Abraham Lincoln came from the humblest of beginnings. His wife Mary Todd came from a wealthy clan. Their lives together were marked by personal tragedy.
Lincoln’s mother, sister, and three of her sons died young. The loss of the boys crushed Lincoln and Mary, who also lost two half-brothers and a brother-in-law during the Civil War. Here’s a look at Lincoln’s family, Mary’s Confederate parents, and the tragedies that befell the family:
Father: Thomas (1778-1851)
Thomas Lincoln, a farmer and sometimes cabinetmaker, chose to raise his family on the harsh frontier of the Midwest. A stern father who was probably illiterate, Thomas never fully understood Abraham’s desire to continue his education and chastised his son for reading instead of doing chores.
Thomas never met his stepdaughter, Mary Todd, or his grandchildren. Abraham, busy with work and a sick wife, did not come to attend her funeral.
“In all his published writings, and even in the accounts of hundreds of stories and conversations, [Lincoln] had not a favorable word to say about his father,” wrote Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald.
Mother: Nancy Hanks Lincoln (1784-1818)
Originally from Virginia, Nancy moved to Kentucky, where she married Thomas Lincoln and gave birth to their three children: Sarah, the eldest; Abraham, the middle child; and Thomas, who died in infancy.
Lincoln called his mother, a tall, slender woman with dark hair, “highly intellectual by nature”, with a “strong memory” and “sharp judgement”.
In 1816 the Lincolns moved to southern Indiana and built a small cabin on Little Pigeon Creek. Two years later, Nancy died of “milk sickness” or tuberculosis.
Sister: Sarah (1807-1828)
After Nancy’s death in 1818, responsibility for keeping the house fell to Sarah, Lincoln’s 11-year-old sister. Like her brother, Sarah – who went by the name “Sally” – was smart, had a keen sense of humor and a knack for putting people at ease.
When Abe, 19, learned that his older sister had died in childbirth aged 21, he buried his face in his hands and sobbed, his former business partner and biographer William Herndon wrote.
Mother-in-law: Sarah Bush Lincoln (1788-1869)
In 1819, Thomas Lincoln returned to Kentucky to propose marriage to Sarah Bush, whom he had known earlier. Nearly 10 years his junior, Sarah accepts and settles with him on Thomas’s farm in Indiana.
Suddenly, Abraham had three new half-siblings: Elizabeth, Matilda and John. Sarah recognized young Abe’s intelligence, encouraged him to improve, and the two developed a close, lifelong bond.
“The quality of warm human kindness so marked in Abraham’s character was a reflection at least in part of his happy family life as a boy after Sarah became his stepmother,” wrote his biographer Charles Coleman. .
READ MORE: The two mothers who shaped Lincoln
Wife: Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882)
Born into a large and prosperous family in Lexington, Kentucky, Mary Todd Lincoln lost her mother when she was 6 years old. Her strict mother-in-law then sent her back to school, where she received an elite education, studying French and the humanities.
In 1839, in Springfield, Illinois, she met Lincoln – “a poor nothing then”. Three years later, after a stormy courtship and a broken engagement, the couple married on a rainy Friday in front of around 30 relatives and friends.
Mary, an avid politician, shared the successes and misfortunes of her husband, who first took national office in 1847, as U.S. Representative from Illinois. After Lincoln was elected president in 1860, she served as the de facto social director of the White House as well as Lincoln’s confidante.
“He was often filled with sadness and discouragement which it took all of Mary’s skill to dispel,” his half-niece Katherine Helm wrote in a biography of the former First Lady.
Mary fought her own battles with sanity and overwhelming grief. Along with losing her mother at a tender age, she lost three young sons and witnessed her husband’s murder firsthand. After leaving the White House, she struggled financially and endured widespread condemnation for her erratic behavior, which during her lifetime was never understood as possible bipolar disorder or acute post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1875, a public trial initiated by her son Robert declared her mad and committed her to a sanatorium. Funding a release a few months later, she moved to Europe, where she lived until a year before her death.
