Abraham Lincoln in Illinois
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives
DOCUMENT 34REMINISCENCES OF WILLIAM L. WILSON TO ATTORNEY GENERAL JAMES MCCARTNEY REGARDING ABRAHAM LINCOLN
February 3, 1882
Following Lincoln's death his law partner, William H. Herndon, sought to preserve his memory by interviewing or writing questions to those who knew Lincoln as a youth. Herndon collected the interviews and the responses to his letters and, with Jesse William Weik, published Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (History & Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln) in 1888. Much of the information we know about Lincoln's childhood and young life came from the efforts of Herndon.
William L. Wilson was the author of this letter. While Herndon did not interview Wilson, he used the information from this letter for his book. Wilson's actual letter is in the possession of the Illinois State Archives because it was written to Illinois Attorney General James McCartney, thus making it an official state record. The Illinois State Archives only keeps official state records in its collection.
William L. Wilson enrolled in the Illinois militia in Rushville. Wilson was a private and Lincoln was a captain in the Fourth Regiment of the Whiteside Brigade. In the letter, Wilson discusses wrestling and running foot races with Lincoln, two activities that were popular among young men on the frontier. Herndon collected other stories about Lincoln doing similar athletic activities in his youth. Wilson also discusses the Battle of Stillman's Run, the first battle of the Black Hawk War and a resounding defeat for the Illinois militia. The Whiteside Brigade was not present at the battle.
Wilson's memory was not accurate in all details. Lincoln had little money at this time of his life and it is doubtful that he would actually bet money on a race. In addition, the "five-dollar bill" was not issued by the federal government until 1861. It is ironic that Wilson mentioned this bill because starting in 1923 the image of Abraham Lincoln has been used on five-dollar bills. Very few men ever beat Lincoln in wrestling or foot racing, and Wilson probably did not either.
Points to Consider
How trustworthy can the memories and recollections of a person be when they talk about their past relationship with a famous person?
Why does the State Archives have a copy of this letter?
Who was William H. Herndon and what role did he play in preserving Lincoln's memory?