"The Cause of Humanity Requires It"

by Jesse Nasta

Elizabeth Keckly, well known as Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and friend, was also founder of the Contraband Relief Association in 1862, an organization that aided “contrabands,” formerly enslaved individuals who had escaped to freedom in the District of Columbia.

According to Keckly, when she told Mary Lincoln about her efforts to raise money for her Contraband Relief Association, Mrs. Lincoln immediately asked her husband to give Keckly $200 of the $1,000 General Corcoran had “deposited” with him for the relief of Union soldiers.  In a November 3, 1862, letter to her husband, Mary Lincoln wrote, “The soldiers are well supplied with comfort,” while “the immense number of Contrabands in W[ashington] are suffering intensely, many without bed covering & having to use any bits of carpeting to cover themselves.”  Lincoln agreed to give her the money.  Later in her 1868 memoir, Behind the Scenes, Keckly emphasized that “Mrs. Lincoln made frequent contributions, as also did the president.   

The First Annual Report of Keckly’s Contraband Relief Association, as published by the Christian Recorder in August 1863, reveals how greatly the Lincolns’ $200 donation aided her effort. While the association raised $357.64 on its own through church concerts and festivals, the Lincolns’ was the association’s largest single donation, accounting for nearly a quarter of the $885.64 collected during its first year.

Mr. Jesse Nasta is a summer 2007 intern at President Lincoln’s Cottage.
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