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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

The Terrible Toll of a Presidency

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

On this President’s Day, Notes from the Frontier honors perhaps our greatest U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln. Much has been written about the dramatic aging process of President Lincoln during his four-and-a-half years in the White House. Considered by many scholars and historians to be our greatest president, his tenure was marked by the most deadly war in our nation’s history that shook the foundations of our republic’s unity. Only George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt had tenures even close in the degree of danger posed to the very survival of our nation.

Serving as President during a bloody Civil War would—alone—cause a leader to age. But other major factors also contributed to Lincoln’s aging. The first three years of the war were catastrophic for the Union. It lost many major battles in those first years, including Fort Sumter, First Battle of Bull Run, Battle of Seven Days, Second Battle of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, and Cold Harbor.

Add to the war the many personal tragedies in Lincoln’s life. Foremost among them was the fact that his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was believed to be mentally ill and had several nervous breakdowns during their stay in the White House. (Some medical historians today believe that she actually suffered from pernicious anemia, not mental illness. Either way, she suffered severe symptoms similar to bipolar disorder, depression, extreme anxiety, irritability, delusions, and hallucinations.) Both Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln had to endure ruthless derision from the public for her unfortunate condition. Lincoln himself suffered depression all his life and struggled mightily through the many tribulations of his tenure as President.

Lincoln's first full year in office was very rough. In April 1861, Fort Sumter falls to the Confederacy. In May 1861 he loses his close friend, Elmer Ellsworth who is killed in Alexandria, VA. In July 1861, the Union suffers a devastating defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run.

The year 1862 was not any better. In February 1862, Lincoln tragically loses his young 11-year-old son Willie, whom he adores. In July 1862 the Union loses the Seven Days Battle. In September 1862, Lincoln issues the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to great controversary. And in December 1862, the Union loses the battle of Fredericksburg.

In late 1863 to early 1864 Lincoln contracted small pox, and it is during this period that his physical aging is most dramatic. It would not be until the Battle and Siege of Vicksburg in the summer of 1863 before the war would finally take a turning point in the North’s favor. But, even after that, the Confederacy would continue to win major battles at great cost to the Union.

Following are lists of the events that took place during the years corresponding with the images of Abraham Lincoln above and the train of events Lincoln endured during his presidency. At least he was able to see the end of the war and a Union victory. It was only nine days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox that Lincoln was assassinated. These images give us a glimpse of the debt of gratitude we owe such a man, who paid a tremendous cost not only with his health, but with “the last full measure of devotion”—his life.


Feb  Delivers Cooper Union Address

May  Nominated for President of the United States

Oct    Receives suggestion from a young girl that he should grow a beard

Nov   Elected President of the United States

Dec    South Carolina secedes from the Union


Feb    Confederate States of America is formed

Mar   Inaugurated as 16th President of the United States

Apr    Attack on Fort Sumter, SC-Union surrenders fort

May   Family friend Elmer Ellsworth killed in Alexandria, VA

July    Battle of First Bull Run (Manassas)- Union loses badly

Nov    Trent Affair with Great Britain


Feb     Battles of Fort Henry-first major win for Union and Grant

Feb     Son William (Willie) dies from typhoid fever

Apr    Battle of Shiloh—Union wins

May   Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley – Union wins

June   Battle of Seven Days’ – Confederate wins against McClellan

Aug    Battle of Second Bull Run (Manassas) – Confederate wins

Sept   Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) – Union wins

Sept Issues Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

Dec   Battle of Fredericksburg – Confederacy wins


Jan      Issues Final Emancipation Proclamation

May    Battle of Chancellorsville, Confederacy wins

July    Battle of Gettysburg-Union wins but with huge losses

July    Surrender of Vicksburg, MS- Union wins but at great cost

Sept    Battle of Chickamauga – Confederacy wins

Nov     Delivers Gettysburg Address

Nov     Contracts smallpox

Nov     Battle of Chattanooga – Union wins


Mar    Appoints U.S. Grant Commander-in-Chief of Union Army

May   Battle of the Wilderness – draw between North and South

June   Battle of Cold Harbor-Confederacy wins in

June   Siege of Petersburg, VA by Union army

Sept   Battle of Atlanta-Union victory

Nov    Re-elected President of the United States

Dec     Battle of Nashville-Union victory destroys Army of Tennessee

Dec     Capture of Savannah, GA by Union army


Jan    Congress Passes 13th Amendment to the Constitution

Mar   Delivers Second Inaugural Address

Apr    Robert E. Lee Surrenders to U. S. Grant

Apr    Nine days later, Abraham Lincoln is assassinated

See related post: The Gettysburg Address.


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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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