There was no reason to do it.
At 56, Abraham Lincoln was well past his prime as a rail-splitter. He was in the first year of his second term as president, with the Civil War won at terrible cost and a date with John Wilkes Booth just one week away. The future, as far as he knew, was bright.
After a day spent shaking hands and comforting wounded soldiers at an Army field hospital in Virginia, America’s 16th president spied an ax on April 8, 1865, and started chopping wood. No one knows why — perhaps he was showing off. He did, after all, hold the ax by the end of the handle, straight out, parallel to the ground, before he started swinging. It
The story became legend. But no one knew what happened to the ax. More than a century later, preservationists at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., stumbled across what had been in state hands for decades.
Illinois, it turned out, had owned the legendary ax since 1910, when it was gifted by a donor along with an affidavit from the field-hospital director, who vouched for the artifact’s authenticity.
“That’s before they kept records in, shall we say, the modern way,” says Dr. James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.