Looking for Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln’s presence in Alton can still be seen today – literally.
The Lincoln-Douglas Square, site of the last debate between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, features statues of both figures engaged in a spirited discussion, one of the many reminders of Lincoln’s ties to the Great Rivers & Routes area.
It’s all here in one of the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area’s gateways to the influential Illinois politician. Happy exploring!
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Lincoln — Douglas Square
"A House Divided against itself cannot stand" - Lincoln delivered his famous House Divided speech in Alton, Illinois on October 15th 1858. The speech was part of a series of seven historic senatorial debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln challenged Douglas to the debates in July and the debates took place across all seven senatorial districts of Illinois from August to October, each debate lasting three hours. The debates garnered national attention and were attended by important political figures and representatives, press from across the country, and the last debate swelled with over 5,000 spectators. The debate in Alton was the finale of the series and took place on the corner of Broadway and Market Street in front of Alton City Hall.
Lincoln campaigned on an anti-slavery platform and Douglas' platform focused on the premise of state's rights. Both men were in their 40's, intelligent, and great speakers; Douglas was shorter, broad, with a deep voice and Lincoln was tall and thin with a high voice. Lincoln's House Divided quote struck a chord with the religious populace- originally a Biblical quote by Jesus. Lincoln emphasized the importance of a unified country and asserted that the United States could not survive with half slave and half free states. Douglas, who wrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowing inhabitants of new states to decide whether to be slave or free states, argued that outlawing slavery would make black citizens believe themselves equal to white citizens and that states rights were paramount over national rights. Lincoln himself did not believe in full equality but believed slavery was a moral, social, and political evil- against the American Constitution- that had the capacity to tear apart the country.
Only one year previous, the U.S. Supreme Court Dred-Scott case declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820, banning slavery north of the latitude 36° 20' N, to be unconstitutional, causing wider divides between abolitionists and pro-slavery groups. The debates were considered a draw, with Douglas continuing on to win the senatorial seat, but Lincoln's speech went down in history as one of the most important and poignant speeches given during his political career. Lincoln beat Douglas for the presidency in 1860 only five years later and on December, 6th, 1865 the 13th Amendment, written by Alton native Lyman Trumbull, was ratified, formally ending slavery in the U.S. once and for all. Though the amendment did not end racial discrimination, it was a major step in the development of the Civil Rights Movement.
Lincoln-Douglas Square was erected in 1995 using funds raised by the sale of engraved bricks used in building the courtyard. The two bronze statues were commissioned by the Alton-Godfrey Rotary Club and sculpted by Boerne, Texas artist Jerry McKenna. The Citizens of Alton and The Exchange Club of Alton dedicated the square on October, 15, 1995. The square sits on the former site of Alton City Hall, destroyed by fire in 1924, and is a stop on the Lincoln Legacy Trail.
While a member of the state legislature in 1842, Abraham Lincoln butted heads with state Auditor James Shields. Shields, who eventually became the only politician to serve as a senator in 3 separate states, was criticized by Lincoln for his method of collecting taxes. To show his contempt for the man, Lincoln started a series of letters to the Sangamon Journal from the point of view of a widow called the "Lost Townships." The letters made satirical allusions to Shields and made fun of his tactics. Making things worse, Mary Todd Lincoln and a friend named Julia Jayne joined in, writing scathing personal letters to Shields calling him a fool and a liar.
When Shields learned Lincoln was complicit in writing the letters, he challenged Lincoln to a duel. According to tradition, the person challenged is the one who chooses both the location and the weapons used in a duel. Lincoln considered it ludicrous, but chose an open site on the western side of the river from Alton on Sunflower Island (later called Smallpox Island). Lincoln's weapons of choice were cavalry broadswords "of the largest size."
On September, 22, 1842 Shields arrived to face Lincoln and found him hacking away at an unfortunate willow tree. Seeing the long-armed reach of Lincoln and the ferocity with which he hammered at the tree, Shields quickly changed his mind about the duel and decided to settle the disagreement in a more civil manner.
The historic site marker for the Lincoln - Shields duel is on the Riverwalk across from the Alton Amphitheater overlooking the river.
Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail
Go on a Civil War era adventure- visit nine historic locations in the Alton area on a self-guided audio tour. See the monument to Elijah P. Lovejoy, martyr to the cause of the abolitionist movement, the home of Lyman Trumbull who authored the 13th Amendment, the square where Lincoln debated Douglas and gave his House Divided speech, two cemeteries dedicated to each side of the Civil War, a confederate prison, several buildings in which Lincoln worked and lodged, and an island of illness and duels.
Alton served as an important crossroads in American history. The town was used as a jumping point for westward expansion, as a base for the union’s fight against confederates in St. Louis, as a harbor for travel on the Mississippi, and produced materials during the industrial revolution imperative to the growth of America as we know it. Alton was home to many abolitionists, and fantastic Victorian and federalist architecture from the Civil War era and beyond can be found on city streets.
Legacy Trail guides available at the Alton Visitor Center at 200 Piasa Street downtown
Click the link to download the Lincoln Legacy Trail Audio Tour
Alton Historic Homes Tour guides also available at Visitor’s Center
Click the link to see the self-guided Alton Kit Homes Tour
Alton National Cemetery
Fought on American soil, the Civil War was the deadliest war in American history. More than three million men fought in this “war between the states” that claimed the lives of more than 620,000 soldiers. An estimated 263 Union soldiers are buried in Alton’s National Cemetery.
The original lot for the Alton National Cemetery existed as far back as 1870 but was not obtained by the American government until being donated by the Alton Cemetery Association in 1938 and dedicated on July 1st, 1940. According to 1870 reports, there were originally 163 Union soldiers and 12 unknowns buried in the plot- most having died in the Alton hospital or onboard Mississippi steamboats travelling the river. Administration was originally paid only $30 a year to maintain the plot.
After the Civil War, there were plans to move the soldiers interred in Alton to the Springfield National Cemetery, but those plans were cancelled after the Alton community protested. Between 1941 and 1942, the remains of 49 Union soldiers were moved from other sections of the Alton City Cemetery and reinterred on the federal plot. The Alton National Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 5th, 2011.
During the Civil War, a temporary tented area and wooden hospital on a Missouri island named Sunflower Island comprised the first hospital for patients of smallpox from the military prison at Alton. Patients who died of smallpox were buried on the island in the vicinity of the hospital. Today, a monument marks the grave site of the 260 Confederate prisoners buried near this site. The site also marks the location of the infamous "Lincoln-Shields Duel" of 1842.