Mary’s Little Sister

When Mary Lincoln was in Lexington in 1848, she developed a very close relationship with her young stepsister Emilie Todd; and afterwards, Emilie visited the Lincoln family in Springfield, where Lincoln fell in love with her, too. By 1856, however, there was a widening gap in political opinions between Mary and her Kentucky family. Emilie had married Benjamin Helm, an attorney and member of the Kentucky legislature who would just four years later be fighting for the Confederacy. An 1856 letter Mary wrote to Emilie reveals her fondness for her little sister and shares typical social gossip and family news. However, it also contains a calculated defense of her husband’s politics, a direct response to the increasing divisiveness of national politics as it pertained to the issue of slavery.

Mary Lincoln to Emilie Helm

Springfield Nov 23rd 1856

With much pleasure, my dear Emilie, I acknowledge, the receipt of one of your ever acceptable letters, & notwithstanding many weeks have passed since writing you. I have frequently intended doing so, & you have been oftentimes in my thoughts. Mr [Edwards] expressed great pleasure at meeting you last summer, you know you have a very warm place in his heart. You have been such a wanderer around with your good husband, and a letter might have failed reaching you. I must try & devise some excuses—for my past silence, forgetfulness you know it could not be.

Besides, there is a great deal in getting out of the habit of letter writing; once I was very fond of it, nothing pleases me now better than receiving a letter from an absent friend. So remember dear E. when you desire to be particularly acceptable, sit thee down & write one of your agreeable missives & do not wait for a return of each, from a staid matron, & moreover the mother of three noisy boys. Your Husband, I believe, like some of the rest of ours, has a great taste for politics & has taken much interest in the late contest, which has resulted very much as I expected, not hoped.

Altho’ Mr. [Lincoln] is, or was a Fremont man, you must not include him with so many of those, who belong to that party, an Abolitionist. In principle he is far from it. All he desires is, that slavery, shall not be extended, let it remain, where it is. My weak woman’s heart was too Southern in feeling, to sympathise with any but Fillmore, I have always been a great admirer of his, he made so good a President & is so just a man & feels the necessity of keeping foreigners, within bounds. If some of you Kentuckians, had to deal with the “wild Irish,” as we housekeepers are sometimes called upon to do, the south would certainly select Mr Fillmore next time [Mary harbored some nativists, Know-Nothing feelings that her husband did not share.] The democrats in our state have been defeated in their Governor, so there is a crumb of comfort, for each & all. What day is so dark, that there is no ray of sunshine to penetrate the gloom? Speaking of politics, Gov’s [etc.] reminds me of your questions, relative to Lydia M. The hour of her patient lover’s deliverance is at hand, they are to be married, privately I expect. Some of us who had a handsome dress for the season thought it would be in good taste for Mrs Matteson, in consideration of their being about the leave their present habitation, to give a general reception. Lydia, has always been so retiring, that she would be very averse to so public a display. [Lydia Matteson was the daughter of outgoing Illinois Governor Joel A. Matteson. She married John McGinnis in 1856.] This fall in visiting Mrs M I met with a sister of Mr McGinnis, a very pretty well bred genteel lady from Joliet—she spoke of being well acquainted with Margaret K. in [Kentucky]. Frances W. returned from her visit to Pennsylvania, two or three days since, where she had been spending the fall. Mr Edward’s family are well. Mr B & Julia are still with them [Mary Lincoln’s niece Julia was the daughter of Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards. She married Edward L. Baker in 1855]. Miss Iles was married some three weeks since, I expect you do not remember her, which gave rise to some two or three parties. Mr Scott is frequently here, rather playing the devoted to Julie Ridgeley, I suspect, whether any thing serious I do not know. I expect the family would not be very averse to him. Charley R was on a visit to him, in Lex. this fall. He, it is said, is to be married this winter to Jennie Barrett—a lovely girl, you remember her. I am very sorry to hear that our Mother, is so frequently indisposed. I hope she has recovered from her lameness. Tell her when you see her that our old acquaintance O. B. Ficklin took tea with us—an evening or two since, made particular enquiries about her. Still as rough & uncultivated as ever altho some years since married an accomplished Georgia belle, with the advantages of some winter’s in Washington. Ma & myself when together, spoke of our minister Dr Smith, who finding his salary of some $1600 inadequate, has resigned the church. Uncle & some few others are desirous of getting Dr Brown, your former pastor in Lex. within the last year, both his wife & himself, have been a great deal here. He has purchased lands, and appears rather identified with the country. I must acknowledge, I have not admired him very much, his wife appears pleasant but neither I think would suit the people. Dr Smith is talented & beloved, & says he would stay if they would increase his salary, yet notwithstanding the wealthy in the church, as usual, there are many very close. But I am speaking of things that will not interest you in the least. If you do not bring yourself & Husband to see us very soon we will think you are not as proud of Him, as rumor says you should be. Do write soon, in return for this long & I fear dull letter from yours truly

