Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln


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(University of Illinois Press, 1994)
Mary Todd Lincoln was an original. “Mrs Lincoln is like no human being I ever saw. She is not easy to get along with, though I succeed pretty well with her,” wrote one Federal official who had frequent dealings with her. 1 Mary Todd Lincoln was described at the time she made her home in Springfield in 1839: “She was of the average height, weighing about a hundred and thirty pounds. She was rather compactly built, had a well rounded face, rich dark-brown hair, and bluish-gray eyes. In her bearing she was proud, but handsome and vivacious; she was a good conversationalist, using with equal fluency the French and English languages.” This observer wrote: “When she used a pen, its point was sure to be sharp, and she wrote with wit and ability. She not only had a quick intellect but an intuitive judgment of men and their motives. Ordinarily she was affable and even charming in her manners; but when offended or antagonized she could be very bitter and sarcastic. In her figure and physical proportions, in education, bearing, temperament, history — in everything she was the exact reverse of Lincoln.” 2

Mary Todd was smart and ambitious. “‘Mary enjoyed reading a wide range of subjects, often reviewing a book for Mr. Lincoln. I heard him say he had no need to read a book after Mary gave him a synopsis. He had great respect for her judgment and never took an important step without consulting her,” recalled Emilie Todd Helm, Mary’s half-sister. “Mr. Lincoln appealed to the eternal feminine in Mary. She mothered her husband as she did her children, and he seemed very dependent on her. She would call him back and make him wrap his throat in a muffle. She watched his health as she did that of her little sons, and he never seemed impatient over all this fuss made over him. She was full of coquetry, and often patted his arm and slipped her lovely little white hand into his. The contrast between his big, bony, brown hand and hers was almost ludicrous. She was noted for her lovely hands. They were well formed, and as white as the roses she so often wore in her hair. She must have known how pretty her hands were for she made many quick little waves and bird-like gestures with them as she talked. 3

Like Mr. Lincoln, the future Mrs. Lincoln was born in Kentucky. Unlike Abraham Lincoln, Mary was born to wealth and privilege. Both Mary and her future husband had lost their mothers at an early age. Historian Michael Burlingame noted: “Mary was six when a postbirth bacterial infection killed Eliza Parker Todd; Lincoln was nine when Nancy Hanks Lincoln succumbed to the milk sick. Both children sustained wounds that crippled them emotionally and contributed mightily to the difficulties they would later experience as man and wife.” 4

But while Abraham Lincoln grew close to his step-mother, Mary’s relationship with her step-mother was tense. “Mary Todd, who was brought up in the aristocratic atmosphere of Lexington, Kentucky, would never have become the wife of Abraham Lincoln had both remained in the State in which they were born,” recalled one contemporary. “Social barriers were too strong for that. The poor boy of the cabin could not have found an opportunity to meet on equal terms the girl reared in a home of culture with slaves to wait upon her. But change of environment opened the door of opportunity, and there was a marriage in which the fires of affection often burned low.” 5

Mary met her future husband in 1838. Both belonged to “to a group known as the Coterie, dedicated to the cultivation of the arts, to political happenings in their fast-growing state, to the causes that excited the scholars of the day. They were conventional but avant-garde, and they went in for a round of parties, dances, sleigh rides, political rallies, picnics and other excursions. Lincoln was more at home swapping jokes and stories with his cronies around the stove in Speed’s quarters, but John Stuart saw to it that he joined the Coterie gatherings and visited Mary,” wrote biographer Ishbel Ross.” 6

There were other Springfield women like teenage Matilda Edwards whom Mr. Lincoln pursued in his early thirties, Matilda Edwards was the center of male attention in 1841. Lincoln scholar H. Donald Winkler wrote: “It was said that she broke more hearts, male and female, than any other girl in Springfield’s history. ‘Well,’ she reportedly said, ‘if the young men liked me, it is of no fault of mine!'” 7 Although Mary Todd had plenty of suitors, it is not obvious she seriously pursued any man other that Abraham Lincoln. Fellow attorney Orville H. Browning thought “that in her affair with Mr. Lincoln, Mary Todd did most of the courting.” He recalled sitting with Mary Todd and listening to her talk “about this affair of her with Mr. Lincoln. In these conversations I think it came out that Mr. Lincoln had perhaps on one occasion told Miss Todd that he loved Matilda Edwards, and no doubt his conscience was greatly worked up by the supposed pain and injury which this avowal had inflicted upon her.” Browning added: “I always doubted whether, had circumstances left him entirely free to act upon his own impulses, he would have voluntarily made proposals of marriage to Miss Todd. There is no doubt of her exceeding anxiety to marry him.” 8 Biographer Jesse W. Weik noted: “While Lincoln was far from the conventional ladies’ man, yet no one more deeply appreciated the charms of female society.” 9

Another Illinois attorney, Milton Hay, observed: “She may have had some influence upon him, but not in the way she claimed. I think she made his home tolerably disagreeable and hence he took to politics and public matters for occupation. If his domestic life had been entirely happy, I dare say he would have stayed at home and not busied himself with distant concerns. In that way she may have been of use to Lincoln.” 10 Despite his rough exterior and rougher manners, Mary was drawn to Abraham Lincoln and came to defend him from family criticism. Niece Katherine Helm wrote that “her cousins noticed that Mary flared into defense at the least criticism of Lincoln, although she herself still made a little – a very little – mild fun of the young lawyer. Mr. and Mrs. Edwards at last became alarmed at Mary’s evident preference, and feeling their responsibility as her guardians, they strongly objected and pointed out to Mary the incongruity of such a marriage. Although Mr. Lincoln was honorable, able and popular, his future, they said, was nebulous, his family relations were on a different social plane. His education had been desultory. He had no culture, he was ignorant of social forms and customs, he was indifferent to social position.” 11

“It was cousin John Todd Stuartmwho gave her an insight into Lincoln’s real character. She heard him tell, at a family gathering, of Lincoln’s amusing blunders in the black Hawk War,” recalled Emilie Todd Helm. “Noting her feelings, Stuart launched into a panegyric of Lincoln’s intellect. Mary idolized intellect. He told her how quickly Lincoln had mastered the science of law; how keen and honest his insight into matters of right and wrong; how unerring his judgment; how quick-witted he proved himself in quoting sentences applicable to a particular case from the Bible, Shakespeare, Robert Burns, or other authors he had absorbed and made his own; how surprisingly he had mastered the English language and how clearly, forcibly and eloquently he expressed his thought. Then with a note of tenderness Stuart described the dignity and nobility of his partner in defending the just cause of a poor and ignorant man. He told of his scorn for an ignoble action and of his scathing ridicule of a political demagogue in the opposition, making the audience roar with laughter and converting their sympathies and votes to his own side.” 12

The first engagement between Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln was broken at the beginning of January 1841. One Springfield resident recalled that the question Mr. Lincoln asked in the winter of 1840-1841 was whether “I incurred any obligation to marry that woman.” According to Turner R. King, “He wanted to dodge if he could.” 13 When he was about to break his engagement with Mary Todd, Mr. Lincoln prepared a letter for friend Joshua F. Speed to deliver. Speed refused saying: “I Shall not deliver it nor give it you to be delivered: Words are forgotten — Misunderstood – passed by — not noticed in a private Conversation — but once you put your words in writing and they Stand as a living & eternal Monument against you.” He urged Mr. Lincoln to confront Mary Todd in person — which he did. 14 That summer, meetings between Mr. Lincoln and Miss Todd resumed at the home of Springfield editor Simeon Francis, whose wife acted as a matchmaker for them. Katherine Helm wrote that their marriage in November came as a surprise to friends:

“Mr. Lincoln meeting Mr. Ninan Edwards on the street told him that he and Mary had decided to be married quietly at Mr. Dresser’s house that evening.”

“Mr. Edwards, feeling responsible for Mary, exclaimed: ‘No, I am Mary’s guardian and if she is married at all it must be from my house.'”

“Mary was consulted, and after some discussion she and Mr. Lincoln agreed to Mr. Edwards’ wishes. It was a bright cool morning in November and Mary fairly flew to the home of her uncle, Dr. John Todd, who was much beloved by his nieces, being so calm and quiet and affable. ‘Uncle,’ she cried excitedly, ‘you must go and tell my sister that Mr. Lincoln and I are to be married this evening,’ and turning to her cousin Elizabeth Todd, she asked her to put on her bonnet and go with her to make some purchases.”

“When they reached the Edwards home there was great excitement coupled with no little indignation, that such news should have been announced so suddenly that there was not time to make formal and suitable preparations for a wedding. But Dr. Todd was a suave and diplomatic advocate for Mary’s cause and soon had them all in smiling good-humor. Mrs. Edwards said with a teasing laugh, ‘It is fortunate, Mary, that you selected this evening, for the Episcopal sewing society meets with me and my supper is already ordered.’ ‘But,’ said Mrs. Grimsley, Mary’s cousin (Elizabeth Todd), in a statement to Miss Tarbell, ‘this comfortable little arrangement did not suit Mary,’ and Uncle John was sent post haste to inform Mr. Lincoln that the wedding would be deferred until the next evening.”

