Of all the things our 16th President is remembered for these days, his uncanny strength is often overlooked. During his days on the American frontier, he was known for his strength and wrestling prowess. The “Rail Splitter” (Lincoln’s nickname), was a volunteer soldier during the Black Hawk War and even manhandled a violent viewer during one of his political speeches, leaving the podium to toss a man 12 feet away from the crowd.
The Confederacy clearly didn’t know who they were dealing with.
Life on the American frontier was harsh for a figure like Lincoln. He was raised in rural areas of what was then the very edge of a nascent, young country. In his early years, he could barely read or write, and as such he took work as a hired hand. When he was still very young, he experienced a growth spurt that saw him towering over others. His large frame and chosen profession saw the gaunt young boy turn into a man of uncommon strength.
Young Lincoln moved around the country on more than one occasion, and the first thing that needed to be done in his new home was to clear an area of trees and construct his new dwelling. For this, he needed a trusty ax – a tool with which he would become an expert user. His skills with an ax would come in handy later, as his reputation as a free laborer (as opposed to, say, a slave) catapulted him to the White House in 1860.
While occupying the White House, Lincoln had very little use for his skills as a laborer, but the strength he acquired in his early years never left him. On the day before the end of the Civil War, the President was visiting a military hospital in Virginia and spent much of the day shaking hands with Union soldiers, both wounded and not wounded. Onlookers swore the 56-year-old must have shaken thousands of hands that day. But when one Union troop told the President that he must be tired from a day full of shaking hands, Lincoln took it as a challenge.
Spotting an ax, he opted to show a feat of strength he’d done many, many times before when wanting to bond with Union soldiers. He was known to even challenge them to the display of strength he was about to put on for the Petersburg, Va. hospital patients and their visitors.
Lincoln walked over to the ax, picked it up by the butt, and held it out at arms’ length, parallel to the ground for as long as he could.
“Strong men who looked on, men accustomed to manual labor, could not hold the same ax in that position for a moment,” wrote Francis Fisher Browne, a Union soldier who authored a biography called “The Every-Day Life of Abraham Lincoln.”
Such a feat of strength by the Commander-In-Chief was impressive to Union soldiers. Very often, they couldn’t manage such a stunt. During the hospital visit, after holding out the ax, he even began chopping a log nearby, showering onlookers with chips of wood – which they all kept.