                                                                                                Mary Lincoln

Before the outbreak of the Civil War, President Lincoln offered Emilie’s husband a position as an army paymaster, but he refused and joined the Confederate Army. After he was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863, Emilie and her young daughter Katherine went to the Washington to stay with the Lincoln family. Their presence in the White House made some critics doubt Mary’s allegiance to the Union, and it was a minor political problem for President Lincoln. Even secretary John Hay was uncomfortable with Emilie’s arrival, noting in his diary: “I visited with Mrs. L. Her sister, Mrs. Gen. Helm is with her just arrived from Secessia.” But because the Lincolns deeply cared for their little sister, they sought to protect and nurture her during her time of need.

But after a trip south on a pass from the President and an awkward return visit to Washington during which Emilie was incapable of tempering her southern sympathies, the political differences between Mary and her little sister became too much to overcome. Emilie returned to the south, and her bitter letter to Lincoln in October 1864 ensured that the giant chasm between the sisters would never again be bridged.

Emile Helm to Abraham Lincoln

30th Oct. 1864.
Lexington, Ky.

Mr. Lincoln,

Upon arriving at Lexington, after my long tedious unproductive and sorrowful visit to you, I found my brother stretched upon a sick bed. Made sick by the harrowing and shocking death of your Brother in law, and my half Brother Levi Todd [Levi’s wife divorced him on grounds of cruelty and he died from alcoholism in 1864]. He died from utter want and destruction as a letter sent to Sister Mary by Kitty [Mary’s youngest steps-sibling.] gives particulars. Another sad victim to the poisons of more forced relations. With such a sad, such a dreadful lesson, I again beg and plead attention & consideration to my petition to be permitted to ship my cotton & be allowed a pass to go South to attend to it. My necessities are such that I am compelled to urge it. The last money I have in the world I used to make the unfruitful appeal to you. You cannot urge that you do not know them for I have told you of them. I have been a quiet citizen and request only the right which humanity and justice always gives to widows and orphans. I also would remind you that your minnie bullets have made us what we are [Emilie is blaming Lincoln and the Union Army for her sorrows.] I feel I have that additional claim upon you…

Will you reply to this. If you think I give way to excess of feeling, I beg you will make some excuse for a woman almost crazed with misfortune.

Emily Todd Helm

The Civil War robbed Mary of her southern family, and that is just another sorrowful fact of her life. Perhaps if Lincoln had survived the war, a reconciliation would have been possible, as his charitable heart may have been willing to overlook Emilie’s impertinence. But perhaps by the time that Emilie’s hateful letter came to her husband’s hands, Mary had completed her metamorphosis from a southern girl to a northern woman, and there was no chance for reconciliation, anyway. But, no matter.