“The Episcopal minister, Mary’s close relatives, and a few of the most intimate friends of the two were notified. It was a very small gathering, not more than thirty people. But in spite of such hurried preparations, one of the guests writes, ‘The entertainment was simple but in beautiful taste.’ The bride wore one of her lovely embroidered white muslin dresses. Miss Jayne, Miss Rodney, and Miss Elizabeth Todd were her bridesmaids.”

“The heavy black clouds that had been massing all day sent down great splashing tear drops; then with the rain beating down in roaring torrents, raging and rattling at doors and windows, Mary Todd became the wife of Abraham Lincoln.” 15

“Half-sister Emilie Todd Helm recalled that Elizabeth Todd Edwards “had invited all of us to a supper party. Sister Mary had just finished a new dress, it was a white silk with blue brocaded flowers scattered over it in bunches and little garlands. When Mr. Lincoln came from his office Mary reminded him it was time to change for the party. He looked at her with a smile. ‘Fine feathers enough on you to make fine birds of both of us.’ Noticing her dress still further, he said, ‘Those posies on your dress are the color of your eyes.’ Mary dimpled with pleasure: ‘You see, Emilie, I am training my husband to see color. I do not think he knew pink from blue when I married him.'” 16

Emilie remembered: “One evening Bob and I were playing checkers. Mr. Lincoln was looking thoughtfully into the fire and apparently did not hear what Mary was saying. Finally a silence. Mary put down her piece of embroidery and said, ‘your silence is remarkably soothing, Mr. Lincoln, but we are not quite ready for sleep just yet.’ As Mr. Lincoln did not seem to hear, Mary got up and took his hand, ‘I fear my husband has become stone deaf since he left home at noon,’ she said. ‘I believe I have been both deaf and dumb for the last half hour,’ replied Mr. Lincoln, ‘but now you shall not complain’; and he launched into an anecdote of one of his clients which broke up the game of checkers and left us all speechless with laughter. Mary often watched for her husband and when it grew time for him to come home she would meet him at the gate and they would walk to the front door swinging hands and joking like two children.”

“Any one could see that Mr. Lincoln admired Mary and was very proud of her. She took infinite pains to fascinate him again and again with pretty coquettish clothes and dainty little airs and graces. She was gay and light-hearted, hopeful and happy. She had a high temper and perhaps did not always have it under complete control, but what did it matter? Her little temper was soon over, and her husband loved her none the less, perhaps all the more, for this human frailty which need his love and patience to pet and coax the sunny smile to replace the sarcasm and tears – and, oh, how she did love this man!” 17

The newlyweds moved into the Globe Tavern and remained there with their new son Robert Todd Lincoln until 1843 when they moved into a rented home that they eventually bought at the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets in Springfield. “In this house Mary defined her own style of domesticity, one that was distinct but reflected the middle-class taste of the period. Her entire upbringing, as well as her personal needs, influenced her decision to devote body and soul to husband, children, home.” wrote historian Charles B. Strozier. 18

The Lincolns had a rollercoaster courtship and a rollercoaster marriage: Harriet Hanks, daughter of Dennis Hanks’ daughter recalled “He seldom ever wore his coat in the house, and went to the table in his shirt-sleeves, which annoyed his wife, who loved to put on style. One day he undertook to correct his child and his wife was determined that he should not, and attempted to take it from him; but in this she failed. She tried tongue-lashing, but met with the same fate, for Mr. Lincoln corrected the child, as a father ought to, in the face of his wife’s anger, and that too without changing his countenance or making any reply to her.” 19

Opinions of their marriage have long varied widely. Lincoln biographer William E. Barton wrote: “It is possible to prove on the testimony of unimpeached witnesses that Lincoln loved his wife passionately, and that he did not love her at all; that he married Mary Todd because he loved her and had already answered in his own heart all his previous questions and misgivings, and that he married her because she and her relatives practically compelled him to do so, and that he went to the marriage altar muttering that he was going to hell; that Mary Todd not only admired Abraham Lincoln, but loved him with a beautiful and wifely devotion, and that she hated him and never ceased to wreak revenge upon him for having once deserted her upon the eve of their announced marriage.” 20

Psychobiographer Charles B. Strozier wrote: “Lincoln called her ‘Molly’ before the birth of their first son, Robert (1843). After that, she was ‘Mother’ or occasionally ‘little-woman’ or ‘Puss’ or ‘child-wife.’ She found security in his fatherly presence and remembered later that ‘he was never himself’ when she was not perfectly well. Lincoln enjoyed Mary’s enthusiasm for fine clothes and seemed proud of her good looks. She in turn delighted in making herself pretty for him. Her total love for him magnified his public and private virtues and minimized those of his political opponents.” 21

“Lincoln & his wife got along tolerably well, unless Mrs. L got the devil in her,” reported one Springfield neighbor. “Lincoln paid no attention — would pick up one of his Children & walked off — would laugh at her — pay no Earthy attention to her when in that wild furious Condition.” 22 Turner R. King contended “Lincolns wife was a hellion — a she devil — vexed — & harrowed the soul out of that good man — wouldn’t Cook for him — drove him from home &c — often & Often”. 23 Another Springfield resident, Thomas Dowling, recalled: “Mary was a little high strung. She came of blue blood, blue grass Kentucky stock; and her tastes were somewhat different from Abe’s, but, law, they got along well together. Mrs. Lincoln loved the dance, and often left her husband to take care of the children while she enjoyed the pleasures of the ballroom. To show you she was of a kindly disposition, however, and very womanly withal, when I came home from the Mexican war I stopped over night with Lincoln and his family, and when bedtime came she showed me to my sleeping apartment. I was very tired, and when I had retired she came in the room and carefully tucked the covers around me as though I were a child. The papers have said many things utterly untrue of Lincoln and his home life. After all, who of us is perfect? I think Lincoln was the best conversationalist of his time. We never retired when Lincoln stopped with my family until 11 or 12 at night, only wished then time was not so rapid in its flight.” 24 William H. Herndon wrote: “However cold and abstracted her husband may have appeared to others, however impressive, when aroused, may have seemed his indignation in public, he never gave vent to his feelings at home. He always meekly accepted as final the authority of his wife in all matters of domestic concern.” 25 After he yielded to Mrs. Lincoln’s wishes on a small matter in the White House, he told friends: “If you knew how little harm it does me and how much good it does her, you wouldn’t wonder that I am meek.” 26

Historian Allen C. Guelzo observed: “Mary was ill-suited to take life as the wife of a penny-wise middle class lawyer who made a point of milking his own cow and sawing his own wood. ‘If Mr. Lincoln should happen to die,’ Mary was heard to complain, ‘his spirit will never find me living outside the boundaries of a slave state.’ Even though Robert Smith Todd actually handed enough money every year to hire domestic help, living with a man so abstracted and detached must have been a trial for the nervous and well-educated Mary, and it gradually degenerated into what Herndon called a ‘domestic hell.'” 27 One young Springfield neighbor recalled that one day Mr. Lincoln came to their house with a carpetbag. He told her father: “Mary is having one of her spells, and I think I had better leave her for a few days. I didn’t want to bother her, and I thought as you and I are about the same size, you might be kind enough to let me take one of your clean shirts. I have found that when Mrs. Lincoln gets one of these nervous spells, it is better for me to go away for a day or two.” 28

Mary Lincoln has had her defenders. Historian Stephen B. Oates wrote: “Those who denigrate Mary forget that Lincoln himself was hard to live with. If Mary like a good argument now and then to clear the air, he often withdrew at the first sign of a confrontation, for he hated quarrels and tried to avoid them. He could be temperamental, introverted, and forlorn. And some of his daily habits irritated highborn Mary; he often answered the door in his stocking feet, and he liked to lie in the hallway and read newspapers aloud.” 29 Historian Jean H. Baker wrote: “To a great extent Mary Lincoln was a single parent. Despite the homey paternal images of her husband pulling his children in wagons and babysitting while she went to church, he could not have done this very often, for he was away a great deal. And for all his sensitivity to the ‘little codgers,’ he was a distracted man” 30 Historian Charles B. Strozier concluded: “Mary, who needed Lincoln’s fatherly help and support, found that problems with the children proved to be an effective basis for manipulating him into a more central place in the household. Some problems, of course, were real Mary, however, seemed full of fears even when all was well. When she sensed a hint of danger she panicked, and when disaster actually struck she collapsed.” 31