ALSO: Mary Todd Lincoln became a laughing stock after her husband’s murder
Son: Robert (1843-1926)
Lincoln’s eldest son, the only one to live to adulthood, marry and have a family of his own, left an impressive legacy. A graduate of the Harvard class of 1864 and an officer on the staff of Ulysses Grant at the end of the Civil War, Robert later served as Secretary of War under two presidents and a cabinet minister in England.
Studious and curious, Robert loved astronomy and algebra problems. When his health declined in his later years, he took up golf, telling friends that the sport had saved his life.
“He was of a taciturn and reserved nature, and it was only to his close friends that he revealed himself as a charming conversationalist and entertaining storyteller, a trait he inherited from his father”, we read in an obituary.
Son: Edward (1846-1850)
The cries of a grief-stricken Mary Lincoln echoed throughout the family’s home in Springfield when 3-year-old Edward died, likely of tuberculosis. The Lincolns’ second child is named after Edward Baker, a friend and politician who would become an officer in the U.S. Army during the Civil War.
Edward was buried in Springfield. In December 1865, his remains were exhumed and reinterred in Lincoln’s grave with his father at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield.
Son: William ‘Willie’ (1850-1862)
Willie Lincoln might be exuberant like his younger brother Tad – who was known for playing pranks in the White House – but he was also studious and thoughtful. In October 1861, after Baker’s wartime death, the 10-year-old submitted a poem about the soldier to a local newspaper.
In February 1862, Tad and Willie fell ill with typhoid fever. Tad recovered, but Willie died, devastating his parents. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. God called him home,” Lincoln moaned.
After Willie’s death, Mary visited a spiritualist, who she said gave her “wonderful revelations” about the deceased boy. Lincoln worried about his sanity.
But Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay played down reports of the first lady’s odd behavior after Willie’s death. “That she was very eccentric, there can be no doubt,” he wrote in 1887, “but [that] she went to the reported extremes I don’t think.
Son: Thomas ‘Tad’ (1853-71)
Lincoln nicknamed his youngest child “Tad” because he was “wiggly like a tadpole” as a baby. As a youngster, Tad spoke with a lisp, likely due to a cleft palate.
Impulsive and mischievous, Tad was “adored by both father and mother, pampered and spoiled by his teachers, and flattered and fondled by the repulsive horde of job seekers who infested the antechambers of the White House,” wrote John Hay. , Lincoln’s assistant and secretary.
“The crafty little pixie…gave this sad and solemn Great War White House the only comic relief it knew,” Hay wrote.
In the summer of 1871, 18-year-old Tad fell ill after returning from Europe and died in Chicago of unknown causes.
Mary Lincoln’s Confederate Parents
Mary’s brother, George RC Todd, and three half-brothers (Alexander, David, and Samuel Todd) all served in the Confederate Army. Samuel fell in Shiloh, Alexander in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. David was injured in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Southern newspapers lambasted Mary, a native of the border state of Kentucky, after Samuel’s death on April 5, 1862, in the federal capital, that a brave brother had thus fallen into the hands of her husband’s mercenaries,” noted one Louisiana newspaper.
In September 1863, Mary’s brother-in-law, the 32-year-old Confederate Brig. General Benjamin Hardin Helm, fell at the Battle of Chickamauga (Georgia). Married to Emilie Todd, Mary’s younger half-sister, Helm had declined the President’s offer of a position in the Union Army.
“I have never seen Mr. Lincoln more emotional,” Illinois Sen. David Davis said of the president’s reaction to Helm’s death. “…I found him in the greatest sorrow.”
In December 1863, US authorities granted Emilie passage through the lines to the White House, where the Lincolns treated her kindly during a six-day visit. “Mr. Lincoln and my sister met me with the warmest affection, [but] we were all too distressed at first to talk,” the 26-year-old widow wrote in her diary.