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161: Important Abe Lincoln "Rail Splitter" Archive from

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Important Abe Lincoln "Rail Splitter" Archive from 1860 Decatur Nominating Convention 

Descended directly in the Dyer family is this superbly documented souvenir piece of the wooden picture frame from a fence rail originally split by Lincoln and Hanks along with two hand-forged wrought iron nails. The souvenirs were retained by George Randolph Dyer, a Lincoln protégé and delegate from Joliet, and documented by him in a period manuscript note on lined paper that reads:

“A. Lincoln’s Fence-rail I (G.R. Dyer) was a delegate to the state convention at Decatur, Ills. that nominated Mr. Lincoln on his first nomination for the Presidency. John Hanks and Richard Oglesby went for them South about twenty miles to an enclosure, the rails of this fence were split by Abraham Lincoln and John Hanks. Hanks and Ogelsby brought two of these rails to the convention which they constructed into a crude frame placing Mr. Lincoln’s Photograph therein with this inscription “Our Next President.” I with others saved the rails in pieces of which this is one. The rails had been made about twenty-five (25) years (ago.)”

The hardwood piece is just over 3.5 inches long and about 0.5 inch square, housed in a period cylindrical pasteboard container made for hairpins bearing the elephant logo of “Kirby, Beard & Co. London.” The wood is flat on the square end and rough tapered on the other end without visible saw marks. The cut iron nails are typical of mid-19th century local manufacture measuring approximately 2.5 inches in length. The unassuming artifacts are nonetheless imbued with infinite symbolic value reflecting Lincoln’s humble origin that cemented his “Rail Splitter” moniker for the ages.

Giving life to the "Rail Splitter" story and the purposeful theatrics that played out at the Decatur Convention, the authoritative Lincoln scholar Michael Burlingame wrote: ”After the aspirants for governor had been placed in nomination but before the voting began, (Richard J.) Oglesby once again interrupted, announcing that “an old Democrat of Macon County…desired to make a contribution to the Convention.” The crowd yelled. “Receive it!” Thereupon Lincoln’s second cousin John Hanks, accompanied by a friend, entered the hall bearing two fence rails along with a placard identifying them thus: “Abraham Lincoln, the Rail Candidate for President in 1860. Two rails from a lot of 3,000 made in the 1830s by Thos. Hanks and Abe Lincoln…” Oglesby’s carefully-staged theatrical gesture, conjuring up images of the 1840 log-cabin-and cider campaign, electrified the crowd, which whooped and hollered for over ten minutes. In response to those thunderous cheers and calls of “Lincoln,” the candidate-to-be rose, examined the rails, then sheepishly told the crowd: “Well, gentlemen, I must confess I do not understand this; I don’t think I know any more about it than you do.” (This must have surprised some delegates, for the Illinois State Journal had the day before informed them that among “the sights which will greet your eyes will be a lot of rails, mauled…thirty years ago, by old Abe Lincoln and John Hanks.”) Lincoln added jocularly that the rails may have been hewn by him, “but whether they were or not, he had mauled many and many better ones since he had grown to manhood.” Another witness recalled Lincoln’s words slightly differently: “My old friend here, John Hanks, will remember I used to shirk splitting all the hard cuts. But if those two are honey locust rails, I have no doubt I cut and split them.” Once again the crowd cheered Lincoln, whose sobriquet “the rail-splitter” was born that day.” Lincoln, it is said, “was not greatly pleased with the rail incident,” disapproving of “stage tricks.” Nonetheless, after the meteoric success of the Convention, “Hanks returned Salem and collected more of the hallowed rails” which were later sold as souvenirs at “Sanitary Fairs” well into the Civil War. The “Rail-Splitter” phenomenon also encouraged a travailing trade of knock-offs. According to a noted Lincoln archivist, “second-hand splitter-peddlers” are known to have hawked the souvenirs in Illinois and, it is said, Kentucky later in 1860.

The field of Lincolniana readily embraces the genesis of the “Rail Splitter” story while acknowledging that the seemingly abundant supply of wooden relics — even those procured by Oglesby and Hanks — are difficult to authenticate with certainty. Passed down largely on the basis of hearsay and therefore lacking compelling provenance, Lincolniana has never been able to readily distinguish who gave what to whom? The politically savvy Oglesby “sent hundreds of rails to supporters of Lincoln in the weeks after the Decatur Convention,” according to an expert at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, Illinois. As noted, Hanks had retrieved more wood from Salem that was still being sold during the Civil War. The Smithsonian holds a well documented example with a chain of provenance dating back to a testimonial letter written by John Hanks. The aforementioned Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library has “four rails or pieces of rail from Lincoln’s past, including three supposedly from the Decatur Convention.” Other examples with varying degrees of provenance are known in both institutional and private collections. We believe that the substantive provenance accompanying the keepsake rail piece and nails offered here — authenticated in the hand of delegate George Randolph Dyer — to be on par with the Smithsonian artifact.