“There is no doubt that Mary Todd was highly temperamental. There is no doubt that she was super-critical. There is no doubt that she often devoid of tact. There is no doubt that was — during a large portion of her married life — a nervous and mental invalid, subject to violent fits of anger, and almost childish tantrums. There is no doubt that she was almost insanely jealous. There is no doubt that — at time — she nagged her patient husband outrageous,” wrote Lincoln scholar Jewett E. Ricker Jr. “But against these traits, it is only fait — I think — to contrast her almost fanatical loyalty; her excellent judgment in times of great stress; her unswerving love and devotion both to her husband and to her children and — from a practical point of view — her driving ambition which forced Lincoln to make the most of his ability and his opportunities.” 32

Historian Jean H. Baker wrote: “The significance of Mary’s domesticity, for her, was that she carried it with her to Washington and her new role as First Lady. There her efforts to manage the White House conflicted with those of the American people, who were unprepared for the Mary Lincoln version of domestic feminism in what they considered their house. Having never learned of the public world while enrolled in her distinctly private one, Mary violated the boundaries erected around the proper female deportment of the wives of public officials. But what she had done in Springfield, she would do in Washington.” 33 Biographer Baker maintained that Mary Todd Lincoln “helped her husband career in several ways. She wrote letters seeking endorsements when he wanted to become the Commissioner of the Land Office in 1850; she entertained the leading politicians of Illinois at her famous ‘strawberry parties;’ and she offered her advice and counsel to her husband as he emerged from his status as a little known state legislator into a nationally prominent politician. Throughout the valleys of Lincoln’s career when he twice was defeated in his efforts to become a United States Senator, she encouraged ambitions that another wife might have tried to stifle. After Lincoln became president, many of his associates remembered stories of his wife’s encouragement. At first he considered his wife’s conviction that he would some day become president of the United States a joke, but in time, the popular ‘Rail Splitter’ became a presidential possibility.” 34

John Mendonsa recalled that his “father used to work for Mr. Lincoln, tending his garden and sawing wood. This was from the year 1858 up to his election to the presidency. At the time Mr. Lincoln had his office on the northwest corner of the square over the Stebbins’ hardware store. I often went to the office with father to get the pay for the work done. Father could not talk English, I went to interpret for him. I hardly ever went there that Mr. Lincoln did not make me a present of a piece of money and pat me on the face and say: ‘Now, you must be a good boy. Come again.'”

“‘Mr. Lincoln was a great friend to the poor man and a great lover of little children,’ said Mr. Mendonza [sic], with a world of feeling in his tone and manner. ‘The last time we saw him, father and I, was after his election. It was that sad morning at the old Great Western Depot, when he bid all farewell from the rear platform of the last car. He saw father standing by, and reached his hand down and shook father by the hand and bade him goodby. It was the last time we saw him alive.'”

“And then Mr. Mendonza told, in his own way, a story of Lincoln, homely, trivial in incident, but full of the nature which made him great.”

“One day, the latter part of July, 1859,’ he said, ‘my father and brother-in-law and I went after blackberries five miles out of the city. We started at 4 o’clock in the morning. The day was very hot. We hunted for blackberries all morning, for at that time they were getting scarce. We were gone until 11:30 in the forenoon, and all father got was 3 pints. He took them to Mrs. Lincoln, but when she saw them she complained because they were so small. Father told me to tell Mrs. Lincoln these were the last picking; they were smaller than the last, but no more were to be found. He had been all morning since 4 o’clock finding these. Mrs. Lincoln wanted to know what father asked for these. I told her 15 cents. She refused to pay more than 10 cents. Father said he could not afford to sell for that. So just as we were about to start away, Mr. Lincoln came around the house from the front. He greeted father and asked me why we did not sell the berries to Mrs. Lincoln. I told him that we had only 3 pints that father had been out ever since 4 o’clock gathering the 3 pints, and that Mrs. Lincoln wanted to give father only 10 cents for them. Mr. Lincoln put 15 cents in my hand and told Mrs. Lincoln to take them and put them away. Mrs. Lincoln did not like that. Mr. Lincoln spoke up and told me to tell father it was cheap enough; that he had earned every cent and more, too. Mr. Lincoln was a very kindhearted man.'” 35

Mr. Lincoln’s standards of civility, however, never reached those of his wife. Mrs. Lincoln’s niece wrote: “That Lincoln did not observe the conventionalities of society alternately amused and irritated Mary although she realized that many things he did not know or do must be ingrained and carefully taught in childhood, by precept and example, and that if merely conformed to later in life is only an artificial veneer more easily peeled off than put on. When Mary slyly poked fun at him for committing some faux pas he would look at her quizzically, his gray eyes twinkling, as if to say, ‘How can you attach such great importance to matters so trivial?’ and Mary’s color would deepen as though caught in a petty meanness, or if she spoke sharply in reproof, the hurt look in his eyes made her repentant and almost ready to weep. ‘Mary could make a bishop forget his prayers,’ chuckled Ninian Edwards one day when Mary mimicked the mannerisms of some of her beaux with unflattering fidelity, although her imitation of Lincoln was never so full of spice.” 36

Mrs. Lincoln’s half sister recalled: “I heard a story going the rounds of our family in Springfield, told with variations and great glee to tease Mary, that Mr. Lincoln playing with the baby and pretending to be the pony pulling the baby-wagon forgot the baby in it and thinking of something else did not realize that he was pulling an empty wagon, that he had dumped the little driver, who was left kicking and squalling in the gutter. Mary coming up the street at that moment, seeing the catastrophe, screamed and ran to the little fellow’s assistance – and, who could blame her if she said a sharp word to the father so immersed in thought that he did not know he had spilled his baby? With much laughter, they told me that Mr. Lincoln did not wait to hear all that Mary had to say, his long legs taking him out of sight with great celerity.” 37

Katherine Todd Helm maintained: “Mr. Lincoln enjoyed his home and he and Mary idolized their children. So far as I could see there was complete and loving kindness between Mary and her husband, consideration for each other’s wishes and a taste for the same books. They seemed congenial in all things.” 38 Historian Michael Burlingame has seen their relationship differently. “Abraham Lincoln seems to have been one of those men who regard ‘connubial bliss’ as an oxymoron. In 1864 he pardoned a soldier who had deserted to go home and marry his sweetheart. As he signed the necessary documents, he told an intercessor on behalf of the condemned, ‘I want to punish the young man — probably in less than a year he will wish I had withheld the pardon.’ Much evidence suggests that Lincoln regretted his marriage as much as he expected the soldier to rue his.” 39

Burlingame maintained that Mrs. Lincoln nagged and abused her husband. He wrote that Mrs. Lincoln “took the broom to her husband, according to Hillary Gobin, a neighbor of the Lincolns’ in the 1850s. Mrs. Gobin recalled her mother saying that Mary and Abraham Lincoln ‘were very unhappy in their domestic life, and she was seen frequently to drive him from the house with the house with a broomstick.’ As a young girl, Lizzie DeCrastos visited the Lincoln home with her mother and observed Lincoln flee out the door as his angry wife attacked him with ‘very poorly pitched potatoes.’ A servant girl recalled that one day as Lincoln prepared to leave for Taylorville, ‘His wife ran him out of the house half dressed — as she followed him with a broom.’ Lincoln told the servant ‘not to get scared’ but to go into the house and fetch him some clothes, which he donned and then ‘went up town through the woodhouse and alley.'” 40

Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote: “Mary Todd Lincoln extracted her own measure of marital revenge. High-strung and easily irritated like so many of her Todd relatives. Mary soon displayed a temper that could turn her into what Herndon called ‘a tigress’ and could turn the Lincoln marriage into ‘a domestic hell on earth.’ Turner King described her as ‘a hellion a she devil’ who ‘vexed – and harrowed the soul out of that good man.’ Her tantrums exceed what might be otherwise thought of as simple outbursts of exasperation: Springfield neighbors ‘heard Mrs. L. yelling and screaming at L. as if in hysterics,’ saw her attempt to assault him, sometimes with stove wood or books or broom handles, or noticed that Lincoln would get up in the middle of the night ‘and went whistling through the streets and alleys till day’ to escape her hectoring criticisms of his clothes or manners. Being ‘always rigidly frugal’ in money matters, Lincoln inadvertently tipped Mary over into miserliness in bargaining with shopkeepers, and her early habits of dealing with servants as slaves made her an intolerable mistress to the string of immigrant Irish girls hired to do the kitchen chores.” 41

Mary enjoyed the limelight and looked forward to life in Washington, but she had to content herself with ceremonial concerns even before they Lincolns left Springfield for Washington. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “Mary reveled in her newfound celebrity. She delighted in the crowds of visitors coming to her house, the artists pleading to paint her husband’s portrait, the prominent politicians waiting for the chance to converse with the presidential nominee.” 42 She revolted, however, when commanding general Winfield Scott suggested at the beginning of the Civil War that she “be sent north for a time, until the Capitol should be safe,” remembered cousin Elizabeth Todd Grimsley. “Mrs. Lincoln turned to her husband saying, ‘Will you go with us?’, and his speedy answer came ‘Most assuredly I will not leave at this juncture’; and the response was just as prompt, ‘Then I will not leave you at this juncture’; and the General found he had met as determined, brave, and fearless a wife, as he was an officer.” 43

