"We must make them understand Lincoln is our man."
Those words from Belleville attorney Gustave Koerner in 1858 may have changed Abraham Lincoln's political fate and indirectly led to his presidency.
At least that's how Jack Le Chein sees it.
"(Koerner and others) backed Lincoln at a crucial moment," said Le Chein, 65, co-chairman of a committee that's restoring the Koerner home in Belleville.
Lincoln was seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Illinois. But state party leaders had contemplated supporting Democrat Stephen A. Douglas instead of fielding their own candidate.
As Republican state chairman, Koerner was very influential. He had left his leadership position with the Democrats to join the fight against slavery's expansion.
"(Without Koerner and friends), it might have been the end of Lincoln's political career," Le Chein said.
Le Chein feels the time is right to promote Belleville's connection to Lincoln now that the movie "Lincoln" with Daniel Day-Lewis is captivating audiences across the country.
The movie is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln."
"She quotes form Koerner's memoirs six times," Le Chein said.
Koerner emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1833.
He isn't the only Bellevillean who had significant dealings with Lincoln, but their relationship was one of the most enduring.
Koerner got to know Lincoln in the 1840s as an Illinois State Supreme Court judge who heard Lincoln argue cases.
"We always admired (Lincoln's) extreme fairness in stating his adversary's case as well as his own, and the often quaint and droll language used by him," Koerner wrote.
Koerner was Lincoln's chaperone when he visited Belleville in 1856 to campaign for Republican presidential candidate John C. Fremont.
After calling on prominent Republican families, Lincoln spoke to a crowd on East A between North High and North Illinois streets.
"Referring to the fact that here, as well as in other places where he had spoken, (Lincoln) had found the Germans more enthusiastic for the cause of freedom than all other nationalities, he, almost with tears in his eyes, broke out in the words, 'God bless the Dutch,'" Koerner wrote.
Koerner continued to support Lincoln's political endeavors, including his 1860 presidential run. He stood near Lincoln during his inaugural speech.
Koerner served as a Civil War colonel and persuaded Lincoln to allow him to lead a unit of German immigrants. Lincoln later appointed him U.S. ambassador to Spain.
Koerner served as a pallbearer at Lincoln's funeral in 1865.
"I think anybody who goes to the 'Lincoln' movie would enjoy it more if they knew that Belleville had an effect on Lincoln's career," Le Chein said.
The Gustave Koerner House is at 200 Abend St. in Belleville. Tours are available during fundraising events and by appointment. For more information, call 618-235-6471.