Wisdom Wednesday: The Springsteens and Abraham Lincoln, cont’d

Abraham Lincoln portrait, signed, "I approve" on 8 August 1861. With kind permission of the Indiana Historical Society Digital Collection, http://images.indianahistory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/P0406/id/727/rec/69
Abraham Lincoln portrait, signed, “I approve” on 8 August 1861. With kind permission of the Indiana Historical Society Digital Image Collection, http://images.indianahistory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/P0406/id/727/rec/69

Helbling Family, Springsteen Family (Click for Family Tree)

So here is the whole story- well, as much as we can determine:

Once Lincoln was officially elected as our sixteenth President on 6 November 1860, the southern states decided that they must secede from the Union, as they had threatened. Tensions within the country had been high through the election, but the speeches and actions of some of the Southern states that winter increased the tension to a fever pitch.

Lincoln was in Springfield, Illinois, when he received the news of his election, and plans were made for him to make a 70 city whistle-stop tour on his way to Washington, D.C. for his inauguration. News of an alleged plot to assassinate him in Baltimore reached the President-Elect, however, and the Pinkerton Detective Agency vowed to protect him along his journey on the railroad and in the cities along the way.

The city of Indianapolis had prepared for his visit for two weeks, and the railroads had advertised half-price fares to those in the counties around Indianapolis; people also made their way to Indianapolis with horse and buggy, on horseback, or even walked- some up to 50 miles to attend the grand event. Indianapolis had a population of 18,611 in 1860, but was estimated that 50,000 persons of both parties would be there to receive the President; the carnival-like atmosphere produced at least that many citizens, if not more. Even though our ancestor Jefferson Springsteen was a long-time Democrat, being a politician he likely was interested in seeing the famous Republican, a humble nobody who had just been elected to the highest office in the land.

The President-Elect’s entourage started off on a rainy Monday morning from Springfield, Illinois, and made stops or slowed down through many towns along the way. At 5 p.m. the train arrived in Indianapolis, to gun salutes, waving flags, patriotic bunting flying, and crowds standing in the mud from the rains that had finally subsided. (Those poor women and their long dresses…) There were people hanging out windows, on rooftops, and even up on telegraph poles- wonder if our rambunctious Abram was one of those?? If so, he would likely have justified it to his parents as up on a pole was the only way he could have seen Lincoln, since he was too short at age ten to see over the crowd.

Lincoln gave a short speech from the back of the train. The speech sounds inspirational, but it was also an extemporaneous counter to the ‘welcoming’ speech by the Governor that challenged Lincoln as to what he would do as President to resolve the tense situation between the north and south.  Lincoln said:

“I appeal to you again to constantly bear in mind that with you, and not with politicians, not with presidents, not with office seekers, but with you is the question: Shall the Union and shall the liberties of this country be preserved to the latest generations?”

Technically not yet President, and wanting to avoid further rifts with the southern states, Lincoln wisely chose his words.

"Bates House Polka" sheet music cover, c1854. With kind permission of the Indiana Historical Society, Digital Image Collection, http://images.indianahistory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p16797coll1/id/1263/rec/4.
“Bates House Polka” sheet music cover, c1854. With kind permission of the Indiana Historical Society, Digital Image Collection, http://images.indianahistory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p16797coll1/id/1263/rec/4.

It is easy to imagine the huge crowds of people who gathered at the train station, and followed his entourage to the Bates House where they would spend the night. (There were not enough carriages, and the Lincoln crowd had to carry their baggage through the streets. There were not enough rooms, either…) Had Abram shinnied down a telegraph pole and run after the carriages, with his family trying to keep up?

The crowds must have driven the Pinkertons crazy- it was almost impossible to protect the President-Elect with all the hand-shaking. (Probably made parents crazy too, trying to keep their children in sight. The pickpockets had a field day.) It is estimated that 3,000 citizens of Indiana lined up to shake Lincoln’s hand that Monday evening alone. There were also receptions, speeches, and the general chaos that comes with crowds of that size. Even the normally-hostile Democratic newspaper in town had sympathy for the President:

“Mr. Lincoln, we hope, slept well after the labors of his reception. To be pushed and crowded around as he was, beset by red hot politicians steaming with patriotism and whisky, and to have his hand shaken at the rate it was and for so long a period must certainly have tried his powers of endurance.”

Lincoln, AKA “The Railsplitter,” reportedly said, of his time in Indianapolis,

“that the shaking hands and fatigue of his reception was harder work than mauling rails.”

Since our ancestor Jefferson Springsteen had been involved in city politics and had at least one young son apparently fired up about the possibility of war, and possibly more sons (though the others did not serve that we know of- they were too young, though Abram did not let that stop him), it is highly likely that the Springsteens were in at least one of the crowds on at least one of the days.

The crowds swarmed the hotel- would all of the Springsteens have been a part of that crowd? Lincoln gave a speech, as planned, from the hotel balcony. This speech was important- the first big speech since his election, and it would be covered in all the newspapers around the country. The wisdom of his speech was in again asking the people to determine what was ‘right.’ He asked how they defined “coercion” and “invasion,” of which the south accused the Union. He said of those who would readily ‘tear asunder’ the Union,

“In their view the Union as a family relation would seem to be no regular marriage but a sort of “free-love” arrangement, to be maintained only on “passional attraction.”

(That was a surprising analogy.)

Lincoln then asked the crowd,

“On what rightful principle may a state, being not more than one-fiftieth part of the nation and soil and population, break up the nation… ?”

(BTW, there were only 34 states in the Union at that time. He must have meant 1/50 by size?)