Mr. Lincoln’s election as President appeared to have released the shopping genie in his wife. “She was not an extravagant woman before she went to Washington,” recalled fellow attorney Milton Hay. “When she lived in Springfield, she was rather on the saving side of things. She held herself in general to be of more consequence than Mr. Lincoln, and I suppose that in this world’s eye she was raised amidst more luxuries or better comfort. She was of a rather hard nature, not soft, easily moved or thoughtful about what she should do or say. She had a very high temper, and it did not grow much better with time.” 44 Mary understood that there were public expectations for her wardrobe. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “Mary’s self-conscious attention to the details of her bonnet was not entirely misplaced. Newspaper reports of her evening receptions invariably commented on every piece of her apparel.” 45

To finance these shopping expenditures, Mrs. Lincoln sought to rearrange the household finances of the White House. Lincoln scholar H. Donald Winkler wrote: “Mary’s dishonest financial manipulations were scandalous. In the summer of 1861, she claimed $900 for a $300 dinner for a visiting French dignitary, but Interior Secretary Caleb Smith rejected it after consulting with Secretary Seward, who knew the dinner’s actual cost. A White House gatekeeper, James H. Upperman, complained to Secretary Smith about Mary’s ‘deliberate collusion’ and ‘flagrant frauds on the public treasury.’ Officials subsequently informed the President that ‘Mrs. Lincoln is involved in ethically insensitive conduct.’ Lincoln hung his head in shame and said he was convinced ‘her peculiar behavior is the result of partial insanity.'” 46

Mrs. Lincoln’s ambitions for her husband had been realized with her husband’s election as president in November 1860, but her ambitions for social acceptance were never met. “Mrs. Lincoln was a fortunate woman, in that she secured the measure of her ambition, but it was the impartial judgment of her friends that she was not a happy person,” concluded nineteenth century historian Laura C. Holloway. “She was fond of society and pleased with excitement. She would have made the White House socially what it was under other administrations, but that was impossible. She found herself surrounded on every side by people who were ready to exaggerate her shortcomings, find fault with her deportment on all occasions, and criticize her performance of all her official duties.” 47

Before Mr. Lincoln’s pre-inaugural journey to Washington, Mrs. Lincoln went one shopping trip to Chicago with her husband and one shopping trip to New York in the company of her oldest son Robert. The 12-day trip to Washington must have been a triumph for Mrs. Lincoln but her arrival in the capital a day after her husband must have been a disappointment. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “When the train finally arrived, one reporter noted, ‘four carriages were driven up to the rear car, from which Mr. William H. Seward soon emerged with Mrs. Lincoln and her sons. Once it became clear that the president-elect was not aboard, the assembled citizens began to voice their dismay. ‘The rain was pouring down in torrents, there was no escape, and the crowd indulged in one or two jokes, a little whistling, and considerable swearing.’ This was not the welcome Mary had expected. Leaning upon Seward’s arm as she alighted at the Willard, she was anxious. She had distrusted Seward from the start, fearing that he would be a continuing rival to her husband; now she was forced to depend on him during her less than triumphant entry into the city that would be her new home.” 48

Mrs. Lincoln was sensitive to both social conventions and social snubs. Unfortunately for her, she found it impossible to satisfy the southern matriarchs who ruled Washington society and difficult to gain the trust of Republican northerners. Lincoln scholar Albert Shaw wrote: “The extreme antislavery elements, and these became increasingly large, grew deeply suspicious because Mrs. Lincoln had come from Kentucky. It was enough for the censorious fanatics that her own brothers and other relatives were living in the South and were serving in the Confederate Army. The extreme elements in the South, on the other hand, hated Mrs. Lincoln because, in point of fact, she was intensely loyal to her husband and to the Union cause, although of Southern origin. People in the back districts of all the Southern states were told that Mrs. Lincoln had Negro blood in her veins and was profligate in her personal life.” 49

Cousin Elizabeth Todd Grimsley remembered that “…the story became current that Mrs. Lincoln ‘was not loyal’, ‘was a rebel’, ‘not in sympathy with her husband’, and for a time it was believed by some that she was in communication with the Confederate Army, as State Secrets had leaked out, and it was well known that her brothers and sisters in the South, were active Confederates. This exasperated her beyond measure, as she was, heart and soul, with her husband, and the Union.” 50 William O. Stoddard, the presidential aide who opened Mrs. Lincoln’s mail and otherwise acted as her assistant, reported the rumors and suspicions that swirled around Mrs. Lincoln:

“The tide of official and all other kinds of visitors has set in again, and the White House is as busy as ever. It is understood, moreover, that the remainder of the autumn and the coming winter are to be marked as a society season, and that the city of Washington will be as gay a town as any garrisoned post can expect to be in time of war.”

“What is it Edward the White House doorkeeper ?”

“Madame expects you in the Red Room this evening. She’s to have a reception. Will you please come down now for a few minutes.”

“It is a little early in the season for Mrs. Lincoln’s Red Room receptions to begin, but she has good reasons for the announcement she has sent out. She is entirely willing to do her duty and to sit through the evening in her parlor, while her smiling guests pull her in pieces, and she says so, cheerfully, as you chat with her and receive her instructions.”

“She has gone now, and we may as well linger a moment in the Red Room. It is not large, and it is made smaller by its massive furniture, its heavy curtains, its grand piano, and by the consciousness that it is in the middle corner, so to speak, of an unusually large house.”

“Put aside the curtains and look out of this window, across the White House grounds. You cannot see far, because of the trees and bushes; but, upon a careful study, you will understand, as you shove up the sash, that this is one of the most important windows in the United States. Mrs. Lincoln is in constant communications with the Confederate Government, betraying the war-plans of the Union generals, and this must be where she does it, for this is sacredly her own room. Even the President himself has never been seen here. The mails are not a channel for treachery, since every letter to Mrs. Lincoln is opened and read upstairs. The telegraphic wires are under War Office censorship, of a peculiarly rigid kind, and there is no private wire to the White House. The servants, downstairs, are known to be intensely loyal, and would neither carry nor bring a communication of the Arnold-Andre kind. There is, therefore, but one entirely reasonable solution of the problem of how Mr. Jefferson Davis, or his next of kind, can receive army plans from Mrs. Lincoln, after she has obtained them from the President, and Halleck, and Stanton, and McClellan, and General Smith. The Confederate spies work their way through the lines easily enough, fort after fort, till they reach the Potomac down yonder. The Long Bridge is closed to them, and so is the Georgetown Bridge, but they cross at night in rowboats, or by swimming, and they come up through the grounds, like so many ghosts, and they put a ladder up to this window, and Mrs. Lincoln hands them out the plans.”

“Where do they get the ladder?”

“Well, now, you tell, if you know. They may borrow it of Jacob. But there is no other way for the alleged treasonable communication to be carried on.” 51

Despite her critics, Mrs. Lincoln could be charming at White House receptions. Journalist and Civil War nurse Jane Grey Swisshelm remembered: “When I came to Mrs. Lincoln, she did not catch the name at first, and asked to hear it again, then repeated it, and a sudden glow of pleasure lit her face, as she held out her hand and said how very glad she was to see me. I objected to giving her my hand because my black glove would soil her white one; but she said: ‘Then I shall preserve the glove to remember a great pleasure, for I have long wished to see you.'” Swisshelm later recalled: “I understood at once that I had met one with whom I was in sympathy. No politeness could have summoned that sudden flash of pleasure. Her manner was too simple and natural to have any art in it; and why should she have pretended a friendship she did not feel?” According to abolitionist Swisshelm: “I recognized Mrs. Lincoln as a loyal, liberty-loving woman, more staunch even than her husband in opposition to the Rebellion and its cause, and as my very dear friend for life.” 52

Mrs. Lincoln, however, had very distinct likes and dislikes. A social conflict erupted at the beginning of the Lincoln Administration, according to Elizabeth Todd Grimsley: “Mr. Seward indicated that he proposed to lead off in holding a major social reception. To this Mrs. Lincoln objected, urging that the first official entertainment should be given by the President. There was some little discussion from which it could perhaps be seen that Mr. Seward had even in so small a matter the same idea of taking precedence which he expressed as to larger ones in his famous letter of the same month, (April the first), to which the President made so prompt a reply. The question was, however, soon settled and the reception announced for the 8th of the month, at the Executive Mansion.” 53

Although the Lincolns were initially drawn together by a common interest in Whig politics, Mrs. Lincoln’s influence over her husband was virtually nil in the White House. Her judgment was both flawed and unbalanced Journalist Horace White recalled that a visit that Herman Kreismann made to the home of President-elect Lincoln in Springfield: “Arrived at the house he was ushered in a room where both Mr. & Mrs. L. Were. The latter was on the floor in a sort of hysterical fit, caused by L’s refusal to promise the position of Naval officer of the N.Y. Custom House to New York Post co-owner Isaac Henderson, who had sent a diamond brooch to a Springfield jeweler to be given to Mrs. L. In case she could secure the promise of this office. The fit continued until the promise was obtained. Henderson was, in fact, appointed. He was afterwards indicted by the Grand Jury for defrauding, the Government, & tried before Judge Nelson, but was saved from conviction by some technicality.” 54

