Abraham Lincoln the Athlete

Abraham Lincoln the Athlete

Frank Maurer, Engraving, Momus, 1860
“For such an awkward fellow, I am pretty sure-footed. It used to take a pretty dextrous man to throw me,” recalled President Lincoln on the night of his reelection as President in 1864. “I remember, the evening of the day in 1858, that decided the contest for the Senate between Mr Douglas and myself, was something like this, dark, rainy & gloomy. I had been reading the returns, and had ascertained that we had lost the Legislature and started to go home. The path had been worn hog-back & was slippery. My foot slipped from under me, knocking the other one out of the way, but I recovered myself and lit square, and I said to myself, ‘It’s a slip and not a fall.'”1
For Mr. Lincoln, athletics was not just a way of explaining his political situation. It was a way into politics. He was naturally competitive. Dennis Hanks, a relative who grew up with Lincoln in Indiana, recalled that Lincoln “was ambitious & determined & when he attempted to Excel by man or boy while whole soul & his Energies were bent on doing it.”2 Harvey Lee Ross remembered: New Salem, at the time Mr. Lincoln lived there, was a great place of resort for the young men to gather on Saturdays. The Clary Grove boys, the Island Grove boys, the Sangamon River boys and the Sand Ridge boys, each designated by the part of the country from which they came, would gather there to indulge in horse racing, foot racing, wrestling, jumping, ball playing and shooting at a mark. Mr. Lincoln would generally take a lay-off for part of the day and join in the sport. He was very stout and active and was a match for any of them. I do not think he bet on any of the games or races, but they had so much confidence in his honesty, and that he would see fair play, that he was often chose as a judge to determine the winner, and his decisions were always regarded as just.”3
Most celebrated was his 1831 wrestling match with Jack Armstrong, leader of the Clary Grove boys. One New Salem resident recalled that Jack Armstrong “was considered the best man in all this country for a scuffle. In a wrestle, shoulder or backhold[s], there was only now and then a man he couldn’t get away with. When Lincoln came into this country there was a crowd called the Clary Grove boys, who pretty much had their way, and Jack Armstrong was the leader among them. Most every new man who came into the neighborhood had to be tried. Lincoln was pretty stout and the boys made it up to see what there was in him. They got him to talking about wrestling one day, and he said he could throw any man around there. Bill Clary kept at Lincoln until he got him into a bet of $5. Then he put Jack Armstrong against him. They were pretty well matched, but Abe was a good deal taller and could bend over Jack.4 William Greene recalled that ” after they had worked for a long time, [Jack] caught him by leg [and] got better him. L said if they wanted to fight he would try that. Jack quailed and called it drawn.”5
The match has been the subject of numerous and very different versions. Daniel Green Burner remembered: “I suppose you have heard of Lincoln’s wrestling match with Jack Armstrong. I saw part of that. Armstrong was one of the Clary Grove gang and it was their habit to initiate newcomers into town. Lincoln was tall, ungainly, awkward, and was bantered by this crowd. These fellows would come into New Salem, get drunk, and would handle a novice roughly. Lincoln finally wagered Armstrong $10 that he could find a man who could throw him. The challenge was accepted and the next Saturday was set for the time. When the Armstrong gang arrived Lincoln told them that his man had not yet come. They waited around and became impatient and finally Armstrong demanded of Lincoln the $10. Lincoln replied:

‘Look here, Jack, my man isn’t here yet, but rather than lose that $10 I will wrestle with you myself .’
“They went at it, and Lincoln just fooled with Armstrong until he had tired him completely out. Then he swung his long leg over Armstrong’s neck and made Armstrong run around holding him up in that position. Jack finally begged off, admitting he was beaten and offered Lincoln the $10, which Lincoln refused to take. The two were ever afterward warm friends. I saw all the last part of this match, and it was highly amusing. The story about Lincoln rubbing smartweed in his face is untrue.”6

“Uncle Johnny” Porter recalled: “They wrestled a good while, and I think Abe had thrown Jack two points and was likely to get him down. Clary, I expect, thought the was in danger of losing his money for he called out: ‘Throw him anyway, Jack.’ At that Jack loosed his back hold and grabbed Abe by the thigh threw him in a second. Abe got up pretty mad. He didn’t say much, but he told somebody that if it ever came right, he would give Bill Clary a good licking. You see the hold Jack took was fair in a scuffle, but not in a wrestle, and they were wrestling. After that Abe was considered one of the Clary’s Grove boys. I believe they called him president of their club. Abe and Jack got to be great friends and Abe used to stay at Jack’s house.”7
Thompson G. Onstott recalled that the Clary’s Grove “boys began to size up ‘Uncle Abe’ and concluded to try his metal, so they consulted and made him an alternative. First he was to run a foot race [with] a man from Wolf. ‘Trot him out,’ said Abe. Second he was to wrestle with a man from Little Grove. ‘All right,’ said Abe. ‘Third, he must fight a man from Sand Ridge. ‘Nothing wrong about that,’ said Abe.