Mary’s Husband

When Abraham Lincoln was serving in Congress (1847-1849), Mary Lincoln and the couple’s two young sons at first went to Washington, D.C., with him. But a city boarding house inhabited by mostly single Congressmen proved an awkward and constrained living space for a young family with rambunctious boys. So Mary took little Bob and Eddy to Lexington, Kentucky, for an extended stay in her family home. This arrangement gave Mary an opportunity to spend time with her immediate and extended family, offered the boys access to fresh air and outdoor adventures, and was a far more comfortable living arrangement for all three of them. Although the family’s separation was not ideal, it worked out well and was, after all, just a short-term arrangement.

Although the separation was, at times, lonely for Lincoln and found Mary and the boys longing for a reunion, the family members kept busy in their respective locations and the couple kept in touch by writing letters. There is a depressing dearth of surviving correspondence between Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, especially from the time of their marriage in November 1842 up to 1860. However, there are four sweet and poignant letters from the time of Mary’s stay in Lexington that are illustrative of the couple’s companionable marriage. Contrary to what so many male Lincoln biographers would have their readers believe, Abraham and Mary had a relatively normal marriage. The letters here reveal shared bonds, mutual concern, open communication, and love.

Abraham Lincoln to Mary Lincoln
16 April 1848

Washington, April 16. 1848

Dear Mary:

In this troublesome world, we are never quite satisfied. When you were here, I thought you hindered me some in attending to business; but now, having nothing but business—no variety—it has grown exceedingly tasteless to me. I hate to sit down and direct documents, and I hate to stay in this old room by myself. You know I told you in last Sunday’s letter, I was going to make a little speech during the week; but the week has passed away without my getting a chance to do so; and now my interest in the subject has passed away too. Your second and third letters have been received since I wrote before. Dear Eddy thinks father is “gone tapila” [perhaps Eddy trying to say capitol?] Has any further discovery been made as to the breaking into your grand-mother’s house? If I were she, I would not remain there alone. You mention that your uncle John Parker is likely to be at Lexington. Don’t forget to present him my very kindest regards.

I went yesterday to hunt the little plaid stockings, as you wished; but found that McKnight has quit business, and Allen had not a single pair of the description you give, and only one plaid pair of any sort that I thought would fit “Eddy’s dear little feet.” I have a notion to make another trial to-morrow morning. If I could get them, I have an excellent chance of sending them. Mr Warrick Tunstall, of St Louis is here. He is to leave early this week, and to go by Lexington. He says he knows you, and will call to see you; and he voluntarily asked, if I had not some package to send you.

I wish you to enjoy yourself in every possible way; but is there no danger of wounding the feelings of your good father, by being so openly intimate with the Wickcliffe family? [Robert S. Todd and Robert Wickliffe were bitter rivals]

Mrs Broome has not removed yet; but she thinks of doing so to-morrow. All the house—or rather, all with whom you were on decided good terms—send their love to you. The others say nothing. [Apparently, Mary did not make friends with all the people in Lincoln’s DC boarding house.]

Very soon after you went away, I got what I think a very pretty set of shirt-bosom studs—modest little ones, jet, set in gold, only costing 50 cents a piece, or 1.50 for the whole.

Suppose you do not prefix the “Hon” to the address on your letters to me any more. I like the letters very much; but I would rather they should not have that upon them. It is not necessary, as I suppose you have thought, to have them come free.

And you are entirely free from head-ache? That is good—good—considering it is the first spring you have been free from it since we were acquainted [Migraine headaches plagued Mary her entire life]. I am afraid you will get so well, and fat, and young, as to be wanting to marry again. Tell Louisa I want her to watch you a little for me. Get weighed, and write me how much you weigh. [I guess Lincoln liked Mary’s womanly curves!]

I did not get rid of the impression of that foolish dream about dear Bobby, till I got your letter written the same day. What did he and Eddy think of the little letters father sent them? Don’t let the blessed fellows forget father.

