Last week, historians at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in
Springfield made an exciting discovery -- an artifact that's been
part of their collection since 1955 is the original axe handled by
Lincoln at the field hospital 143 years ago.
"We now have the two
iconic pieces connected with Lincoln: his hat and an axe. The fact
that this axe was used right before the end of his life is a perfect
bookend to his frontier origins," said Illinois State Historian
Thomas Schwartz. "Even as president, he never completely forgot his
early roots. Military surgeons who performed the autopsy on Lincoln
all remarked how his body looked like that of someone half his 56
years of age."
Abraham Lincoln was at City Point, Va., to witness the end of the
Civil War from March 20 to April 9, 1865. On April 8 he spent the
entire day shaking hands with more than 5,000 wounded soldiers at
the Depot Field Hospital. Lincoln was reportedly exhausted and his
arm throbbed with pain, but told Charles Sumner, who accompanied
him, and a hospital doctor that he wasn't tired or sore. To prove
his point, Lincoln picked up an axe, and at the suggestion of
someone in the crowd, chopped a nearby pile of wood. When he was
done, he took the axe by its handle and with his right hand lifted
it slowly until it was at a right angle to his body, where he held
it for several moments, a feat of strength he had performed before.
The wounded soldiers were delighted by the way Lincoln "showed off"
Later, however, after Lincoln returned to the ship on which he
was staying, he reportedly confessed to his wife that his arms ached
and he was anxious to get to bed.
Schwartz said the story of Lincoln's hospital visit and axe
handling has long been known to historians. As with many other
purported Lincoln artifacts, however, there have been numerous
"Lincoln axes" that have turned up through the years that might have
been old, but no proof existed that Lincoln actually held and used
Presidential library researchers thought this axe fell into that
category until several documents that had been filed away at the
library more than 50 years ago were re-examined. One is a copy of an
original affidavit made by the field hospital director: "I hereby
certify that with this axe Abraham Lincoln, late President of the
United States, did, on the Saturday before his assassination, chop a
twenty inch white oak log in rear of my quarters at the Depot Field
Hospital, Army of the Potomac City Point VA." It was signed "G.B.
Parker MD, Late Surgeon USV, Chief Medical Officer." In addition,
there was a written statement made to verify that the copy of Dr.
Parker's affidavit now in the library's possession was legitimate --
that statement was dated Jan. 21, 1914.
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There was also a letter written by Richard Hagen of the state of
Illinois' Parks and Memorials Division to Mrs. A. Clement Wild on
March 5, 1955: "This letter bears the thanks and appreciation of
this Division for your recent gift to the Abraham Lincoln Home of an
axe with which Mr. Lincoln chopped down a tree on the Saturday
before his assassination … Since the axe properly belongs in that
period of Lincoln's life after he left Springfield, we would not
feel that there would be a proper place for it within the house
itself." The state of Illinois owned Lincoln's Home at the time, and
since the axe was not deemed appropriate for display there, it was
transferred to the Illinois State Historical Library, now known as
the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
Finally, the maker's mark on the axe confirms it was being
manufactured before or during the Civil War. The marking "William
Mann Lewistown Cast Steel Warrented" (sic) can be read on the axe
head. William Mann and his sons began a company in Lewistown, Pa.,
and by 1855 were producing 500 axes a day. In 1866, the imprint on
the axe head changed to "Axe Trust" since the company was purchased
by the American Axe and Tool Company. Only axes produced before 1866
carried the "William Mann" imprint, which matches with the date
Lincoln used the axe in April 1865.
"Moving into the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and
using a new inventory software program allowed us to re-examine the
entire collection. Rather than simply assigning a new number to some
of the older artifacts, extensive research is being undertaken to
fully document every item to the extent it is possible," said
Schwartz. "The library was established in 1889 even though most
people think that we are entirely new. The museum component is new,
but the collections are more than a century old. Unfortunately, not
every donation came with complete provenance. And this is especially
true of the materials acquired before the library hired a curator in
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum news release
received from the
Illinois Office of
Communication and Information]