“Everything for Old Idaho,” said President Abraham Lincoln, sending a U.S. marshal to Boise at the close the Civil War. It was Good Friday, April 14, 1865. That afternoon the president invited an Idaho friend to a play at Washington’s Ford’s Theatre. Hours later, at dawn, a bereaved army surgeon pronounced Lincoln dead.
Boise Republicans were aghast. On April 27, when the slow-moving news finally reached Idaho’s new capital city, saloons closed and the pro-Lincoln Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman reported that “the stoutest heart[s] gave way.” It was “the saddest day ever seen in Boise City.” Boiseans were “chastened” with “speechless sorrow” and they wandered about as if “each had lost a member of his household.”
In Idaho City, however, where many Confederates had escaped to the gold camps, grief was held in reserve. “Mr. Lincoln was not a remarkably great man,” reported the Idaho World. The paper lamented that death would make him a martyr. Lincoln, said the World, was America’s Julius Caesar. Both had led their republics through momentous calamity. Assassins had taken them both at the height of their power.
The assassination deepened Idaho’s chasm between rival political camps. Pro-South “Copperhead” Democrats still dominated the territorial legislature. Confederate Lewiston remained, said Lincoln Republicans, “a hellhole of traitors.”
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Republican appointees held the courts and the governor’s office. Lincoln associate Milton Kelly, a feisty Irishman, went on to fame as editor of The Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman. A spokesman for radical Republican causes, he defended the rights of freed slaves when blacks in Boise City first attempted to vote.
By 1890, when Idaho successfully lobbied statehood, the legacy of Lincoln was personal and sometimes profound. Over the years at least 20 top Republicans tied directly to Lincoln had to look to Idaho and Montana for patronage appointments. One was William “Old Idaho” Wallace, the Idahoan who had declined Lincoln’s offer of box seats at Ford Theatre. Another was the surveyor Anson G. Henry, who created Idaho’s panhandle, redrawing its boundary with Montana along the Bitterroot Mountains. A third was Lincoln’s own law partner and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, an unsuccessful applicant for Idaho’s governorship.
More lasting was the influence of U.S. Marshal Fred. T. Dubois. In the 1840s and ’50s, as a boy growing up in Springfield, Ill., Dubois had played with Lincoln’s sons and lived across from their house. In Idaho he prosecuted — some said persecuted — Mormon polygamists. Lincoln’s neighbor rode anti-Mormonism to seats in the U.S. House and Senate, holding until 1907.
The legend of Honest Abe had meanwhile grown beyond rail splitting and top hats. Westerners paid tribute with statues and place names. On March 18, 1895, the Idaho Legislature created Lincoln County, its county seat at Shoshone. On Idaho’s Yellowstone Highway, the village of Lincoln faced Lincoln County, Wyo. Public schools named after Lincoln dotted the Snake River Plain from Rexburg all the way to Nampa.
In 1915, meanwhile, Civil War veteran R. H. Barton purchased a 6-foot-4 bronze statue of President Lincoln for Idaho’s Old Soldiers Home. There in Veterans Park on West State Street the statue stood for 50 years.
Today, recently resurrected, Lincoln’s statue stands near the foot of the Statehouse, sharing a parkway of martyrs with a clench-fisted bronze of Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg, also assassinated.
Steunenberg, Boiseans say, faces the Statehouse to keep an eye on the GOP. Lincoln faces southwest toward San Francisco as if searching for Nancy Pelosi, his Western legacy suspended between Idaho and California, between the West of old Fort Boise and the urban-liberal frontier our West might one day become.
Todd Shallat directs the Center for Idaho History and Politics at Boise State University.