Abe Lincoln and His Ax: Reality Behind the Legend

Abraham Lincoln has often been portrayed as "The Rail Splitter," the brawny frontiersman wielding a heavy ax and splitting logs used to make rail fences. In the election of 1860 he was popularized as "The Rail Candidate," and generations of biographers described him practically growing up with an ax in his hands.

In a popular modern novel blending history and horror, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, the mythology of Lincoln and his ax received a weird new twist, as he used his mighty weapon to strike, slash, and decapitate the undead. Trailers for the film based on the novel even featured the ax prominently, with Lincoln hurling it with deadly precision, like some 19th-century martial arts hero.

Those interested in legitimate history might ask: Was Lincoln really known to use an ax, or was all that just a mythical tale exaggerated for political purposes?

Lincoln did not kill vampires with his ax, of course, except at the movies. Yet the enduring legend of him swinging an ax — purely for constructive purposes — is indeed rooted in reality.

Lincoln Used an Ax In Childhood

Painting of young Abraham Lincoln reading while carrying an ax.
Getty Images

Lincoln's use of an ax began early in life. According to the first published biography of Lincoln, which was written by newspaperman John Locke Scripps in 1860 as a campaign pamphlet, an ax first made its appearance in Lincoln's youth.

The Lincoln family moved from Kentucky to Indiana in the autumn of 1816, at first living in a rough temporary shelter. In the spring of 1817, following Lincoln's eighth birthday, the family had to construct a permanent homestead.

As John Locke Scripps wrote in 1860:

The erection of a house and the felling of the forest was the first work to be done. Abraham was young to engage in such labor, but he was large of his age, stalwart, and willing to work. An ax was at once placed in his hands, and from that time until he attained his twenty-third year, when not employed in labor on the farm, he was almost constantly wielding that most useful implement.

Scripps had traveled to Springfield, Illinois in the late spring of 1860 to meet with Lincoln and gather material to write the campaign biography. And it is known that Lincoln offered corrections to the material and requested that inaccurate material about his youth be deleted.

So it seems Lincoln was comfortable with the story of him learning to use an ax in his boyhood. And perhaps he recognized that his history of working with an ax could have political advantages.

Lincoln's History With an Ax Was a Political Plus

Lincoln portrayed as the Rail Candidate in a political cartoon.
Getty Images

In early 1860 Lincoln traveled to New York City and gave a speech at Cooper Union which brought him national attention. He was suddenly viewed as a rising political star and a credible candidate for his party's presidential nomination.

Another potential candidate, William Seward, a U.S. Senator from New York, planned to upstage Lincoln in his own home state by securing a number of delegates for the party's presidential nomination during the Illinois Republican Party convention held in Decatur in early May.

One of Lincoln's best friends and political allies, Richard Oglesby, a future governor of Illinois, was quite familiar with Lincoln's stories of his early life. And he was aware that Lincoln, 30 years earlier, had worked with his cousin John Hanks, clearing land and making rail fences when the family had moved to a new homestead along the Sangamon River in Macon County, Illinois.

Oglesby asked John Hanks if he could find the location, between Springfield and Decatur, where they had felled trees and made fence rails in the summer of 1830. Hanks said he could, and the next day the two men set off in Oglesby's buggy.

As Oglesby told the story years later, John Hanks got out of the buggy, inspected some rail fences, scraped them with a pocketknife, and declared they were the very rails he and Lincoln had cut. Hanks knew them by the wood, black walnut, and honey locust.

Hanks also showed Oglesby some of the stumps where Lincoln had chopped down trees. Satisfied he had found rails made by Lincoln, Oglesby lashed two rails to the underside of his buggy and the men returned to Springfield.

Fence Rails Split By Lincoln Became a Sensation

During the Republican Party's state convention in Decatur, Richard Oglesby arranged for John Hanks, who was known to be a Democrat, to address the convention as a surprise guest.