At the beginning of the Lincoln Administration, Mary tried to exercise her influence indirectly. Historian Charles b. Strozier noted: “As early as January, 1861, she had been forced to turn to David Davis to influence Lincoln; she had lost a voice in the Government before it even began.” Nevertheless, wrote Strozier, “Mary meddled in small matters of influence and large matters of policy.” 55 Her efforts were largely without effect. Senator Charles Sumner contended that “Mary Lincoln meddled in nearly all patronage affairs early in her husband’s administration,” wrote historian Michael Burlingame. “Another learned Massachusetts politician, George Bancroft, heard that she ‘wished a rogue who had cheated the government made a lieutenant: the cabinet thrice put the subject aside. One morning in came Lincoln sad and sorrowful: “Ah,’ said he, ‘today we must settle the case of Lieutenant ___, Mrs. Lincoln has for three nights slept in a separate apartment”‘ It was reported that she lobbied on behalf of Caleb Lyon, a candidate for a territorial governorship, because ‘he had published one or two fulsome puffs of Mrs. Lincoln in the newspapers.” 56

“With the patronage seekers stretched out up the stairs and lounging in the crowded upstairs hall on what the President called the ‘begging days,’ Mary had to step over them on her way to her second-floor bedroom in the southwester wing of the White House. The more assertive among them seized the opportunity, making known their requests to Mary Lincoln who became the tainted alter ego of Honest Abe in a society in which male politicians routinely exchanged favors,” wrote biographer Jean H. Baker. 57 Mary did understand when to back off, however. When her suggestions became a bother, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton informed her that the nation and the war effort demanded qualified people. She was persuaded and promised “I will never ask you for anything again.” Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin noted: “True to her word, Stanton affirmed, ‘she never did.'” 58 Mrs. Lincoln did try to work through her New York friends and her White House salon, however. Although women were occasionally invited to her Mary’s social gatherings, noted Thomas Keneally, “Chiefly it was the fellows and Mary Todd, and the fellows acquired nicknames: ‘Gov.,’ “Pet” for Halstead, ‘Chev’ for Wikoff, ‘Cap’ for Sickles, and for Mary herself, ‘La Reine.'” 59 These were Mary’s friends, not her husband’s — although Senator Charles Sumner eventually joined her social circle.

Mrs. Lincoln’s judgment in people was not so discerning as her husband’s and she got into particular trouble with New Yorkers. The worst of this group probably was “Chevalier” Henry Wikoff, a correspondent for the New York Herald. Biographer Historian W.A. Swanberg wrote: “The President’s wife, keenly sensitive to malicious newspaper gibes about her Western background, was uneasy and insecure in her post as First Lady, and felt need of a social counselor. This was Wikoff’s forte, and he moved into a position at Mary Lincoln’s right hand.” 60 He became an integral, if not necessarily appropriate, part of the White House by the fall of 1861. By October 1861, presidential aide John Hay, writing anonymously for a Missouri newspaper, observed: “That unclean bird, Henry Wyckoff [sic], has smelt something in the air and has come fluttering down from New York to nose out the news. I saw the vile creature at Willard’s last night, creeping around crowds of talking politicians, listening and smiling, and remembering. It is an enduring disgrace to American society that it suffers such a thing to be at large. A marked and branded social Pariah, a monstrosity abhorred by men and women, he still associates with gentlemen, and you sometimes meet him in the company of ladies. There is not such a city of contrasts out of the realm of dreams as Washington.” 61

Matthew Hale Smith wrote of one visitor from New York, probably Wikoff: “Among the visitors at the White House was a person very notorious in New York, with whom no reputable woman would willingly be seen on Broadway. He had travelled much in Europe; by what means few could tell. Those not acquainted with his inner life could be easily imposed upon by the appearance and conversation of the man. He was very officious in his attention to Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, especially the latter. His frequent visits to Washington, and his receptions at the White House, were noticed by the friends of the President. At all of the receptions of Mrs. Lincoln he was an early and constant visitor. At the informal receptions he was found. No one went so early but this person could be seen cozily seated in a chair as if at home, talking to the ladies of the White House. None called so late but they found him still there. The servants of the White House marked his familiarity, his coming and going. The officials who had the honor of the President’s mansion in charge felt keenly the constant inquiries about the visits of this man. More than once, persons from different sections of the country, who were annoyed that they could never enter the White House without encountering this New Yorker, would accost the doorkeeper with questions like these: ‘Do the ladies receive to-night?’ ‘Yes, sir, at eight o’clock.’ ‘Are they in the drawing-room?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Has anybody called?’ ‘I believe a gentleman has.’ ‘What is his name?’ ‘He is a gentleman from New York, sir.’ ‘Is it Mr.____?’ (Reluctantly) ‘I believe he is in there, sir.’ ‘What is he here at the White House so much for?’ (With a shrug of the shoulder) ‘I can’t say, sir.'” 62

Civil War Journalist Henry Villard wrote: “Wikoff was of middle age, an accomplished man of the world, a fine linguist, with graceful presence, elegant manners, and a conscious, condescending way — altogether, just such a man as would be looked upon as a superior being by a woman accustomed only to Western society. Wikoff showed the utmost assurance in his appeals to the vanity of the mistress of the White House. I myself heard him compliment her upon her looks and dress in so fulsome a way that she ought to have blushed and banished the impertinent fellow from her presence. She accepted Wikoff as a majordomo general and in special, as a guide in matters of social etiquette, domestic arrangements, and personal requirements, including her toilette, and as always welcome company for visitors in her salon and on her drives.” 63

Matthew Hale Smith wrote: “The bad repute of the person referred to was well known in Washington. His constant visits to the mansion were well known, and ere the theme of general remark. More than once he had been seen riding in the President’s coach, with the ladies, through Pennsylvania Avenue. Frequently he was found lounging in the conservatory, or smoking in the grounds, very much at home, and not at all anxious to hide his presence. The public press began to speak out, and was not at all complimentary to the President’s family. Some of the western papers printed articles in relation to this that were scandalous. Two of the leading daily papers of New York had articles of a similar import. It was evident that soon the scandal would be public unless something was done to reassure the public conscience.” 64 Contempt for Wikoff was widespread. Laura Wood Roper, biographer of Frederick Law Olmsted, wrote: “Lounging one late September evening in the president’s park, Olmsted was enjoying the music of the Marine band and the strollers grouped pleasingly on the lawn when he saw on the grand portico of the White House, looking down in a queenly way, ‘Mrs. Lincoln with no other lady, and no man but that insufferable beast Wycoff [sic].” 65

Mathew Hale Smith observed: “As few friends of Mr. Lincoln, who believed that the whole of this matter was a scheme to strike him through his household, and so obtain office and preferment, resolved to problem the matter to the bottom. They collected the rumors, reduced the scandal to shape, cut out from the newspapers the various articles in relation to the matter that were going the rounds, and met in a quiet manner to see what could be done. I was present at that first meeting when it was resolved, in a quiet way, track these scandals to their source. It was easily done. The person whose presence at Washington created so much scandal was known to be penniless, and in his career must be supported by some parties in New York, who were using him as their tool. Such was found to be the case. Ostensibly a man and woman in the city were his backers. They furnished him with money and instructions. He was to go to Washington, make himself agreeable to the ladies, insinuate himself into the White House, attend levees, show that he had power to come and go, and, if possible, open a correspondence with the ladies of the mansion, no matter how indifferent the subject might be. Having obtained influence and tangible proof of his standing with the ladies of the White House, his backers, in due time, would make such use of his influence as would prove profitable to them. The wretched tool did his work well, and for a time success promised to crown his labors. He sent regular bulletins to New York, stating how well he was succeeding in his dirty work; how he visited the mansion; what was said” 66

“Wikoff was a bon vivant, a n’er do well, and a mystery man. He generally had a bad reputation, but he had good qualities as well.” Journalist John W. Forney recalled that “Wikoff is only happy in the society of the cultivated and the powerful.” He wrote that Wikoff “never quarrels with power if he can get on peacefully. Politics makes no difference with him. He was just as friendly with Lincoln as with Buchanan, and did Mr. Seward’s work as faithfully as that of Louis Napoleon. One of his mottoes is never to adopt the enmities of others, but to make life pleasant, and to cultivate kindly relations” 67