An expert foot race from Wolf was distanced in the race. After a few minutes rest a Little Grove man stripped for the wrestle. ‘What holds do you prefer?’ ‘Suit yourself,’ said Abe. ‘Catch-as-catch-can,’ said the man from the Grove. They stood about twenty feet apart and went at each other like two rams. Abe’s opponent was a short, heavy set fellow and came with his head down expecting to butt Abe and upset him, but Abe was not built that way. He stepped aside and caught the fellow by the nap of the neck, threw him heels over head and gave him a fall hard enough to break every bone in his body. This woke the boys up and they retired again to consult. Abe was now getting mad. ‘Bring in your man from Sand Ridge,’ said he, ‘I can do him up in three shakes of a sheep’s tail, and I can whip the whole pack of you if you give me ten minutes between fights.’ The committee now came forward and gave him the right hand of fellowship and said, ‘You have sand in your craw and we will take you into our crowd as you are worthy to associate with us.’ From that time on Abe was king among them. His word was law. He was their judge in horse and foot races and all of them would have fought for him if Abe had shown the ‘white feather.'”8

Mr. Lincoln did not stoop to the level of such contemporaries, however. “Lincoln was as full of fun as a dog is of fleas, and yet he was not guilty of mean tricks,” recalled Daniel Green Burner. “I never knew him to perform one. He had no part in the rowdyism of the Clary Grove gang. They had queer notions of fun. I remember that one evening this crowd came in and got gloriously drunk. What did they do but thrust a helpless, drunken old man into a hogshead, nail on the cover, and then started the hogshead rolling down the steep hill toward the mill. Fortunately, part way down the big barrel struck a stump and was broken to pieces, releasing the captive. But for this accident the victim would probably have been drowned in the river. Lincoln would stoop to no such performance as this.” 9 Lincoln biographer Alonzo Rothschild wrote: “The pastimes of these wild young fellows, no less than their quarrels, suffered a change under the pressure of Lincoln’s authority. He vetoed one of the gang’s favorite diversions, that of rolling persons who had incurred their displeasure down a perilously steep hill in a hogshead.10
Mr. Lincoln had other standards. Historian David Herbert Donald wrote that Mr. Lincoln “enjoyed ‘scientific’ wrestling, a style in which opponents, followed agreed-on-rules, begin by taking holds and attempting to throw each other.”11 As an militia officer in the Black Hawk War, Mr. Lincoln took a “prominent part” in wrestling matches. “I think it is safe to say he was never throw in a wrestle. While in the army he Kept a handkerchief tied round him very near all the time for wrestling purposes and Love the sport as well as any man could,” recalled one fellow soldier.12 “Very few men in the army could successfully complete with Mr[.] Lincoln, either in wrestling or swimming; he well understood both arts.”13 Another testified that “His Specialty was Side holds; he threw down all men.”14 Still another fellow soldier recalled that Lincoln “was with them all the while in Jumping or foot Racing and Lincoln done the wrestling for the Company against every Bully Brought up”.15
But once Lincoln had to use his strength against his own men when they threatened to kill an old Indian who came into their camp. Captain Lincoln bravely blocked them. Longtime friend William G. Greene remembered: Lincoln stood between the Indian & the vengeance of the outraged soldiers – brave, good & true.” When the challenges continued, Mr. Lincoln said “if any man thinks I am a coward let him test it.” The mob backed down when Lincoln challenged his antagonists to “choose your weapon.”16
Mr. Lincoln’s strength was legendary. “Physically, Mr. Lincoln was the strongest man I ever knew,” recalled Daniel Green Burner, “That is saying a good deal. Let me tell you what I saw him do. He took a full barrel of whisky, containing forty-four gallons, gripping each end with one hand, raised it deliberately to his face and drank from the bunghole. In doing this he won a $10 hat from Bill Green. In the grocery I have often seen him pick up a barrel of whisky, place it on the counter, and then lower it on the other side.”17