Hanks walked into the convention carrying the two fence rails topped with a banner: 

Abraham Lincoln
The Rail Candidate for President in 1860
Two rails from a lot of 3,000 made in 1830 by John Hanks and Abe Lincoln,
Whose father was the first pioneer of Macon County

The state convention erupted in cheers, and the act of political theater worked: Seward's move to split the Illinois convention collapsed, and the entire state party got behind the move to nominate Lincoln.

At the Republican National Convention in Chicago a week later, Lincoln's political managers were able to secure the nomination for him. Once again the fence rails were displayed at the convention.

John Locke Scripps, in writing the Lincoln campaign biography, described how the fence rails cut by Lincoln's ax became an object of national fascination: 

Since then, they have been in great demand in every State in the Union in which free labor is honored, where they have been borne in processions of the people, and hailed by hundreds of thousands of freemen as a symbol of triumph, and as a glorious vindication of freedom, and of the rights and dignity of free labor.

The fact that Lincoln had used an ax, as a free laborer, thus became a mighty political statement in an election dominated by one issue: enslavement.

Scripps noted that fence rails even older than the ones John Hanks located in Illinois had become symbolic: 

These, however, were far from being the first or only rails made by young Lincoln. He was a practiced hand at the business. His first lesson had been taken while yet a boy in Indiana. Some of the rails made by him in that State have been clearly identified, and are now eagerly sought after. The writer has seen a cane, now in the possession of Mr. Lincoln, made since his nomination by one of his old Indiana acquaintances, from one of the rails split by his own hands in boyhood.

Throughout the 1860 campaign, Lincoln was often referred to as "The Rail Candidate." Political cartoons even portrayed him at times holding a fence rail.

One of the disadvantages Lincoln faced as a politician is that he was something of an outsider. He was from the West, and he was not well-educated. Other presidents had possessed much more governmental experience. But Lincoln could honestly portray himself as a working man.

During the 1860 campaign, some posters showing Lincoln included the ax as well as a mechanic's hammer. What Lincoln lacked in polish he more than made up for with his authentic roots as a man who had worked with his hands.

Lincoln Demonstrated His Ax Skills Late in the Civil War

At the end of the Civil War, Lincoln made a well-publicized visit to the front in Virginia. On April 8, 1865, At a military field hospital near Petersburg, he shook hands with hundreds of wounded soldiers.

As a Lincoln biography published soon after his assassination-related: 

"At one point in his visit he observed an ax, which he picked up and examined, and made some pleasant remark about his having once been considered a good chopper. He was invited to try his hand upon a log of wood lying near, from which he made the chips fly in primitive style."

A wounded soldier recalled the event years later: 

"After this handshaking, and before leaving, be picked up an ax in front of the steward's quarters and made the chips fly for about a minute, until he had to stop, fearful of chipping some of the boys, who were catching them on the fly."

According to some versions of the story, Lincoln also held the ax at arm's length for a full minute, demonstrating his strength. A few soldiers tried to duplicate the feat and found they couldn't.

The day after swinging an ax for the last time to the cheers of soldiers, President Lincoln returned to Washington. Less than a week later he would be assassinated at Ford's Theater.

The legend of Lincoln and the ax lived on. Paintings of Lincoln produced years after his death often featured him in his youth, wielding an ax. And pieces of fence rails said to have been split by Lincoln reside today in museums.

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McNamara, Robert. "Abe Lincoln and His Ax: Reality Behind the Legend." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/abe-lincoln-and-his-ax-reality-behind-the-legend-1773585. McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 27). Abe Lincoln and His Ax: Reality Behind the Legend. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/abe-lincoln-and-his-ax-reality-behind-the-legend-1773585 McNamara, Robert. "Abe Lincoln and His Ax: Reality Behind the Legend." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/abe-lincoln-and-his-ax-reality-behind-the-legend-1773585 (accessed June 10, 2023).