A day or two ago Mr Strong, here in congress, said to me that Matilda [the daughter of Lincoln friend Cyrus Edwards] would visit here within two or three weeks. Suppose you write her a letter, and enclose it in one of mine; and if she comes I will deliver it to her, and if she does not, I will send it to her.

Most affectionately

Mary Lincoln to Abraham Lincoln
May 1848

Lexington May. 48.

Mr Dear Husband.

You will think indeed, that old age has set its seal, upon my humble self, that in few or none of my letters, I can remember the day of the month, I must confess it as one of my peculiarities; I feel wearied & tired enough to know, that this is Saturday night, our babies are asleep, and as Aunt Maria B. is coming in for me tomorrow morning, I think the chances will be rather dull that I should answer your last letter tomorrow. I have just received a letter from Frances W, it related in an especial manner to the box, I had desired her to send, she thinks with you (as good persons generally agree) that it would cost more than it would come to, and it might be lost on the road, I rather expect she has examined the specified articles, and thinks as Levi says, they are hard bargains. But it takes so many changes to do children, particularly in summer, that I thought it might save me a few stitches. I think I will write her a few lines this evening, directing her not to send them. She says Willie is just recovering from another spell of sickness, Mary or none of them were well. Springfield she reports as dull as usual. Uncle S. was to leave there on yesterday for Ky. Our little Eddy, has recovered from his little spell of sickness. Dear boy, I must tell you a little story about him. Boby in his wanderings to day, came across in a yard, a little kitten, your hobby, he says he asked a man for it, he brought it triumphantly to the house, so soon as Eddy, spied it his tenderness, broke forth, he made them bring it water, fed it with bread himself, with his own dear hands, he was a delighted little creature over it, in the midst of his happiness Ma came in, she you must know dislikes the whole cat-race, I thought in a very unfeeling manner, she ordered the servant near, to throw it out, which of course, was done, Ed—screaming & protesting loudly against the proceeding, she never appeared to mind his screams, which were long & loud, I assure you. Tis unusual for her now a days, to do any thing quite so striking, she is very obliging & accommodating, but if she thought any of us, were on her hands again, I believe she would be worse than ever. In the next moment she appeared in a good humor, I know she did not intend to offend me. By the way, she has just sent me up a glass of ice cream, for which this warm evening, I am duly grateful. The country is so delightful I am going to spend two or three weeks out there, it will doubtless benefit the children. Grandma has received a letter from Uncle James Parker of Miss saying he & his family would be up by the twenty fifth of June, would remain here some little time & go on to Philadelphia to take their oldest daughter there to school, I believe it would be a good chance for me to pack up & accompany them. You know I am so fond of sight seeing, & I did not get to New York or Boston, or travel the lake route. But perhaps, dear husband, like the irresistible Col Mc, cannot do without his wife next winter, and must needs take her with him again. I expect would cry aloud against it. How much, I wish instead of writing, we were together this evening, I feel very sad away from you. Ma & myself rode out to Mr Bell’s splendid place this afternoon, to return a call, the house and grounds are magnificent; Frances W would have died over their rare exotics. It is growing late, these summer eves are short, I expect my long scrawls, for truly such they are, weary you greatly; if you come on, in July or August I will take you to the springs. Patty Webb’s school in [Lexington] closes the first of July, I expect Mr Webb, will come on for her, I must go down about that time & carry on quite a flirtation, you know we, Always had a penchant that way. [Edwin Webb courted Mary, and she is teasing her husband about it.] I must bid you good night. Do not fear the children, have forgotten you, I was only jesting. Even E. eyes brighten at the mention of your name. My love to all.

Truly yours
M L.

Abraham Lincoln to Mary Lincoln
12 June 1848

Washington, June 12. 1848.

