Lincoln was ineligible to fight in the Civil War, but he paid a volunteer to take his place anyway

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It's safe to say the 16th president is having a moment.

Even for Abraham Lincoln, perennially among the most popular of former commanders in chief, the level of attention is high.


Lincoln, a movie starring Daniel Day Lewis about one of the president's proudest achievements earned an impressive 12 Oscar nominations on Thursday. And the (44th) Presidential Inaugural Committee announced this week that President Obama would again be using the Lincoln Bible, along with Martin Luther King Jr.'s traveling Bible, at his swearing in this month.

Adding to the lore of the man and the leader, widely considered to be among history's greatest of both, is the story of Lincoln's association with a man called John Summerfield Staples.

Staples was a 19-year-old laborer from Pennsylvania, strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington with his father on April 3, 1864 when he was approached by a well dressed man--a politician named Noble D. Larner--who asked him if he would serve in the Union Army on behalf of the president.


"I am looking for a young man to represent the president in the army as a recruit," Larner said. "Will you accept?"

"If my father consents," Staples told him. Dad nodded his approval, and all that was left was to meet Lincoln.

During the Civil War, well-heeled men with the money to buy their way out of serving in the Army were able to legally and respectably avoid the draft by paying a substitute to serve in their place. Among them: future President Grover Cleveland and wealthy merchant John D. Rockefeller.

Lincoln, however, wasn't looking to avoid service: he was in fact ineligible to enlist. At the age of 53, he would have been ineligible to serve simply based on age, but was obviously exempt because of his role as president.

Still, Lincoln being Lincoln, wanted to encourage other ineligibles to follow in his footsteps by hiring substitutes. The going rate for such a job was about $300--approximately $5000 in 21st Century money--but Lincoln paid Staples $500.

Upon meeting Staples, Lincoln told him he hoped he'd be "one of the fortunate ones," and indeed he was. Staples had already survived a stint as a voluntary substitute for a fellow Pennsylvanian earlier in the war, and was honorably discharged after the war ended in 1865. As Lincoln's substitute, Staples worked as a clerk for the provost general and as a prison guard, and saw very little action.


Staples worked as a laborer for the rest of his life, and suffered from ill health. He died in 1888 from a heart attack at the age of 43, six years after his application for a Civil War pension was rejected.

Lincoln's substitute papers by United Press International

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