1818-2018, The Mary Lincoln Bicentennial: Sisterhood and the Civil War

1818-2018, The Mary Lincoln Bicentennial: Sisterhood and the Civil War

Mary Lincoln, 1846 or 1847. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Just over two hundred years ago today, on December 13, 1818, Mary Ann Todd came into the world screaming. Or at least, we assume she came into this world screaming, as most babies do. It was a rainy Sunday in Lexington, Kentucky. Mary’s mother Eliza likely sent for the midwife. Together, the women would have laughed, cried, and worked through the labor in a female experience, a female world not yet dominated by male doctors. The midwife would have encouraged Eliza, and perhaps offered some mulled liquor, until the big moment of Mary’s arrival.[1]

When she married Abraham Lincoln, she dropped the Todd, and would sign her name Mary Lincoln for the rest of her life. Her life and legacy would be haunted by thousands of interpretations and misinterpretations. Mary the sane, Mary the insane, Mary the devoted wife, Mary the calculating manipulator. She shopped too much, cried too much, complained too much. After losing two sons, she turned to spiritualism, holding as many as eight seances in the White House. Then her third son passed, and later, her fourth would send her to an Illinois asylum. She later deemed it a “cruel persecution by a bad son” and to obtain her release, she secured the services of Myra Bradwell, one of the few female lawyers of the time.[2]

Lincoln Family in 1861, painted by F. B. Carpenter, engraved by J. C. Buttre, 1873. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

But to her core, she cared about family. A family she loved, a family she lost, a family that lay shattered around her. We can imagine the movie of her life, with scenes flickering by – Mary in 1842, courting a tall and talented backwoods lawyer in Springfield, Illinois. In 1860, the wife whose husband reportedly ran home yelling “Mary, Mary, we are elected!” after he learned that he had won the presidential election. In 1862, a mother, miserably consoling her eleven-year-old son Willie, as he lay dying of typhoid fever. And on April 14, 1865, that fateful night she held her husband’s hand as he laughed at a line in the theatre, unaware of the gun to his head.[3]

Mary had five Confederate sisters – a source of joy, grief, embarrassment, and anger throughout the war.  Through a study of Mary Lincoln and two of her Confederate sisters, we can see how gendered tensions of the war played out within a household.  After all, Mary was many things, but before she became a Lincoln, she was a Todd.

Emilie Todd Helm. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society Collections.

During the war, Mary dropped a newspaper in the midst of reading bad news and said, “Kiss me, Emilie, and tell me that you love me.  I seem to be the scape-goat for both North and South.”  Emilie, an adored little sister of Mary, had a husband who had just died defending the Confederacy. Even so, the Lincolns welcomed her into the White House, as family.  Political alliances prevented them from speaking as freely as Emilie would like, but she felt for Mary and wrote, “we weep over our dead together and express through our clasped hands the sympathy we feel for each other in our mutual grief.”[4]

But not everyone who encountered Emilie would put aside their alliances. Emilie was, after all, a widow of the enemy. “Well, we whipped the rebels at Chattanooga and I hear, madam, that the scoundrels ran like scared rabbits,” jabbed Senator Ira Harris of New York when he visited the White House. Answering “with a choking throat,” Emilie retorted, “It was an example, Senator Harris, that you set them at Bull Run and Manassas.” After a failed attempt to get a rise from Mary, Harris returned to prodding Emilie and informed her “if I had twenty sons they should all be fighting the rebels.” Forgetting where she was but not her Confederate loyalties, Emilie responded, “And if I had twenty sons, Senator Harris, they should all be opposing yours.” When the incident was relayed to Abe, he chuckled that “the child has a tongue like the rest of the Todds.”[5]

Longing for home and believing “my being here is more or less an embarrassment,” Emilie decided it was time to return to Kentucky. Emilie left, with an invitation for her to return and a pass to do so. She took advantage of this in 1864 when she needed a license to sell six hundred bales of cotton. Lincoln refused. Emilie, after all, still had not signed an oath of loyalty and remained an outspoken Confederate. Pledging her loyalty, Emilie believed, would bring dishonor to her dead husband’s memory. So she angrily returned to Kentucky and penned a searing letter. Mary would never see or write her again.[6]

In the fall of 1861, another Todd sister, Elodie, lamented, “Surely there is no other family in the land placed in the exact situation of ours and I hope will never be [another] so unfortunate to be surrounded by trials so numerous.” Elodie was living in Selma, Alabama, and was engaged to be married to a Confederate officer, Nathaniel Dawson.[7]

Elodie Breck Todd. Courtesy of the Kentucky Digital Library.

