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Presidents Day: Abe Lincoln was a tech guy and other odd facts about him

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Posted at 3:28 PM, Feb 08, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-16 08:19:38-05

Abraham Lincoln consistently ranks among America’s greatest presidents.

But there’s a lot more to the man than being a president.

In honor of Presidents Day, the Scripps National Desk takes a look at some of the lesser known things about Lincoln.

Lincoln loved animals

Lincoln was a cat lover, said Lincoln historian and author Harold Holzer.

“There are stories about people discussing Lincoln rolling around the White House floor with kittens,” Holzer said.

There’s a myth is that Lincoln once killed a turkey and then vowed he’d never use a gun against a living thing again, Holzer said. But then there are other stories that he put hot coals on a turtle’s shell as a prank.

“That’s pretty brutal. Kids are kids – he was a kid once too. He wasn’t alway the great emancipator,” Holzer said. “I’m sure he did things he wouldn’t have done when he was older.”

The Lincoln family had a dog named Fido, who like his owner was assassinated. Years after Lincoln's death, a drunk stabbed the dog in the street.

“It’s a rather sad an ironic ending to that chapter,” Holzer said.

Lincoln caught smallpox after giving the Gettysburg Address

Lincoln gave perhaps the greatest speech in American history Nov. 19, 1863. But he might not have had the chance if he was delayed by just one day.

He’d caught smallpox.

“One day more and he was really out of it,” Holzer said. “He had a rash, the full disease.”

The bout with smallpox may have killed Lincoln’s valet, William Johnson, an African-American man with whom he was very close.

“I’m sure he caught it from Abraham Lincoln,” Holzer said. “All he wanted to do was work for Lincoln in the White House and when he did… he gave his life in service to the man who ironically gave his life also.”

Lincoln paid for Johnson’s gravestone — an act he did not do for his own father.

Lincoln embraced technology

President Lincoln was the first president to fight an electric war. During the Civil War, a telegraph office was opened in the War Department, next to the White House. Today, it would be called a situation room.

“He got the technology of transmitting through a telegraph. He understood that it was the key to understanding what would happen during battles,” Holzer said.

While Lincoln used telegraphs to get news and stay in touch with his generals, he didn’t use them to direct battles. The messages were written in code in case they were intercepted.

One of the most famous message he sent was to General George McClellan, who blamed his tired horses for being unable to advance his army in at the Battle of Antietam in 1862.

“Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your Army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?” Lincoln wrote.

Lincoln is the last president to come under enemy fire

Lincoln was the last president to be shot at by enemy forces, and possibly the only one, Holzer said. The incident occurred as Lincoln was observing the Battle of Fort Stevens on July 12, 1864. The spot is commemorated by the National Park Service.

A young military officer is believed to have yelled at Lincoln to, “get down, you damn fool!”

That man was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who became a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1902.

The other presidents involved in battle while in office are James Madison (War of 1812) and and George Washington (Whiskey Rebellion, 1791).

Lincoln was an accomplished wrestler

At 6’4”, Lincoln would be considered a large man today. In the 1800s, he was a giant.

There are many stories of Lincoln’s wrestling career. The most famous fight took place in 1831. Lincoln, then 22 years old, was accosted by a gang called the Clary’s Grove Boys led by a bully named Jack Armstrong.

Lincoln challenged the gang to a fair wrestling match and beat Armstrong in public.

“People were afraid after that,” Holzer said.

More than 20 years later, Lincoln – now a defense lawyer – represented Armstrong’s son in a murder trial. He won.

Lincoln is honored in the Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter at @GavinStern.