My dear wife:

On my return from Philadelphia yesterday, where, in my anxiety I had been led to attend the whig convention, I found your last letter. I was so tired and sleepy, having ridden all night, that I could not answer it till to-day; and now I have to do so in the H. R. [House of Representatives] The leading matter in your letter, is your wish to return to this side of the Mountains. Will you be a good girl in all things, if I consent? Then come along, and that as soon as possible. Having got the idea in my head, I shall be impatient till I see you. You will not have money enough to bring you; but I presume your uncle will supply you, and I will refund him here. By the way you do not mention whether you have received the fifty dollars I sent you. I do not much fear but that you got it; because the want of it would have induced you say something in relation to it. If your uncle is already at Lexington, you might induce him to start on earlier than the first of July; he could stay in Kentucky longer on his return, and so make up for lost time. Since I began this letter, the H. R. has passed a resolution for adjourning on the 17th July, which probably will pass the Senate. I hope this letter will not be disagreeable to you; which, together with the circumstances under which I write, I hope will excuse me for not writing a longer one. Come on just as soon as you can. I want to see you, and our dear-dear boys very much. Every body here wants to see our dear Bobby.

A Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln to Mary Lincoln
2 July 1848

Washington, July 2, 1848

My dear wife:

Your letter of last Sunday came last night. On that day, (Sunday) I wrote the principal part of a letter to you, but did not finish it, or send it till Tuesday, when I had provided a draft for $100 which I sent in it. It is now probable that on that day (Tuesday) you started to Shelbyville; so that when the money reaches Lexington, you will not be there. Before leaving, did you make any provision about letters that might come to Lexington for you? Write me whether you got the draft, if you shall not have already done so, when this reaches you. Give my kindest regards to your uncle John, and all the family. Thinking of them reminds me that I saw your acquaintance, Newton, of Arkansas, at the Philadelphia convention. We had but a single interview, and that was so brief, and in so great a multitude of strange faces, that I am quite sure I should not recognize him, if I were to, meet him again. He was a sort of Trinity, three in one, having the right, in his own person, to cast the three votes of Arkansas. Two or three days ago I sent your uncle John, and a few of our other friends each a copy of the speech I mentioned in my last letter; but I did not send any to you, thinking you would be on the road here, before it would reach you. I send you one now. [This certainly speaks to Mary’s shared political interests with her husband.] Last Wednesday, P. H. Hood & Co, dunned me for a little bill of $5.38 cents, and Walter Harper & Co, another for $8.50 cents, for goods which they say you bought. I hesitated to pay them, because my recollection is that you told me when you went away, there was nothing left unpaid. Mention in your next letter whether they are right. Mrs Richardson is still here; and what is more, has a baby; so Richardson says, and he ought to know. I believe Mary Hewett has left here and gone to Boston. I met her on the street about fifteen or twenty days ago, and she told me she was going soon. I have seen nothing of her since. The music in the capitol grounds on saturdays, or, rather, the interest in it, is dwindling down to nothing. Yesterday evening the attendance was rather thin. Our two girls, whom you remember seeing first at Carusis [a theater in DC], at the exhibition of the Ethiopian Serenaders, and whose peculiarities were the wearing of black fur bonnets, and never being seen in close company with other ladies, were at the music yesterday. One of them was attended by their brother, and the other had a member of congress in tow. He went home with her; and if I were to guess, I would say, he went away a somewhat altered man—most likely in his pockets, and in some other particular. The fellow looked conscious of guilt, although I believe he was unconscious that every body around knew who it was that had caught him. [Lincoln is gossiping about these women of questionable reputation because apparently Mary and he had gossiped about when she was in Washington, too.]

I have had no letter from home, since I wrote you before, except short business letters, which have no interest for you.

By the way, you do not intend to do without a girl, because the one you had has left you? Get another as soon as you can to take charge of the dear codgers. Father expected to see you all sooner; but let it pass; stay as long as you please, and come when you please. Kiss and love the dear rascals.


 The first three letters are in the Lincoln Collection, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, IL; the last is at the University of Chicago.