Crossing the Fox River – Lincoln’s Story for the Nation

Horace Greeley was an editor, author, Congressman from New York, and candidate for president in 1872. In his book, Recollections of a Busy Life, he related an interesting story about one of Abraham Lincoln’s stories.

Horace Greeley Portrait by JE Baker
An 1872 portrait of Horace Greeley, by J.E. Baker.

The story took place in February, 1861.

Said Greeley: [All bolding is mine for your attention.]

I knew him more than sixteen years, met him often, talked with him familiarly; yet while multitudes fancy that he was always overflowing with jocular narrations or reminiscences, I cannot remember that I ever heard him tell an anecdote or story. One, however, that he did tell while in this city, on his way to assume the Presidency, is so characteristic of the man and his way of regarding portents of trouble, that I here record it. [1]

Greeley prefaced this passage with his assessment that, as a wartime president, Lincoln was inept. He based this assessment on Lincoln’s personality. Lincoln, he said, was “essentially a genial, quiet man,” trained for the law and public speeches.[1]

The bolded section of Greeley’s quote above claims this following story of Lincoln’s reveals the way Lincoln dealt with an approaching crisis of the magnitude of the Civil War. However, the context of the historical moment in which Lincoln told the story is important, but Greeley seems determined to interpret it differently.

The Backstory

By the time Lincoln’s train pulled into the station in New York City, the president-elect was in the third month of his transition period with less than a month to his inauguration. During those three months, seven states in the South seceded from the Union and formed a government with a son of Alabama as their president – Jefferson Davis. The other six Southern states (and possibly more) stood in the wings awaiting developments.

This was the stage-set facing Lincoln’s presidential debut. 

Lincoln spent two days in New York City that February of 1861. He, his family, and his entourage were on their way to Washington for the March inauguration. Lincoln’s arrival in the city was well attended by crowds of New Yorkers, but conspicuously absent was any official reception or greeting party from New York’s Mayor or other top city officials.

As The New York Illustrated News reported:

A peculiarity of the reception was the absence of all military display and the utter disregard of formal preparation. The City Authorities were not represented here, the Committee being on the train with Mr. Lincoln. The Mayor was not present, and the immense crowd were gathered together simply by their desire to see and to do honor to a single man.” [2]

The absence of New York City officials and Lincoln’s overall treatment by them during his overnight stay, represented a cold indifference bordering on insult – especially considering the office he represented.[3]

But Lincoln ignored it. To him, the larger picture was the people of the city, just as it was at every stop between Springfield, Illinois and Washington, D.C.. Lincoln had a message to deliver. So just as he had on the stump and in the courtroom, Lincoln used a story.

Lincoln’s Story

Greeley notes: “Almost every one was asking him, with evident apprehension if not perturbation: ‘What is to be the issue with this Southern effervescence? Are we really to have civil war?’

Lincoln responded with this story:

“Many years ago, when I was a young lawyer, and Illinois was little settled, except on her southern border, I, with other lawyers, used to ride the circuit; journeying with the judge from county-seat to county-seat in quest of business.


Once, after a long spell of pouring rain, which had flooded the whole country, transforming small creeks into rivers, we were often stopped by these swollen streams, which we with difficulty crossed.


Still ahead of us was Fox River, larger than all the rest; and we could not help saying to each other, ‘If these streams give us so much trouble, how shall we get over Fox River?’


Darkness fell before we had reached that stream; and we all stopped at a log tavern, had our horses put out, and resolved to pass the night.


Here we were right glad to fall in with the Methodist Presiding Elder of the circuit, who rode it in all weather, knew all its ways, and could tell us all about Fox River. So we all gathered around him, and asked him if he knew about the crossing of Fox River.


‘O yes,’ he replied, ‘I know all about Fox River. I have crossed it often, and understand it well; but I have one fixed rule with regard to Fox River:


I never cross it til I reach it.’”[1]

The reasoning behind Lincoln’s story [click here for an earlier post] contradicts Greeley’s assessment of Lincoln as a ‘war president.’

This story was a unique rendition of that old proberb: “Don’t cross the bridge until you come to it,” and it was actually a message to all the factions and fractions in the country in 1861 . Lincoln wanted the South AND the North to give him a chance as president before “crossing the bridge” of civil war. [Here’s a neat explanation by Wikipedia of all the nuances of this phrase – all of which apply to Lincoln’s intent.] [4] 

Wiley fellow that Lincoln.

Today, his story still applies to so many political issues that face our country. But like Horace Greeley and the rest of the nation in 1861, would anyone understand the message?

Food for thought.


[Like this one? Please click here for more Stories That Abe Told.]

Works Cited

[1] Greeley, Horace (1868). Recollections of a Busy Life. New York, NY: J.B. Ford & Company, pp. 404-405.

[2] Carren, Eric (2000). Civil War Extra: A Newspaper History of the Civil War from Nat Turner to 1863. Salt Lake City, UT: Book Sales Incorporated,  Volume I, (New York Illustrated News, February 28, 1861).

[3] Sandburg, Carl (1939). Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, & Company, p. 65.

[4] Wikipedia article Retrieved July 18, 2017 @

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