Abe wisely finished with:

“Fellow-citizens, I am not asserting anything; I am merely asking questions for you to consider. And now allow me to bid you farewell.”

Lincoln’s wisdom was to guide the citizenry to see for themselves what the next step was for the Union as a whole. He knew the country was too divided to pronounce edicts and threats of his own, but he had to help the country realize the big picture of what was happening between the north and south.

The opposition tore his speech apart, and even the New York Times, normally a moderate newspaper, stated,

“It is very evident from his speech at Indianapolis, that Mr. Lincoln has no sympathy with that theory of our Government which regards it as a voluntary league of sovereign States—from which any one of them may secede at pleasure.”

Wonder what the conversation was at the Springsteen dinner table that Monday night? Would die-hard Democrat Jeff have torn the speech apart too? How would he reconcile his northern leanings with his political party? Would ten year-old Abram have had wide eyes, getting to hear the talk of politics, knowing that he had seen the next President of the United States, and that war was a real possibility?

Abraham Lincoln commemorative plaque in Indianapolis, Indiana. via Wikipedia Saves Public Art - Flickr: Lincoln Plaque by Rudolf Schwarz (1907) [Control # IAS IN000016], CC BY 2.0.
Abraham Lincoln commemorative plaque in Indianapolis, Indiana. via Wikipedia Saves Public Art – Flickr: Lincoln Plaque by Rudolf Schwarz (1907) [Control # IAS IN000016], CC BY 2.0.
Lincoln was to depart Indianapolis at 11 a.m. the next day, 12 February 1861, but the crowds began to assemble at the Bates House by daybreak. It seems logical that Abram would have been a part of that crowd too, possibly sneaking out the window before his parents awakened if he was as ornery as it seems.

Abraham Lincoln strode out to the hotel balcony to be seen by the clamoring crowds again. They demanded that Mr. Lincoln give another speech, but he made his excuses. Then it was a struggle to get him into a carriage for the ride to the train station because of the crowds, more wanting to see him and shake his hand. There were so many people in the street that the horses could barely move toward the railroad depot. They did arrive at the train finally, where there was another crowd waiting to see the President-Elect. At long last he was able to get on the train, which was decorated with flags, a golden eagle, and thirty-four white stars on a blue field around the smokestack. As the train steamed off, people followed down the track. Can’t you just imagine Abram running free, waving an American flag and shouting, “Mr. President! Mr. Lincoln!” as the train chugged out of sight?

The Pinkertons might have breathed a bit of a sigh of relief once Lincoln and his family were on the train. They still had to be very cautious however, and watchmen stood along the railroad tracks one-half mile apart, waving an American flag to let the train engineer and detectives know that the tracks were safe to proceed. Lincoln actually got off the train as it neared Baltimore, Maryland, considered a southern state with slaveowners and a strong opposition to Lincoln. The President-Elect sneaked through the city in the dead of night in disguise, in order to avoid any possible assassins.

Lincoln was ridiculed for cowardice by avoiding the crowds of Baltimore who were waiting to see him. He did go on to redeem himself as a wise and brave President in our bloodiest war, as we all know.

The Springsteens may have shaken Lincoln’s hand during his visit to Indianapolis, although it seems that surely this event would have been a part of the family story if true. (The crowds were so enormous that it would have been quite a feat to get that close.) Nevertheless, this information does answer the question of probable truth or family lore- the Springsteens could have seen President Lincoln on 11 February 1861 in Indianapolis, Indiana, and most likely did if the story was passed down through four generations. Lincoln’s speeches would have inspired a young boy to be a part of protecting the Union, and it thus may not have been Lincoln’s call to arms in April that moved Abram to beat his drum at the recruiting office- he may have started right after Lincoln left town in February. And now, we understand the excitement of that day, and what it must have been like for our Springsteen family in February, 1861.


The next time Lincoln came to Indianapolis was in his funeral train. The President would lie in state in the Indiana capital on 30 April 1865. Was our Springsteen family included in the crowd that was even larger than the crowds at Lincoln’s 1861 visit? We do not know. It was a rainy, miserable day but thousands stood in line to view the coffin in the rotunda of the capital, and the city was draped in the black of mourning. Our Abram could not be a part of this day, as he was not mustered out of the service until seven weeks later, on 21 June 1865. He does mention the death of his President and Commander-in-Chief in his diary:

“We received the news of the assassination of President Lincoln, just as we were entering Raleigh [North Carolina] and it was with great difficulty that the officers in charge of the troops prevented them from burning the town.”

It would take a long time to heal the country.


Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1. History of Indianapolis, Indiana, Wikipedia- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Indianapolis
  2. Lincoln’s Inaugaration Journey – Indianapolis:  http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM11MR
  3. Lincoln- assassination attempts just after election (Baltimore Plot):
  4. “Mr. Lincoln Goes to Washington” by Paul Fatout in the Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 47, Issue 4, pp 321-332. http://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/8077/9867
  5.  “Lincoln In Indianapolis” by George S. Cottman. Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 24, Issue 1, pp 1-14, 1928.
  6. A maul is a large, heavy, hammer with a wedge-shaped head that is used to split rails, which Lincoln had done quite a lot of as a young man on the Illinois prairie. Rails are the horizontal supports on a fence.
  7. Lincoln Commemorative Plaque in Indianapolis, Indiana-https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Lincoln_(relief_by_Schwarz)
  8. Diary of Abram F. Springsteen, written after the war, family manuscript. Thank you to the wonderful cousins who shared this treasure!


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