Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America

By Brian McGinty | Liveright Publishing Corporation | $26.95 | 208 pages | 2015

Most Americans believe that Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president. Lincoln was also one of America’s greatest lawyers. His folksy style made him a natural as a trial lawyer. He also handled more than 400 appellate cases, most of them in the Illinois Supreme Court and several in the U. S. Supreme Court.

Brian McGinty, a retired Arizona lawyer, has written three books about Lincoln. His most recent is a spellbinding account of one of Lincoln’s most significant cases, titled Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America.

The River is the Mighty Mississippi River. The Bridge is the Rock Island Bridge, the first railroad bridge to cross the Mississippi, built during the years 1853-1856 by a private company called the Railroad Bridge Company. It was 1,581 feet long, built of timber, rested on six stone piers, and stretched from the Illinois community of Rock Island to Davenport, Iowa.

The bridge was officially opened to railroad traffic on April 21, 1856. Two weeks later, on May 6, 1856, a steamboat named Effie Afton, which had begun its voyage in Cincinnati, crashed into one of the piers, caught fire, and was completely destroyed. Fortunately, no one was killed. The bridge was badly damaged, but was repaired and reopened to rail traffic in September 1856.

This horrible accident occurred at a time when railroad companies were beginning to overtake steamboats as the primary mode of transporting people and goods. St. Louis was the steamboat capitol of the United States at that time, and its civic leaders did not favor the ascendancy of the railroads. By contrast, Chicago was emerging as an important rail center for the shipment of goods to the East, and its civic leaders had a very different attitude about railroads.

The civic leaders of St. Louis encouraged the owners of the Effie Afton to file suit against the Railroad Bridge Company, with the hope that a large award of damages would discourage the development of other bridges across the Mississippi. In October 1856, the steamboat owners Jacob S. Hurd, Joseph W. Smith and Alexander W. Kidwell filed suit in the U. S. Circuit Court in Chicago. (At that time, each U. S. Supreme Court justice was assigned to a federal circuit and often served as the trial judge in cases tried in Circuit Court.)

The lead attorney for the Railroad Bridge Company was Norman Judd, a veteran Chicago attorney who had met Lincoln through Illinois politics. Judd decided that Lincoln would be a valuable addition to the defense team, and Lincoln agreed in early July 1857 to become a counsel of record in the case.

The trial judge in this jury trial was Supreme Court Justice John McLean, who had been appointed to the court by Andrew Jackson in 1829. At the time of the trial, he was 71 years old and had served on the Supreme Court for 28 years.

Lincoln’s first task was to obtain a continuance from Justice McLean, so that he and the other defense counsel would have adequate time to prepare for trial. There were 1,100 pages of depositions to review and many witnesses to interview. Justice McLean granted a two-month continuance.

The trial lasted 15 days. The jurors listened to more than 100 witnesses, including a number of expert witnesses. The principal closing argument for the defense was delivered by Attorney Abraham Lincoln.

The overriding issue the jury had to decide was whether the bridge constituted a “material obstruction” to steamboats traveling up and down the Mississippi. If the jury found that it did, the Railroad Bridge Company would have to pay substantial damages to the owners of the Effie Afton.

I don’t want to spoil things for readers by revealing the exact outcome of the case. Suffice it to say that no damages were ever paid to the steamboat owners, and the case resulted in no impediment to the development of rail traffic from West to East.

McGinty’s book is spiced up by the appearance of several historical figures. Rock Island (an island in the river over which the bridge passed) was the site of Fort Armstrong from 1817 to 1836. Assistant Army surgeon Dr. John Emerson took his slave Dred Scott with him to Fort Armstrong, and Scott’s time on the Free Soil of Illinois became the basis of his claim that he was a free man, no longer a slave.

In 1837 a young Army lieutenant named Robert E. Lee surveyed the Rock Island Rapids, just upstream from the bridge, to recommend improvements that would make the river safer for steamboat traffic. In 1854 Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (who wanted to build a railroad bridge over the Mississippi River at a Southern location) persuaded President Franklin Pierce to instruct Attorney General Caleb Cushing to seek a court order ejecting the workers building the bridge from Rock Island on the ground that they had no right of way over the island, which he contended was still a military reservation. It didn’t work. Construction continued to completion.

One of the fact witnesses for the defense was tractor magnate John Deere, who lived on the river in Moline, just north of Rock Island, and was familiar with the currents and cross-currents of the river in the vicinity of the bridge.

Finally, the most interesting tidbit in the book illustrates the extraordinary intellect of our 16th President. Abraham Lincoln is the only American president to hold a patent granted by the U. S. Patent Office — Patent No. 6,469. In the context of this book, it is ironic that this patent is for a method of helping steamboats pass over sandbars without having to remove their cargo.


JOHN P. WILLIAMS is a member of the Nashville law firm Tune, Entrekin & White. He received the Justice Joseph W. Henry award for outstanding legal writing for articles published in the Tennessee Bar Journal in 2003 and 2014.

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