The Civil War Connections Blog

Mrs. Lincoln

When thinking about the Civil War and the White House, many people immediately think of Abraham Lincoln, one of our nation’s most famous presidents. Few people consider the woman who stood beside him through one of the most trying presidential terms in our history. Mary Todd Lincoln, a native of Lexington, Kentucky, when discussed, is often criticized for her extravagant spending and erratic behavior. As a young girl, and a member of Lexington’s upper class, she was described as both witty and excitable. However, both her childhood and adulthood were plagued with the loss of loved ones that resulted in an almost crippling amount of grief that would haunt her later in life. Mary Todd experienced some of this grief starting at a young age, when her mother died before she turned seven, and her father remarried a little over a year later.[1]

 

Mary Todd Lincoln, accessed through the Library of Congress online.

Mary Todd Lincoln, accessed through the Library of Congress online.

 

When she was 21, she moved to Springfield, Illinois, to live with her sister Elizabeth, and it is there that she met Abraham Lincoln. Their initial courtship was anything but smooth sailing, and after initially proposing to Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln broke off their engagement after a few months. However, the couple reconciled and were married in November 1842.[2] After an initially rocky start with the broken engagement, the couple remained faithful to one another, with President Lincoln reportedly stating, “My wife is as handsome as when she was a girl, and I…fell in love with her; and what is more, I have never fallen out,” at a White House event.[3]

 

The couple had four sons, Robert Todd Lincoln, Edward Baker Lincoln, William “Willie” Wallace Lincoln and Thomas “Tad” Lincoln. Unfortunately, Edward died at age four, and Willie died at age twelve, during the early years of his father’s presidency. Tad Lincoln also died before his mother in 1871, resulting in her having to bury three out of her four sons and her husband. The loss of her children, especially the stress of losing Willie during the Civil War and while living in the White House, left her highly distraught, and with strange behavior that suggested that she had a variety of mental health issues. Study of her reported behavior suggests that Mary Todd suffered from severe depression, paranoia, migraines and anxiety.[4]

 

 

Abraham Lincoln's Last Reception, 1965. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

Abraham Lincoln’s Last Reception, 1965. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

 

Mary Todd Lincoln was a highly criticized First Lady. Despite her unwavering support of her husband, she invited public disapproval in many aspects of her life. Her family in Kentucky was Confederate supporters, and her brother and multiple half brothers fought for the Confederate Army. Many people viewed this as traitorous, but Mary Todd was highly dedicated to supporting her husband and the Union cause and demonstrated this in a variety of ways. She fully supported abolition as well, and as a highly religious and spiritual woman, viewed the ownership of slaves as morally wrong. She volunteered as a nurse in Union hospitals, visited Union camps with President Lincoln, and was highly successful at raising morale. However, her spending and entertaining habits while in the White House also came under public scrutiny. She acquired a large debt for the clothing she purchased while she was First Lady, and the renovation of the White House she embarked on. Similarly, many people were displeased with the money she spent on entertaining, and she was criticized for hosting parties and gatherings while men were dying on the battlefields.

 

Following the assassination of her husband, Mary Todd’s behavior spiraled out of control. Prior to her son Tad’s death, she lived with him in Germany for a brief period time. Upon their return to the States, and following Tad’s death, her behavior became so erratic that her last living son, Robert, committed her to a mental institution. Mary Todd attempted suicide twice before entering the mental institution, and remained there for a few months before being released into the care of her sister Elizabeth, the same one she had lived with when she met Abraham Lincoln, where she died in 1882.[5] Mary Todd Lincoln is both a fascinating and tragic companion to one of the most fascinating and tragic presidents in our nations history.

 


[1] “First Lady Biography: Mary Anne Todd Lincoln,” National First Ladies’ Library, Accessed February 12, 2013. http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=17

[2] “About First Ladies: Mary Todd Lincoln,” The White House, Accessed February 12, 2013. http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/first-ladies/marylincoln

[3] “About First Ladies: Mary Todd Lincoln,” The White House.

[4] “First Lady Biography: Mary Anne Todd Lincoln,” National First Ladies’ Library.

[5] “First Lady Biography: Mary Anne Todd Lincoln,” National First Ladies’ Library.