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The Prince of Rails

I took a trip to Washington, D.C., to the National Museum of American History recently, to see "Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life" before it closed. Braving throngs of tourists and students, I edged my way through the crowds of sweating people. I'm glad there were crowds there, right up to the last minute.

The exhibit showed many of the physical objects associated with Lincoln's life. They had the iron wedge Lincoln used as a young man to split rails. Even in his fifties, Lincoln could hold an axe at arm's length between his fingers. That was no mean feat of physical strength.

As a teen, Lincoln became a champion wrestler, showing amazing skill. The experience would serve him well when he debated Brandon, Vt., native son U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois in 1858. Lincoln, a respected lawyer and one-term congressman, used his Democratic opponent's worldwide fame against him. Those debates were printed and distributed. They made Lincoln's reputation among the ranks of the new Republican Party and positioned him for the presidency two years later.

I saw Lincoln's gold watch. That log cabin birthplace and those too-short homespun trousers are surely part of the Lincoln legend, but so is his pride in his success as a courtroom lawyer. Oddly, Lincoln's watch is engraved. Inside the works, a Washington, D.C. jeweler inscribed "Jeff Davis."

What? Who would dare put the name of Lincoln's Confederate rival inside the watch of the President of the United States? It might have been a joke. Or an act of defiance? That jeweler might have been secesh. The nation's capital was full of Southern sympathizers.

Good for the unnamed jeweler, anyway. Perhaps he meant that time was running out for Jefferson Davis. Indeed, it was running out for the Confederacy as well as for the man who saved the Union.

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