At the time of the Decatur Convention George Randolph Dyer was serving as the elected sheriff of Will County, Illinois, having moved from Chicago to settle and farm the area now known as Bolingbrook-Plainfield in 1841. George’s older brother, Doctor Charles Volney Dyer, was also prominent in the formative stages of Chicago arriving in 1835 as the acting post surgeon of Fort Dearborn. Both men became fervent abolitionists active in the “underground railroad” during the tumultuous 1850’s before embracing their friend Lincoln’s political aspirations. With established credentials the Dyer brothers were slated among the 645 delegates to the State Nominating Convention. That the brothers were deeply immersed in Republican party politics is illustrated by an accompanying note in reference to the hotly contested governor’s race written by Charles to his brother on the eve of the Convention, dated May 2, 1860: “Dear George, I am (as well as yourself) a delegate to Decatur & am as you know strongly in favor for Judd (Norman B. Judd, Republican State Chairman, key Lincoln advisor and candidate for governor). Charles warns George to watch for Swett (Leonard Swett, another Lincoln advisor and candidate for governor) supporters to “carry out a trade to get him out of Norton’s way…I shall meet you at the convention but in the meantime look to this Norton treachery” (Jesse O. Norton, former US Representative from Illinois and District Judge).

Abe Lincoln certainly counted George and Charles Dyer among his legion of friends and that connection—we really don’t know how close—went back to at least the early 1850s. Perfunctorily, the Lincoln Library in Springfield could “not find Mr. Dyer’s name in any correspondence to or from Lincoln, although not all of thousands and thousands of incoming letters to Lincoln have been indexed yet.” Still, a recent report written by the Chairman of the Village of Plainfield (Ill.) Historic Preservation Commission in 2009 opined that “it is highly likely though that he (Lincoln) did visit Plainfield on more than one occasion due to his close friendship with the members of the Dyer family of rural Plainfield.” The old Dyer farmhouse still stood in 1998 and “Lincoln may have been entertained…and quite possibly even slept in the house,” according to an authority on local history and the Dyer family.

The formal memorial published by the esteemed Commandery of the Illinois MOLLUS to deceased Companion George Randolph Dyer in October 1895 noted that he “was one of the first and most prominent members of the Republican party of Illinois, and so became a close friend of Lincoln, Lovejoy, Wentworth, and other leaders of the party in the state.” The History of the Kimball Family (related by marriage) published in 1897 is laced with platitudes to George Dyer stating that “He was one of the first and most active members of the Republican party, and although nearly alone, true to his freeborn instincts, he educated his neighbors to agree perfectly with Lincoln and Lovejoy, his personal friends, who he adorned, that slavery must be held in check at all hazards and at all costs, and must eventually be abolished.” Another more indulgent passage from Kimball reaffirms that, “Lincoln, Lovejoy, and Long John Wentworth were his intimate friends, and it is said that he has about as many stories to tell as were told by Lincoln.” A cryptic personal letter from Lincoln protégé Owen Lovejoy to George Dyer dated January 17, 1861 acknowledges some matter of referral (possibly requesting a military appointment), adding that “I will file your letter for consideration when the time comes.”

During the Civil War President Lincoln availed himself of the Dyers’ service. In October 1861 George R. Dyer quickly secured a presidential appointment as a volunteer Quartermaster, his important commission as Captain, also offered here, being signed in Lincoln’s hand. The Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1888) includes Abolitionist Charles V. Dyer making specific reference to “President Lincoln, who knew him well, appointed him in 1863 judge of the mixed court at Sierra Leone, for the suppression of the slave trade…” Snippets from several other late 19th century sources including the History of Will County (1878) affirm the Lincoln-Dyer connection; still we are lacking even a solitary letter between the two that might wishfully elevate the liaison from the nexus of acquaintance to satisfyingly more personal.

Nonetheless, with provenance in hand these unassuming artifacts reverberate in testimony of well played 1860 political theater having enshrined the lexicon of the “Rail-Splitter” for all time. 

Descended Directly in the Dyer Family


Wood pieces and iron nails are in relic condition as expected. They have not been varnished, altered in anyway or otherwise "restored." Dyer manuscript document with slightly irregular/rough edges due to improper storage; no tears, creases, or separations.

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