1863 was a troublesome year for Abraham Lincoln. His Emancipation Proclamation went into effect January 1st, but it needed to be vindicated by victories on the battlefield. However, Grant’s prolonged siege of Vicksburg and the game-changing victory at Gettysburg wouldn’t see completion until early July.
Those victories were inconceivable mid-1863, especially after costly Union losses at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville the previous winter and spring. Lincoln had another problem on his hands, too: political trouble in Missouri, brewing since the start of the war and coming to a head in the summer of 1863. The Border State had a large population of slave owners and had been occupied by a heavy Union military presence since early in the war. The various Unionist factions that arose in the state continued to press Lincoln to support their respective camps, either in spreading immediate emancipation to Missouri or allowing slavery to exist with a more gradual emancipation plan. When a delegation of the more radical faction visited Lincoln in Autumn to appeal for his support, he refused to add presidential clout to either group.
Frustrated with the politicking in Missouri, but unwilling to join sides, Lincoln remarked to a reporter that he had “adopted the plan learned when a farmer boy engaged in plowing. When he came across stumps too deep and too tough to be torn up, and too wet to burn, he plowed round them.” In other words, he opted for the course of least resistance rather than directly dealing with the most difficult of situations—and possibly unwinnable ones— as in Missouri.
Wait—he said that about Missourians?
Yes, he did. Mormons may be familiar with the metaphor of the immovable stump or piece of wood, but only in relation to Utah during the Civil War—another situation in which Lincoln faced a stubborn, resolute population with no readily apparent solution to the impasse. According to reporter T.B.H. Stenhouse’s account, he asked Lincoln in June 1863 about the President’s intentions for the Mormons. Lincoln replied with the same story as above: “Stenhouse, when I was a boy on the farm in Illinois there was a great deal of timber on the farm which we had to clear away. Occasionally we would come to a log which had fallen down. It was too hard to split, too wet to burn, and too heavy to move, so we plowed around it. You go back and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone I will let him alone.”
This is the story that Mormons celebrate—the idea that a sitting U.S. President would finally leave the Mormons alone, after decades of persecution that had been as high-up and as recent as Lincoln’s predecessor in the White House. (The story’s obvious flaw often goes unnoticed: Lincoln didn’t arrive in Illinois until 1830, when he was 21 years old.)
But there’s at least one more occasion that Lincoln may have used the metaphor:
Governor Blank [sic] went to the War Department one day in a towering rage:
“I suppose you found it necessary to make large concessions to him, as he returned from you perfectly satisfied,” suggested a friend.
“Oh, no,” the President replied, “I did not concede anything. You have heard how that Illinois farmer got rid of a big log that was too big to haul out, too knotty to split, and too wet and soggy to burn.
“‘Well, now,’ said he, in response to the inquiries of his neighbors one Sunday, as to how he got rid of it, ‘well, now, boys, if you won’t divulge the secret, I’ll tell you how I got rid of it—I ploughed around it.’
“Now,” remarked Lincoln, in conclusion, “don’t tell anybody, but that’s the way I got rid of Governor Blank. I ploughed all round him, but it took me three mortal hours to do it, and I was afraid every minute he’d see what I was at.”
Mormons may be disappointed to hear that they were not the only fallen log or deeply-rooted stump in the field, or at least that Lincoln used the metaphor in more situations than just with them. Mormons love a story that connects them to someone famous and generally regarded as virtuous. But I think a larger lesson is important here, too—one about Lincoln rather than the Mormons. Lincoln used stories to suit his purpose, painting word pictures that fit the situations in which he found himself. Lincoln’s use of the fallen timber metaphor in multiple situations speaks once again to his abilities as a consummate politician and pragmatist. While he did not avoid confrontation by any means, he definitely chose his battles carefully, sometimes delaying volatile—or unwinnable—ones indefinitely. Generally, this had positive results for the Great Emancipator.
Still, the fact that he died before his party could press him into a more definite enforcement of anti-polygamy legislation like the 1862 Morrill Anti-bigamy law allowed for Lincoln to be remembered by Mormons as someone willing to let them alone, which was the best deal any president had given them in their brief history.
 Chicago Tribune, Oct. 30, 1863. For additional background on the Missouri situation (which I have grossly oversimplified here), see David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 451-54.
 Retold in Mary Jane Woodger, “Abraham Lincoln and the Mormons,” in Civil War Saints, ed. Kenneth L. Alford (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2012), 61. Woodger discusses several Mormon variants on the tale, along with their respective origins, in footnote 2 of her essay.
 See Donald, 36-7.
Alexander K. McClure, “Abe” Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories (Chicago?: Henry Neill, 1904), 110. Available online at this link. McClure was an editor of a Philadelphia newspaper and a former Civil War soldier who gathered hundreds of snippets about Lincoln from varied unidentified sources for his book.
 Nowhere was this more evident than in Lincoln’s own presidential Cabinet. As Doris Kearns Goodwin surmised, “his political genius was not simply his ability to gather the best men of the country around him,” many of whom were ideological or political opposites to Lincoln and each other, “but to impress upon them his own purpose, perception, and resolution at every juncture.” In Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 701.
 See Woodger, 77-78.