Lincoln's hardy youth would later lend credence to his legend as a folksy, backwoods prophet, an image he did nothing to discourage. During the presidential campaign of 1860, he was trumpeted under the nickname of "rail- splitter," earned from his workaday childhood pastime. Lincoln the candidate went to great measures to cultivate a rough and ready rural demeanor, such as when he casually related a true story from youth in which, during his tenth year, he had been "kicked by a horse, and apparently killed for a time."
Shortly after the brush with tragedy when Lincoln was kicked by a horse, misfortune truly struck the family when Nancy Hanks Lincoln suddenly died of milk sickness. Left to take care of two young children, Thomas Lincoln took the practical step and quickly re-married, to a Kentucky widow named Sarah Bush Johnston. With this, young Abraham acquired three step-siblings and a new mother, for whom he quickly developed a strong affection.
From the first, Lincoln was a tall, gangly child, notable for his oversized extremities. For these reasons, some modern physicians have recently suggested that he may have been afflicted with Marfan's syndrome, an inherited disease that adversely affects connective and skeletal tissue and weakens the heart and the body in general. Most experts have dismissed this theory, pointing to Lincoln's hale and active constitution throughout youth and his clean bill of health during adulthood.
Although Lincoln's parents were illiterate, he became a voracious reader from quite an early age. While the sum total of his formal schooling fell short of a year, he nevertheless enjoyed regular exposure to the Bible and assorted classics, including Aesop's Fables,Arabian Nights,Pilgrim's Progress, and Robinson Crusoe.
The frontier of Lincoln's youth was a highly evangelical place, with several Protestant denominations competing fiercely to enhance their ranks. In 1823, when Lincoln was in the first flush of his teenage years, his parents joined the Baptist church. Despite this early allegiance, the young Lincoln never put too much stock in organized religion. As a result, he was sometimes viewed as a skeptic and even an infidel during his first years as a professional lawyer and politician. Nevertheless, he adamantly refused to join a specific church, although in later years, and especially during the depths of the Civil War, he became increasingly concerned with the nature of divine providence.
In 1828, at the age of nineteen, Lincoln struck out on his own for the first time, as a hand on a flatboat bound for New Orleans. Lincoln was greatly impressed by the majesty and treachery of the Mississippi River. One evening, after making camp along shore, his party was attacked by a group of black men, whom they were able to escape after being slightly roughed up. Such dangers, even in the face of flood conditions, did not deter Lincoln from making a second trip to New Orleans three years later, in the service of a flatboat trader who later offered to set him up as a store clerk back in New Salem, Illinois.