Joseph Gillespie wrote that “Physically, Mr. Lincoln was a Hercules. I first saw him in 1832, while he was engaged in a wrestling-match with one [Lorenzo Dow] Thompson, who was a champion, in that line, of the southern portion of Illinois, while Lincoln occupied that position as to what was then the northern portion. It was a terrible tussle, but Lincoln was too much for him.” 18 William G. Greene recalled: “We Sangamon county boys believed Mr. Lincoln could throw any one, and the Union county boys knew no one could throw Thompson; so we staked all slick and well-worn quarters and empty bottles on the wrestle. The first fall was clearly in Thompson’s favor, but Lincoln’s backers claimed that it was what, in those days, was called a ‘dog-fall.’ Thompson’s backers claimed the stakes, while we demurred, and it really looked, for some time, as though there would be at least a hundred fights as a result. Mr. Lincoln, after getting up and brushing the dust and dirt off of his jean pants, said: ‘Boys, give up your bet; if he has not throw me fairly, he could.’ Every bet was at once surrendered, and peace and order were restored in a minute.”19
This was a very rare defeat for Mr. Lincoln, recalled a contemporary. 20 In 1864, Greene had a conversation with President Lincoln at the White House during which he asked Greene: “Bill, what ever became of our old antagonist, Thompson, that big curly-headed fellow who threw me at Rock Island?’ When Greene said he didn’t know, the President joked that “if he knew where he was living he would give him a post-office, by way of showing him that he bore him no ill-will.”21
Among his talents was jumping. Mr. Lincoln “hopped well – in 3 hopes he would go 40.2 on a dead level.”22 Another friend recalled that “he was seldom ever Beat Jumping.”23 William B. Thompson remembered his merchant father was an accomplished athlete when he first met Mr. Lincoln in New Salem: “As he rode up, he noted the number of horses hitched to the rack, and saw that the farmers were engaged in the popular amusement of ‘three jumps.’ This was an athletic performance in which Mr. Thompson excelled. The young merchant from Beardstown lost no time getting into the game. He was astonished to see the new clerk, whom everybody called ‘Abe,’ toe the mark, swing forward in three standing jumps and pass his own scratch by some inches. As Mr. Thompson told the story afterward, this was the first time he had ever been beaten at ‘three jumps.'”24
Contemporary Jason Duncan wrote: “Mr Lincoln would wait till all who were disposed to try their muscles had their best jumps, then come forward with a heavy weight in each hand with his long muscular legs raise himself from the ground and light far beyond the most successful champion, indeed so far generally, that the man who would under take to over reach it, would become the laughing stock of the crowd.”25
In middle age, Mr. Lincoln’s sport of choice was a game of “Fives” involving two, two-man teams that tried to hit the ball out of their opponents’ reach. Dr. Preston H Bailhache recalled: “Just off the corner of the Public Square the Illinois State Journal publishing house was located, and its big solid brick wall afforded a splendid place for playing a game called ‘Fives.’ When Mr. Lincoln went to the printing office for a talk or to get a lot of newspapers, he frequently joined with the boys in playing ‘Fives.’ This game is a sort of handball, in which players choose sides, and is begun by one of the boys bouncing the ball on the ground, and as it bounds back from the wall one of the opponents strikes it in the same manner, so that the ball is kept going back and forth against the wall until some one misses the rebound, which furnishes a very active and exciting contest. Here is where ‘Old Abe’ was always champion, for his long arms and long legs served a good purpose in reaching and returning the ball from any angle his adversary could send it to the wall.”26
Court clerk Thomas W. S. Kidd testified to Mr. Lincoln’s love of this game handball: “In 1859, Zimri A. Enos, Esq., Hon. Chas. A. Keyes, E. L. Baker, Esq., then editor of the Journal, William A. Turney, Esq., Clerk of the Supreme Court, and a number of others, in connection with Mr. Lincoln, had the lot, then an open one, lying between what was known as the United States Court Building, on the northeast corner of the public square, and the building owned by our old friend, Mr. John Carmody, on the alley north of it, on Sixth street, enclosed with a high board fence, leaving a dead wall at either end. In this ‘alley’ could be found Mr. Lincoln, with the gentlemen named and others, as vigorously engaged in the sport as though life depended upon it. He would play until nearly exhausted and then take a seat on the rough board benches arranged along the sides for the accommodation of friends and the tired players.”