Journalism historian Edwin Emery wrote: “Parts of the President’s first message to a regular session of Congress in December, 1861, appeared in the Herald the morning the document was presented to the legislators. Chairman John Hickman of the House Judiciary Committee turned aside from an investigation of telegraphic censorship to find out about this leak. It was traced to Wikoff, although the affair was hushed up before all the facts could be made public.” 68 In early 1862, General Daniel Sickles took on an usual role as counsel for Wikoff, who had been charged with stealing the President’s annual message to Congress and wiring it to his newspaper. Sickles biographer Thomas Keneally argued that Sickles was “also less officially representing the White House, since many suspected Wikoff had acquired the speech by way of the President’s wife. Sickles was known to be so popular with Mrs. Lincoln that somehow his appointment as counsel confirmed, in the minds of many, that there was a White House clique around Mrs. Lincoln who would close ranks and protect her from the disgrace some were only too willing to visit on her.” 69

When Wikoff refused to answer some questions from the House Judiciary Committee, he was arrested. Sickles put together a deal by which White House gardener John Watt admitted to memorizing the message after seeing it in President Lincoln’s House office. In the process, attention was deflected away from the role that Mrs. Lincoln may have played in the affair. According to Sickles biographer Thomas Keneally, “The hearing had reached an embarrassing stage for Mr. Lincoln, who wrote to the members of the committee and asked them not to bring any further disgrace on him. Wikoff was instantly released. Mary had always been loyal to Watt, even though one of his gardeners sported the blue cockade of the Confederacy while he tended to the White House vegetables. But during his visits to her during the committee hearings, Dan had persuaded her to give him up. With the First Lady’s help, Dan gathered evidence of Watt’s frauds and used them to intimidate him and offer him a choice of prison or the army.” 70

Sickles now returned the loyalty which Wikoff had earlier extended to him when Sickles had murdered his wife’s lover. Sickles biographer W.A. Swanberg wrote: “Sickles worked energetically to save Wikoff and also Mrs. Lincoln from the consequences of this folly — so energetically that when the general was summoned before the Committee there was a lively clash and Sickles came close to following his crony to jail for contempt.” 71 Sickles biographer Edgcumb Pinchon argued that Sickles’ role in defending Wikoff and pressuring John Watt to admit his role in the scandal was remembered by the President in 1863. “That little drama — starring Mary Todd as a First Lady given to strange infatuations and the amorous General Dan Sickles as her confidant and champion — had not been forgotten. And now when, newly arrayed in battle glory, the general had returned to Washington — and conquests of another kind — his frequent visits to the White House had revived the buzz of speculation. Manifestly, with one leg, he was more fatal to the feminine than ever he had been with two,” wrote Pinchon. 72

The First Lady’s influence was limited, despite her best efforts to intrude in government affairs. “Mary Lincoln’s domain was her home — even in the White House,” Ronald Rietvield wrote. 73 White House bodyguard William Crook maintained that Mrs. Lincoln “knew just what kinds of foods should be provided, what cuts of various meats were the best, how vegetables should be prepared, how bread should be made. And what is more her cook, her waiters, and her other servants, knew what she knew. In consequence, the domestic affairs of the executive Mansion ran along their way smoothly and serenely and most comfortably.” 74 Biographer Ruth Painter Randall wrote: “Mary brought to her position as White House hostess fine qualifications: the birth and rearing of a gentlewoman, an excellent cultural education, a bright, quick responsive mind, the charm of a vital and joyous personality, a conscientious desire to help her husband by fulfilling her duties, and the love of social life that stems from a genuine interest in people and events.” 75

Mrs. Lincoln had less control over state affairs at the White House. Rietveld wrote: “Although she was the First Lady, the president placed his private secretary, John G. Nicolay, in charge of managing the arrangements, which involved much when precedent is so important, especially with foreign dignitaries,” wrote historian Ronald D. Rietveld. 76 Mrs. Lincoln did not always approve of those arrangements and she often came into conflict with Nicolay and his assistant, John Hay, who referred to her as “the hell-cat”.

At the funeral of family friend Edward Baker in October 1861, Mrs. Lincoln scandalized official Washington “by wearing a lilac silk dress, with bonnet and gloves to match,” wrote Lincoln scholar Donald Winkler. In response, Mary complained: “I wonder if the women of Washington expect me to muffle myself up in mourning for every soldier killed in this great war?” She added: “I want the women to mind their own business; I intend to wear what I please.” 77 But when her own son died a few months later, Mrs. Lincoln wore black for a year and terminated most social engagements. Willie fell ill the day his mother had planned a major White House reception on February 5, 1862 that engendered a wave of disapproval. Journalist Ben Perley Poore noted:”The Abolitionists throughout the country were merciless in their criticism of the President and Mrs. Lincoln for giving this reception when the soldiers were in cheerless bivouacs or comfortless hospitals, and a Philadelphia poet wrote a scandalous ode on the occasion, entitled, The Queen Must Dance.” 78

Mrs. Lincoln’s social schedule evaporated with the death of her son Willie in later that month. In November 1864, Mrs. Lincoln wrote: “Willie, darling Boy! was always the idolized child, of the household. So gentle, so meek, for a more Heavenly Home. We were having so much bless. Doubtless ere this, our Angel boys, are reunited for they loved each other, so much on Earth.” 79 She was devastated — physically and emotionally by Willie’s death as she had been more than a decade earlier by the death of three-year-old Eddie. Furthermore, Mary continued to suffer from intense migraines.

Mrs. Lincoln ordered the Saturday afternoon concerts of the Marine Band, held on the White House lawn, to be cancelled. “It is our especial desire that the Band, does not play in these grounds, this Summer. We expect our wishes to be complied with,” Mrs. Lincoln wrote to John Hay in late May 1862. 80 After John Hay wrote Mary Lincoln asking if the Marine Band could resume its concerts in Lafayette Square, she replied: “It is hard that in this time of our sorrow, we should be thus harassed. The music in Lafayette square, would sound quite as plainly here. For this reason, at least, our feelings should be respected.” 81

It took more than a year for Mrs. Lincoln to return fully to her role as White House hostess. In December 1863, journalist Noah Brooks announced: “With the opening of Congress commences a series of daily levees by Mrs. Lincoln, who will receive from noon to three o’clock, afternoon, and from seven to ten o’clock in the evening. The President will also appear, whenever his time will allow, at the evening levees. No standard of dress will be established other than that people shall appear in decent and clean clothes. Mrs. Lincoln will put off her mourning dress upon the first of January, and will wear purple during the Winter season.” 82

Mrs. Lincoln treasured her son Robert’s visits to Washington — especially after Willie’s death. She wrote a friend in May 1862: “Robert will be home from Cambridge in about 6 weeks and will spend his vacation with us. He has grown and improved more than anyone you ever saw -.” 83 That summer, Mary Lincoln wrote a friend that “our boy Robert, is with us, whom you may remember. We consider it a ‘pleasant time’ for us, when his vacations, roll around, he is very companionable, and I shall dread when he has to return to Cambridge.” 84 Mary also treasured the visits of Robert’s old Springfield friends. In November 1864, Mrs. Lincoln wrote Mercy Levering Conkling that Robert was expecting a visit from Clinton Conkling — “do not fail, my dear friend to send him.” 85

Mr. Lincoln understood his wife’s weaknesses. “While Mary was courageous and daring about most things, a thunderstorm was terrifying to her,” recalled half-sister Emilie. “Mr. Lincoln, knowing this, at the first muttering of thunder would leave his law office and hurry home to quiet her fears and comfort her until the storm was over.” 86 Even her children frightened her. Cousin Elizabeth Todd Grimsley recalled: “In some of these camp excursions the boys contracted the measles and for two or three weeks were quite sick. The mother, always over-anxious and worried about the boys and withal not a skillful nurse, was totally unfitted for caring for them. They disliked their attendant maid, and by degrees, I was inveigled into the nursery, and by way of a pet name, was dubbed ‘Grandmother’ though a younger woman than the mother.” 87

The Lincolns’ relationship is difficult to understand because the existing written correspondence between them is very limited. Unlike General George B. McClellan or Secretary of State William H. Seward, Mr. Lincoln wrote few letters to his wife and those he did write were generally short and to the point. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “While Lincoln spent hours writing letters to keep generals and politicians on an even keel, he apparently never found the solace Seward and Chase took in their extensive family correspondence.” 88 On those occasions when Mary left Washington on her regular vacations, visits to Robert in Massachusetts and shopping sprees, President Lincoln’s letters or telegrams to Mary were usually brief. Sometimes, Mary had to beg for a brief note on the President’s well-being. “I have waited in vain to hear from you, yet as you are not given to letter writing, will be charitable enough to impute your silence, to the right cause.” 89 President Lincoln wrote his wife an unusually chatty letter on August 8, 1863 — which he posted but apparently was never delivered:

“All is well as usual, and no particular trouble any way. I put the money into the Treasury at five per cent, with the privilege of withdrawing it any time upon thirty days’ notice. I suppose you are glad to learn this. Tell dear Tad, poor ‘Nanny Goat,’ is lost; and Mrs. Cuthbert & I are in distress about it. The day you left Nanny was found resting herself, and chewing her little cud, on the middle of Tad’s bed. But now she’s gone! The gardener kept complaining that she destroyed the flowers, till it was concluded to bring her down to he White House. This was done, and the second day she had disappeared, and has not been heard of since. This is the last we know of poor ‘Nanny’.”