In a letter to Nathaniel, Elodie describes Mary’s reaction to the engagement. Mary “receives the news seriously and writes me a long letter on the subject of matrimony and adjoins me that I am a great deal better off as I am. She ought to know as she committed the fatal step years ago, and I believe another such letter would almost make me abandon the idea.”[8]

Despite her sister’s objections, Elodie would ultimately say yes. “How singular that I should be engaged to the sister of Mrs. Lincoln,” Nathaniel wrote, “I wish you would write her to that effect so that in case of being taken prisoner I will not be too severely dealt with.” For Elodie, the Todd family drama is not a singular oddity but a tragedy. Though clearly committed to the Confederacy, she refused to let anyone speak ill of the Lincolns in her presence and admitted reflection on her family’s situation sometimes left her unable to get out of bed.[9]

But even as Elodie defended Mary and her husband, she also expressed private dismay and frustration over Mary’s wartime actions. After reading a newspaper that claimed Mary spoke poorly about her brother David, Elodie wrote to her fiancé, saying, “I do not believe she ever said it and if she did and meant it she is no longer a sister of mine nor deserves to be called a woman of nobleness and truth…What would she do to me, do you suppose? I have as much to answer for.” Nathaniel responded, “I do not believe that Mrs. Lincoln ever expressed herself as you state about your brother David. If she did, it is in very bad taste and in worse temper and unlike all the representations I have seen of her character…How deplorable is this fratricidal war. Two brothers met in the battle of Manassas on opposite sides and are now here in the hospital, both wounded.”[10]

We often talk of this war as brother vs. brother, but what of sister vs. sister? We often study the reconciliation efforts of soldiers at battlefield commemorations after the war, but what of the women whose fierce sectional hatred burned for more than four years? Exploring sisterhoods reminds us, if nothing else, that women experienced war in a variety of ways. By delving in and allowing these women their individualities, we broaden and deepen our understanding of the female world. If we grant, as we now do, that women did critical cultural work in prosecuting the war and interpreting its meaning, we must pay greater attention to the way they went about their work, including how they resolved disputes. Indeed, we should consider the way the war continued on as a conflict between women and within households. After all, this was a situation that Mary knew so well.

 

[1] I presented a version of this post at the Mary Todd Lincoln Bicentennial Symposium, hosted by the Mary Todd Lincoln House and University of Kentucky in November 2018. Other participants included Catherine Clinton and Jennifer Fleischner–conversations with both strengthened this piece, for which I am grateful.

[2] As quoted in Jean H. Baker’s 2008 preface, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008).

[3] Walter B. Stevens, A Reporter’s Lincoln (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society, 1916), 46.

[4] Katherine Helm, The True Story of Mary, Wife of Lincoln (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1928), 224-233; John L. Helm, Frankfort, Kentucky, to Emily Todd Helm, January 20, 1864, Emilie Todd Helm Papers, 1855-1943, Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort, Kentucky.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Elodie Breck Todd to Nathaniel Dawson, September 1, 1861, in Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, ed. Stephen Berry and Angela Esco Elder (Athens: University of Georgia Press), 183.

[8] Elodie Breck Todd to Nathaniel Dawson, May 26, 1861, in Practical Strangers, 69.

[9] Nathaniel Dawson to Elodie Breck Todd, May 16, 1861, in Practical Strangers, 46.

[10] Elodie Breck Todd to Nathaniel Dawson, July 23, 1861, in Practical Strangers, 139; Nathaniel Dawson to Elodie Breck Todd, August 3, 1861, in Practical Strangers, 157.

Angela Esco Elder

Angela Esco Elder is an assistant professor of history at Converse College. She earned her doctorate at the University of Georgia, and the following year she was the 2016-2017 Virginia Center for Civil War Studies postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech. Her research explores gender, emotion, family, and trauma in the Civil War Era South. She is the co-editor of Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln.

2 Replies to “1818-2018, The Mary Lincoln Bicentennial: Sisterhood and the Civil War”

  1. I think that a really good book could be generated that focuses almost exclusively on Mary’s relationship with her brothers and sisters before, during, and after the war. This would not be a biography of Mary, with the rest of the family in a subsidiary role as she switches from Mary Todd to Mary Lincoln; this would be a biography of the evolving relationships between the Todd siblings.

    1. There is a book entitled “House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, A Family Divided by War” written by Stephen Berry and published in 2007 that may be of interest to you. It does an excellent job of discussing the relationship between the Todds and the Lincolns. It should be available on Amazon.com

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