Our old friend – now deceased – Patrick Stanley, had built an ‘alley’ in the rear of his grocery in the Second Ward, which is still standing, to accommodate his Irish-American friends, who have a native love for the same character of ball sport. On more than one occasion, ‘Old Abe’ could have been seen walking down there in company with Mr. Turney and others, who had the same fondness for the game, to test their skill with some of Mr. Stanley’s more robust friends. Mr. Lincoln was also very fond of the old game of ‘corner ball,’ and frequently joined these same gentlemen in excursions out of the city to get a pasture in which they might have a quiet game of ball. He was passionately fond of these ball games, not only for the sport they afforded, but for the better reasons that they gave him recreation from office labor and the mental toil in the studious preparations he made for his professional duties and the indefatigable study in other channels by this self-made man. Mr. Lincoln was just as much in earnest in playing these games as he was when on the stump, making a speech before a jury, in the argument of a cause, or when unraveling knotty law points before the court. I have sat and laughed many happy hours away watching a game of ball between him on one side and Hon. Chas. A. Keyes on the other. Mr. Keyes is quite a short man, but muscular, wiry and active as a cat, while his now more distinguished antagonist, as all now know, was tall and a little awkward, but which with much practice and skill in the movement of the ball, together with his good judgment, gave him the greatest advantage. In a very hotly contested game, when both sides were ‘up a stump’ – a term used by the players to indicate an even game – and while the contestants were vigorously watching every movement, Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Turney collided with such force that it came very near preventing his nomination to the Presidency, and giving to Springfield a sensation by his death and burial. Both were badly hurt, but not so badly as to discourage either from being found in the ‘alley’ the next day.27

Mr. Lincoln was even playing handball as he awaited the results of the presidential nominating convention in Chicago in May 1860. John Carmody recalled that about that time: “An incident took place, during one of those games, which I have retained clearly in my memory. I had a nephew named Patrick Johnson who was very expert in the game. He struck the ball in such a manner that it hit Mr. Lincoln in the ear. I ran to sympathize with him and asked if he was hurt. He said he was not, and as he said it he reached both of his hands toward the sky. Straining my neck to look up into his face, for he was several inches taller than I was, I said to him, ‘Lincoln, if you are going to heaven, take us both.'” 28


  1. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay (November 8, 1864) p. 244.
  2. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 42 (Letter from Dennis F. Hanks to William H. Herndon, June 13, 1865).
  3. Harvey Lee Ross, The Early Pioneers and Pioneer Events of the State of Illinois, p. 122.
  4. Walter B. Stevens, edited by Michael Burlingame, A Reporter’s Lincoln, pp. 6-7.
  5. Roy P. Basler, editor, James Quay Howard’s Notes on Lincoln, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume IV, December 1947, No. 8, p. 399.
  6. Daniel Green Burner, The “Lincoln and The Burners at New Salem,” Many Faces of Lincoln, pp. 190-191.
  7. Walter B. Stevens, edited by Michael Burlingame, A Reporter’s Lincoln, pp. 6-7.
  8. Thompson G. Onstott, Pioneers of Menard and Mason Counties, pp. 72-73.
  9. Daniel Green Burner, The “Lincoln and The Burners at New Salem,” Many Faces of Lincoln, pp. 190-191.
  10. Alonzo Rothschild, Lincoln, Master of Men, p. 23.
  11. David Herbert Donald, “We Are Lincoln Men” Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, p. 13.
  12. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, Interview with James Gourley, ca. 1865-1866, p. 363.
  13. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 554 (Letter from George M. Harrison to William H. Herndon , January 29, 1867).
  14. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 451 (Interview with William G. Green, May 30, 1865).
  15. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 554 (Letter from Benjamin F. Irwin to William H. Herndon, January 29, 1867).
  16. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 451 (Interview with James Gourley, ca. 1865-1866).
  17. Daniel Green Burner, The “Lincoln and The Burners at New Salem,” Many Faces of Lincoln, p. 190.
  18. Osborn H. Oldroyd, editor, The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles, p. 461.
  19. Osborn H. Oldroyd, editor, The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles, p. 516 (William G. Greene).
  20. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, p. 373 Herndon’s Informants, (Interview with Royal Clary, ca. October 1866)
  21. Osborn H. Oldroyd, editor, The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles, pp. 516-517 (William G. Greene).
  22. Osborn H. Oldroyd, editor, The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles, p. 451.
  23. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, William Miller statement, ca. September 1866, p. 363.
  24. Walter B. Stevens, edited by Michael Burlingame, A Reporter’s Lincoln, p. 8.
  25. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 541 (Letter from Jason Duncan to William H. Herndon, May 28, 1865)
  26. “Lincolniana Notes: Recollections of a Springfield Doctor”, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, June 1954, p. 60.
  27. Thomas W. S. Kidd, “How Abraham Lincoln Received the News of His Nomination for President,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, April-July 1922, pp. 508-509.
  28. Walter B. Stevens, edited by Michael Burlingame, A Reporter’s Lincoln, p.140.