“The weather continues dry, and excessively warm here.”

“Nothing very important occurring. The election in Kentucky has gone very strongly right.”

“Old Mr. Wickliffe got ugly, as you know, ran for Governor, and is terribly beaten. Upon Mr. Crittenden’s death, Brutus Clay, Cassius’ brother, was put on the track for Congress, and is largely elected. Mr. Menzies, who, as we thought, behaved very badly last session of Congress, is largely beaten in the District opposite Cincinnati, by Green Clay Smith, Cassius Clay’s nephew. But enough.” 90

More typical was a telegram Mr. Lincoln sent to her on December 5, 1863 when Mary was staying in New York City: “All doing well.” The next day, he sent the same identical telegram. The following day, Mr. Lincoln grew more expansive in his correspondence, writing: “All doing well. Tad confidently expects you to-night. When will you come?” 91

Mary’s health problems – including severe headaches and depression — worsened in the White House. Biographer Jean Painter Randall wrote: “Mary tied to conceal from LIncoln her own dark days and increasing ill health. Mary, like so many in her day, as a victim of ague, a malarial affliction marked by a regular succession of chills and fever.” 92 Health was only one of her problems. During the Civil War, she suffered from family deaths, family splits and family depression.

Lincoln chronicler Donald Winkler wrote: “From 1863 until his death, the Lincolns seemed to have drifted apart. She avoided him out of fear he might raise ‘forbidden subjects’ such as her debts and extravagance. He was afraid to confide in her because he did not trust her eccentric judgment and did not want to disturb her fragile mental health. For a cultured woman brought up around successful politicians, she was strangely naive. She even chose as a close friend the wife of Judge James W. White, who led a petition drive to oust Secretary Seward from Lincoln’s cabinet. Under such circumstances, Lincoln was not about to share sensitive information with Mary.” 93 Historian Stephen B. Oates wrote: “The war drove the Lincolns apart, creating tensions and distances between them (as it would have done to any first couple). Mary still cared deeply for her husband, worried that he wasn’t getting enough to eat, fretted about his health and safety — ‘oh God,’ she would say to Elizabeth Keckley, what if she lost Lincoln, too? She saw so little of him anymore, and he was usually ear and withdrawn when she did see him.” 94

Unlike President James Buchanan, whose grudge match with Senator Stephen A. Douglas doomed his presidency to failure, Lincoln had no grudge matches. Although personally not vindictive, he often found himself surrounded by people who were anathemas to each other — Herndon and Mary, Blair and Chase. Mr. Lincoln did not need to be surrounded by people who liked each other — not in his family, not in his cabinet, not in the intersection of the two words such as those represented by Mary Todd and William Herndon. Mr. Lincoln let Mary Todd hold the grudges for the family. Mary Lincoln, noted Lincoln scholar William Lee Miller “was, unlike her husband, a person who really knew how to hold a grudge.” 95

On July 2 1863 — while the Battle of Gettysburg was raging — Mrs. Lincoln was seriously injured when thrown from her carriage on her way from Soldiers Home where the Lincolns spent their summer months. The injury to her head initially did not seem serious. Historian Matthew Pinsker noted that President Lincoln seemed to downplay the seriousness of the accident or any likelihood of sabotage: “The truth is that even if the coachman’s seat had simply bounced off the carriage, and even if Mary did seem perfectly fine on July 3, President Lincoln did not appear focused on his wife’s problems.” 96 After the carriage accident, noted Matthew Pinsker, “the distracted president could not devote himself to his wife’s recovery and earnestly sought surrogates — Nurse Pomroy, his son Robert — to represent him.” 97

Mrs. Lincoln could be a jealous and vindictive woman whose quarrels became legendary. She held the grudges in the family. After Lyman Trumbull defeated Mr. Lincoln for the U.S. Senate in 1855, she refused to have anything more to do with Trumbull’s wife, a long-time friend. Mrs. Lincoln’s ire was hard to camouflage. She wrote a friend in June 1859: “Mrs. Trumbull made her first appearance, last evening, looking as stately & ungainly as ever. Altho’ she has been in the city 10 days, this has been about the first notice that has been taken of her. Tis unfortunate, to be so unpopular.” 98

Mary Lincoln couldn’t abide Secretary of State William H. Seward and wanted him fired, but she adored Seward’s foreign policy rival, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Rather than isolating the prickly Charles Sumner, President Lincoln drew him into the presidential court where Mary Todd cultivated his friendship while the President cultivated the Seward. Journalist Donn Piatt visited the Lincoln home in Springfield in late October 1860. He recalled that Mrs. Lincoln “injected remarks into the conversation with more force than logic, and was treated by her husband with about the same good-natured indifference with which he regarded the troublesome boys. In the wife’s talk of the coming administration there was an amusing assumption that struck me as very womanly, but somewhat ludicrous. For instance, she said, ‘The country will find how we regard that abolition sneak, Seward!’ Mr. Lincoln put the remarks aside very much as he did the hand of one of his boys when that hand invaded his capacious mouth.” 99

Mary Lincoln’s behavior sufficiently worried her husband that friend Orville H. Browning recalled that Mr. Lincoln had “several times told me that he was constantly under great apprehension lest his wife should do something which would bring him into disgrace.” 100 As President, Mr. Lincoln had to deal with the bouts of jealousy to which his wife was susceptible. Biographer Jean Painter Randall wrote that “in Washington there were handsome and sophisticated ladies who delighted to talk with and perhaps use a bit of Victorian coquetry on anyone as important as Mr. President. May herself was good at coquetry, but to her the sight of a pretty woman flattering her husband, or fawning upon him, would have been unbearable. Her intensive love was possessive.” 101 Mrs. Lincoln was watchful of Mr. Lincoln’s attention to any other women and objected to any situation in which he might pay too much attention to a woman or be alone with her. Even innocuous, professional relationships were sometimes hidden from Mrs. Lincoln. Sculptress Vinnie Ream modeled President Lincoln without Mrs. Lincoln’s knowledge, for example.

One such incident of Mary’s jealousy occurred on March 26, 1865 when Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln were visiting the Union front outside Richmond. Mary disliked General Ulysses S. Grant, as she did many potential rivals to her husband. According to Grant aide Adam Badeau:

“It was proposed that an excursion should be made to the front of the Army of the Potomac, about ten or twelve miles off, and Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Grant were of the company. A military railroad took the illustrious guests a portion of the way, and then the men were mounted, but Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Lincoln went on in an ambulance, as it was called — a sort of half-open carriage with two seats besides that for the driver. I was detailed to escort them, and of course sat on the front seat facing the ladies, with my back to the horses. In the course of conversation, I chanced to mention that all the wives of officers at the army front had been ordered to the rear — a sure sign that active operations were in contemplation. I said not a lady had been allowed to remain, except Mrs. Griffin, the wife of General Charles Griffin, who had obtained a special permit from the President. At this Mrs. Lincoln was up in arms, ‘What do you mean by that, sir?’ she exclaimed. ‘Do you mean to say that she saw the President alone? Do you know that I never allow the President alone with women? She was absolutely jealous of poor, ugly Abraham Lincoln.”

“I tried to pacify her and to palliate my remark, but she was fairly boiling over with rage. ‘That’s a very equivocal smile, sir,’ she exclaimed: ‘let me out of this carriage at once. I will ask the President if he saw that woman alone.’ Mrs. Griffin, afterward the Countess Esterhazy, was one of the best known and most elegant women in Washington, a Carroll, and a personal acquaintance of Mrs. Grant, who strove to mollify the excited spouse, but all in vain. Mrs. Lincoln again bade me stop the driver, and when I hesitated to obey, she thrust her arms past me to the front of the carriage and held the driver fast. But Mrs. Grant finally prevailed upon her to wait till the whole party alighted, and then General Meade came up to pay his respects to the wife of the President. I had intended to offer Mrs. Lincoln my arm, and endeavor to prevent a scene, but Meade, of course, as my superior, had the right to escort her, and I had no chance to warn him. I saw them go off together, and remained in fear and trembling for what might occur in the presence of the foreign minister and other important strangers. But General Meade was very adroit, and when they returned Mrs. Lincoln looked at me significantly and said: ‘General Meade is a gentleman, sir. He says it was not the President who gave Mrs. Griffin the permit, but the Secretary of War.’ Meade was the son of a diplomatist, and had evidently inherited some of his father’s skill.”

