The Controversial White House Visit of Mary Lincoln’s Confederate Sister
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 tore apart more than just the political union of the United States. It tore apart families as well. Throughout the country, houses were divided as sons and daughters raised under the same roofs chose opposing sides of a violent struggle. The Lincoln household, newly moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, experienced the same phenomenon.
Mary Lincoln’s brother George was the first to join the rebellion that Lincoln had come to Washington to suppress, tending to wounded Confederates as a surgeon. Half-brothers Sam and David Todd served under General P.T. Beauregard. Sam fell at Shiloh. Mary’s youngest brother, Alexander, was killed by friendly fire while serving as a Confederate aide de camp. All of these losses struck deep at the heart of Mrs. Lincoln, but it was the loss of her brother-in-law, Brig. Gen. Ben Helm at the battle of Chicamauga in September 1863 that would trigger the events with which this essay is concerned.
Helm was the husband of Mary’s half sister, Emilie. Mary and Emilie had developed a special bond growing up on the Todd estate in Kentucky. That bond extended to Mary’s husband, up-and-coming Springfield lawyer and Whig politician, Abraham Lincoln. Emilie was a favorite of the Lincoln couple and they referred to her by the affectionate nickname “Little Sister.” Like Mary, Emilie was a striking frontier beauty with dark piercing eyes and an impeccable sense of fashion. Once when she visited Mary in Springfield, Mary tried to find her a husband among the Springfield gentry. Emilie demurred, marrying instead someone closer to home, a West Point graduate with a blossoming military career named Ben Helm. The Lincolns and the Helms shared a genuine love and appreciation for each other.
It was no surprise then that President Lincoln offered Helm a job as an army paymaster at the outset of the war. Helm solemnly declined. “Such an opportunity rarely offers itself in a lifetime,” he said, but his heart was with the Southern cause. As a Confederate colonel and later brigadier general, Helm helped form the Orphan Brigade, Kentucky’s only rebel regiment of the war. When he was killed in battle, the Lincolns were devastated. Before long, they summoned the newly widowed Emilie Todd Helm to the White House.
In most other times and circumstances, the invitation of the First Lady’s sister to the White House would attract little attention or controversy. But to many in the press and even within Lincoln’s own circle, allowing a “reb” to reside in the White House represented a major breach. Lincoln shouldered the political fallout with characteristic humility and within his own ranks, he made it known he would not tolerate any complaints. “My wife and I are in the habit of choosing our own guests,” Lincoln told the naysayer, “We do not need either advice or assistance in the matter”.
Inside the White House, the two sisters embraced. Mary was still deep in the throes of grief for Willie, who had died earlier that year. Emilie described a scene in which Mary with “wide” and “shining” eyes claimed Willie visited her at night, sometimes joined by her previously deceased son Eddy and other times accompanied by their brother Alec. The experience was unnerving, but Emilie attributed Mary’s fragile condition to renewed talk of her eldest son, Robert, joining the union army.
In a later conversation with General Daniel Sickles and a General Harris of Kansas (presumed to be William Alexander Harris), Mary was questioned about Robert’s lack of service, “If I had twenty sons they should all be fighting rebels,” boasted Harris. Mary’s fiery little sister could not hold back: “And if I had twenty sons they should all be opposing yours.” Enraged by the sharp remark, General Sickles, who had lost a leg at Gettysburg the previous summer, hobbled upstairs to complain to the President. Lincoln just laughed, “The child has a tongue like the rest of the Todds.”
Incidents like these were precisely what the President and First Lady were eager to avoid. In conversation, they did their best to avoid the contentious politics of the day. Their children observed no such properties. One evening Lincoln overheard an argument between his ten-year-old son Tad and Emilie’s daughter Katherine. Tad and Katherine were engaged in a shouting match over who was the legitimate President. Katherine said “Jeff Davis!” Tad said “Abe Lincoln!” Stepping into the dispute, Lincoln entreated Tad to sit on his lap and urged him to be tolerant of his little cousin. Tad could call his father President Lincoln and Katherine could refer to him as simply “Uncle Lincoln.”
The Lincolns’ lives had been so brightened by “Little Sister” Emilie’s stay that they invited her to join them at the Cottage for the summer of 1864. Emilie declined; by her own admission, her visit had caused enough embarrassment to the President. As the carriage pulled up to take Emilie and her daughter from the White House, she hugged her sister and brother-in-law. Seeking some absolution for the circumstances of Emilie’s widowhood, Lincoln lamented, “You know, Little Sister, I tried to have Ben come with me. I hope you do not feel… that I am in any way to blame for all this sorrow.” Katherine thanked Lincoln, but admitted her husband “had to follow his conscience and that for weal or woe he felt he must side with his own people.” With a heavy heart, Mrs. Helm departed the Lincolns for Kentucky.
In Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, he predicted that the “mystic chords” of union, which had been broken by the national crisis, would yet sound when touched again by the “better angels of our nature.” Many wondered how such a thing could be possible in the aftermath of years of bitter hatred and human slaughter. In their willingness to open their home to their “Little Sister,” despite her connection to an enemy cause, the Lincolns provided a compelling example of what reunion might look like.
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Clinton, Catherine. Mrs. Lincoln. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2009
Helm, Katherine. Mary, Wife of Lincoln. New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1928