–1862), and Thomas “Tad” Lincoln (1853-1871).
In 1846, Lincoln was elected to the United States House of Representatives and began serving the next year. Many Illinois voters disliked Lincoln as a congressman because of his strong opposition to the Mexican-American War. In 1849, he returned to Springfield after promising not to run for reelection.
Events conspired to drive him back into national politics, however: Douglas, a leading Democrat in Congress, had pushed through the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), which ruled that the citizens of each state, rather than the federal government, had the right to determine whether the territory should be slave or free.
In 1864, Lincoln faced a tough reelection campaign against Democratic nominee George McClellan, a former Union general, but Union victories in battle (particularly General William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in September) swung many votes in his favor. In his second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865, Lincoln addressed the need to reconstruct the South and repair the Union: “With malice against none; with charity for all.”
Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, as Sherman marched triumphantly north through the Carolinas after staging his March to the Sea from Atlanta. On April 11, as the Union’s triumph drew closer, Lincoln delivered a speech on the White House lawn, encouraging his audience to welcome the southern states back into the fold. Tragically, Lincoln would not live to help carry out his vision of Reconstruction.
On April 14, 1865, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth slipped into the president’s box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and shot him in the back of the head point-blank. Lincoln was taken to a boardinghouse across the street from the theatre, but he never regained consciousness and died on April 15, 1865, in the early morning hours.