By Renee HyltonFebruary 12, 2009
ARLINGTON, Va. (Army News Service, Feb. 12, 2009) - Feb. 12, 1809, is the birth date of Abraham Lincoln, the man who gets the most votes from historians and political scientists as the greatest U.S. president.
The self-educated man born in a one-room Kentucky log cabin was not without military experience when he assumed duties as the nation's commander-in-chief.
In 1832, Lincoln spent three months in the field as a member of the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War.
Lincoln, known for his humor and willingness to poke fun at himself, played down his military service.
He once declared in a congressional debate: "I fought, bled, and came away ... I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes."
Lincoln entered the militia as a private, but was soon elected commander of his company. During this period, many militia companies elected their officers.
Lincoln was commissioned as a captain in the 31st Regiment of Militia of Sangamon County, 1st Division on Dec. 20, 1832. He received command of a Rifle Company and his rank was backdated to April 7, 1831. Lincoln's company took its place in the 4th Regiment of Mounted Volunteers in Samuel Whiteside's Brigade, according to records in the Illinois State Military Museum.
Thirty years later, the experience of having spent three months in the field, as both an officer and a private, no doubt influenced his attitude toward the great armies of Citizen-Soldiers - on both sides - who fought the Civil War.
If Lincoln had not been president, the outcome of the war might have been very different.
Over the years, historians have speculated that without Lincoln's political skills, keeping the country going until he finally found the right set of commanders to defeat the Confederacy, the war-weary Northern states might have agreed to make peace, rather than seek victory on the battlefield.
Between his first inauguration in 1861 and his assassination in 1865, Lincoln made himself a student of military tactics and strategy.
As America celebrates the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches. It will probably be commemorated, in the words of Lincoln's great second inaugural address, now chiseled on the walls of his memorial, "with malice toward none, with charity for all."
(Renee Hylton serves as a National Guard Bureau historian.)