Centrepiece Online | Spring 2009
by Mike Norris, Director of Communications
In the past year Centre has seen, as Led Zeppelin might have put it, "a whole lotta Lincoln."
One reason is that the College's "Year of Lincoln" was, well, longer than a year. It actually began in October of 2007 when the former Beta Theta Pi fraternity house/former Centre Shoppes located opposite the Presbyterian Church on Main Street was dedicated as "Stuart Hall.
The building was named for John Todd Stuart, Class of 1826, in recognition of the formative role he played in the life of Abraham Lincoln. As a lot more people know now than did two years ago, Stuart persuaded the 23-year-old Lincoln to give up plans to become a blacksmith; loaned him law books to study; took him in as a law partner; and, after his assassination, chaired the National Lincoln Monument Association, which built the tomb in which the fallen president is buried in Springfield, Illinois.
The Year of Lincoln was intended to make the Stuart/Lincoln connection better known, explore other Centre/Lincoln connections, and engage the College community in a personal way in the nationwide buildup to the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. The long list of Year of Lincoln activities includes —
Connections Pour In
Then there is Rick Dixon ’75 whose great-great-great uncle gave Lincoln his famous nickname of "Railsplitter." The uncle was Richard James Oglesby, a Kentucky native who served Illinois as both governor and U.S. senator. Even more amazing, Oglesby was with Lincoln on the day of his assassination and was in the room when the wounded president died the next morning.
"On April 14, 1865, upon returning to the White House, Lincoln saw Oglesby leaving with some other acquaintances and shouted out: 'Don't go, boys!' Dixon wrote. "They stayed, chatted and read aloud from works of humor, until Lincoln was called off for dinner (for the third time).
"Lincoln had to eat early as he had agreed, reluctantly, to go to the theater that night for a production of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater. Lincoln invited 11 people to accompany him and Mary Todd, [including] Oglesby. All declined for various reasons.
"When Oglesby was informed later that evening that the president had been shot, "Dixon continued, "he rushed to the back room of the Peterson house, across the street from the theatre, to comfort his fellow Kentuckian, Mary Todd, and to stand in vigil for his fallen friend. He was in the room when the President died on April 15, shortly after 7 a.m. and, is so depicted in many engravings of the scene."
And finally there is John McClellan ’56 who told of his great-grandmother describing the impact of a chance meeting with Abraham Lincoln.
McClellan writes: "In 1952 (the year before I started at Centre) I was speaking with my great grandmother, who was age 106 at the time, and asked her what was the most memorable day of her life. With no hesitation she answered, 'Easy! The day I shook hands with Abraham Lincoln.' She was fifteen at the time and a train of four cars carrying the President stopped in Muhlenberg County 'to take on water for the engine.' He got off the train and was walking along side of the train and she and four other children approached him and began talking. 'Then three bullies jumped off the train and tried to run us off, but Mr. Lincoln said leave them alone, they won't hurt anything.' So they talked a while and then he shook each of their hands and got back on the train."
Other Historic Connections
Breckinridge was a U.S. representative, senator from Kentucky, and at age 35 was elected 14th Vice President of the United States on the Democratic ticket with James Buchanan as President. He was and remains the youngest Vice President in U.S. history.
In 1860 he ran against Lincoln for President and finished second in electoral votes in a four-man race, carrying 11 states to Lincoln's 18. The race put him at odds with his uncle, Robert J. Breckinridge, who supported Lincoln and for whom Breckinridge Hall is named.
As a senator Breckinridge urged that Kentucky remain in the Union, but held that states did have the right to secede. He served as a major general for the Confederacy during the Civil War and in 1865 was made Confederate States Secretary of War. After being granted amnesty, he practiced law in Lexington, where he strongly opposed the activities of the Ku Klux Klan.
Joseph Holt, Class of 1824, served briefly as President James Buchanan's Secretary of War. In 1862 Lincoln appointed him Judge Advocate General of the United States, a position he held until 1875. In his official position, Holt prosecuted the John Wilkes Booth assassination conspirators at the military trial. All eight of the accused were found guilty, and four were hanged.
Centre, Lincoln, and Public Awareness
A recent article in the Chicago Sun Times on parallels between Barak Obama and Abraham Lincoln (both lawyers, served Illinois in Congress, arrived in D.C. by train for inauguration, etc.) would indicate that Centre is also beginning to gain wider recognition for its piece of the Lincoln story. The end of the article cites five sources: Bloomberg News, Forbes magazine, papersofabrahamlincoln.org, World Book encyclopedia, and…Centre College.
Centre also has connections to the Lincoln legacy through Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, and Chief Justice of the United States Fred Vinson…but that chapter of Centre College’s contribution to the struggle for equal rights is a story for another time.
For other Centre connections, script of the Lincoln-Stuart play, and much more, go to www.centre.edu/lincoln