The next day, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Grant took another trip in a military ambulance to visit the Army of the James. Mrs. Lincoln threw a very public fit when the wife of General Ord rode in a review next to President Lincoln at the Virginia front. “What does the woman mean by riding by the side of the President? And ahead of me? Does she suppose he wants her by the side of him?” Mrs. Lincoln was infuriated and picked a fight with Mrs. Grant as well.” As Grant aide Adam Badeau recalled:

“When there was a halt, Major Seward, a nephew of the Secretary of State, and an officer of General Ord’s staff, rode up, and tried to say something jocular. ‘The President’s horse is very gallant, Mrs. Lincoln,’ he remarked; ‘he insists on riding by the side of Mrs. Ord.’ This of course added fuel to the flame. ‘What do you mean by that, sir?’ she cried. Seward discovered that he had made a huge mistake, and his horse at once developed a peculiarity that compelled him to ride behind, to get out of the way of the storm.”

“Finally the party arrived at its destination and Mrs. Ord came up to the ambulance. Then Mrs. Lincoln positively insulted her, called her vile names in the presence of a crowd of officers, and asked what she meant by following up the President. The poor woman burst into tears and inquired what she had done, but Mrs. Lincoln refused to be appeased, and stormed till she was tired. Mrs. Grant still tried to stand by her friend, and everybody was shocked and horrified. But all things come to an end, and after a while we returned to city Point.”

“That night the President and Mrs. Lincoln entertained General and Mrs. Grant and the General’s staff at dinner on the steamer, and before us all Mrs. Lincoln berated General Ord to the President, and urged that he should be removed. He was unfit for his place, she said, to say nothing of his wife. General Grant sat next and defended his officer bravely. Of course General Ord was not removed.”

“During all this visit similar scenes were occurring. Mrs. Lincoln repeatedly attacked her husband in the presence of officers because of Mrs. Griffin and Mrs. Ord, and I never suffered greater humiliation and pain on account of one not a near personal friend than when I saw the Head of the State, the man who carried all the cares of the nation at such a crisis — subjected to this inexpressible public mortification. He bore it as Christ might have done; with an expression of pain and sadness that cut one to the heart, but with supreme calmness and dignity. He called her ‘mother’, with his old-time plainness; he pleaded with eyes and tones, and endeavored to explain or palliate the offenses of others, till she turned on him like a tigress; and then he walked away, hiding that noble, ugly face that we night not catch the full expression of its misery.” 102

Mrs. Grant thought Badeau “embellished” this incident and gave her own account in her memoirs:

“When attending one of the many grand reviews tendered the President on this memorable visit, I was most happy in the pleasure of taking Mrs. Lincoln in the General’s ambulance to witness this pageant, always so enthusiastically enjoyed by me. At my request, General Grant directed two of his staff officers to escort us, one of them being the author of the stories published recently.”

“As we were approaching the field, a lady on horseback passed us at full gallop, calling to me as she passed: ‘I cannot control my horse. He seems determined to join his mate, which the General (menacing her husband) rides,’ and dashing past, she was soon far in advance of our party. Mrs. Lincoln was somewhat disturbed by this and made many inquiries as to who the lady was. She thought ladies were not allowed in camp, to which I replied, smiling,’General Grant is much opposed to their being present, but when I wanted to come I wrote him a nice, coaxing letter, and permission was always granted.'”

“Presently, we would see the equestrienne again dashing on, and Mrs. Lincoln seemed annoyed for fear she would join the President, but I assured her she would not, as the President was with General Grant. When we arrived on the field, we again saw this lady, now quite near the President and General Grant.”

“Seeing that Mrs. Lincoln was really annoyed by this, I asked an officer who was near us to ride over to Mrs. General Ord and, with my compliments, ask her to join our party, which she did immediately, feeling much gratified at the attention. I told her that Mrs. Lincoln and I both thought it would be more agreeable for her to be near our carriage, at the same time presenting her to Mrs. Lincoln, who received her most graciously.”

“On our return from this same review, General Ord, the commanding officer of the division, came up to us and said: ‘Ladies, the President and the General have been gracious enough to appoint me your escort back to headquarters.’ Always courteous and kind, he proceeded to present Mrs. Lincoln and myself a grant many of the officers as they passed our carriage.”

“A lady, the wife of one of his staff officers, riding up, he said, Mrs. Lincoln, let me present Mrs. ___.’ Just then the horse wheeled and galloped back to the side of its mate, which the lady’s husband was riding. The lady, feeling it a duty as well as a pleasure to be presented to Mrs. Lincoln and to explain her abrupt departure, gave her horse a smart stroke with her whip and brought him again alongside; then General Ord again started to present her. Again the horse wheeled and went flying back. General Ord, much annoyed and somewhat amused, said: ‘Mrs. Lincoln, that is a finely-trained horse. He will not let the lady leave her husband’s side. I would recommend you to get one like it. If you would like I will try (growing quite radiant with the idea) to get him for you; he is just what you want.”

“All this time, Mrs. Lincoln was growing more and more indignant and, not being able longer to control her wrath, exclaimed: ‘What do you mean, Sir?’ I quietly placed my hand on hers and said in an undertone, ‘Dear Mrs. Lincoln, he does not mean anything. He has only made an unfortunate speech. Do not be annoyed. He knows nothing of this morning’s occurrence.’ Seeing Mrs. Lincoln was much fatigued, I requested the General not to present any more of the gallant fellows who dashed past, all eager to catch a glimpse of the wife of their beloved and honored President.” 103

Historian Charles B. Strozier noted: “Had it not been for the demands of war, LIncoln might have been more reassuring to Mary all along. In his heart he seemed to remain devoted to her. At one White House reception he turned to a woman at his side and called her attention to the beautifully dressed Mary. ‘My wife is as handsome as when she was a girl, and I, a poor nobody then, fell in love with her; and what is more, I have never fallen out.'” 104

On the afternoon of the day on which President Lincoln was assassinated, the Lincolns went on a carriage ride together: “I never saw him so supremely cheerful — his manner was even playful. At three o’clock, in the afternoon, he drove out with me in the open carriage. In starting, I asked him, if any one, should accompany us. He immediately replied — ‘No, I prefer to ride by ourselves to day.’ During the drive he was so gay, that I said to him laughingly, ‘Dear Husband, you almost startle me, by your great cheerfulness;’ he replied ‘and well I may feel so, Mary, I consider this day, the war has come to a close.’ — and then added, ‘We must both be more cheerful in the future — between the war & the loss of our darling Willie — we have both, been very miserable.'” 105 President Lincoln had been unable to prevail on either Edwin Stanton or Ulysses S. Grant to go to Ford’s Theater with Mrs. Lincoln and their wives. Grant had initially agreed to go but his wife convinced him to reconsider because her last experience with Mrs. Lincoln had been highly unpleasant. They were in a good mood that night, chatting and holding hands when John Wilkes Booth entered their box at Ford’s Theater and murdered the President.

Mary Todd Lincoln gets blamed for many things — even her husband’s assassination. “If Mary’s rude outbursts had not occurred, the Grants likely would have accepted, and Grant would have had a large military guard for protection. Lincoln might not have been assassinated that night at Ford’s Theatre,” wrote Lincoln scholar Donald Winkler. 106 Mrs. Lincoln watched in horror as her husband was shot and in agony as his life sapped away over the next nine hours. “Mrs. Lincoln still remains at the White House, more dead than alive, shattered and broken by the horrors of that dreadful night, as well as worn down by bodily sickness,” wrote journalist Noah Brooks four weeks after the assassination. 107

No one understood Mary’s grief better that England’s Queen Victoria, whose husband had died in 1861. She wrote Mary: “Though a stranger to you I cannot remain silent when so terrible a calamity has fallen upon you & your country, & most personally express my deep & heartfelt sympathy with you under the shocking circumstances of your present dreadful misfortunes. No one can better appreciate than I can, who am myself utterly broken-hearted by the loss of my own beloved Husband, who was the Light of my Life, my Stay my All, What your sufferings must be; and I earnestly pray that you may be supported by Him to whom alone the sorely stricken can look for comfort, in this hour of heavy affliction.” 108

Five weeks after her husband’s death, Mrs. Lincoln vacated the White House. Becky Rutberg wrote: “At about five o’clock on May 22, 1865, Mrs. Lincoln, Robert, Tad, and Lizzie Keckley walked down the public stairway, entered a horse-drawn carriage driven by the husband of Rosetta Wells, one of the women in the White House who had mended linens and torn clothing. Dr. Anson Henry, Mrs. Lincoln’s friend and personal physician, and two White House guards joined them in a green railroad car that had been chartered for their use.” 109

The assassination aggravated Mrs. Lincoln’s fragile physical and mental condition. Ten years later, friend Orville H. Browning reported: “I have for several years past considered her demented.” 110 Indeed he thought that Mary had for several decades been “subject to similar spells of mental depression as Mr. L. As we used familiarly to state it she was always ‘either in the garret or cellar.”111 Mary’s son Robert had her briefly committed to an insane asylum. Her unhappy life ended on July 16, 1882, 17 years after that of her husband.

More on the Author
Historian had edited numerous books of writings by Abraham Lincoln’s Secretaries – John G. Nicolay, John Hay, and William O. Stoddard. They include An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays; With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay; At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings; Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks; and Abraham Lincoln: The Observations of John G. Nicolay and John Hay.


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