Our panel of Civil War experts returns to A House Divided to mull more questions during the war’s 150th anniversary. Our latest question: What is the most important but overlooked story of the Civil War?
Perhaps the most overlooked story — if you calculate its transformative impact on the most important figure of the war — was the tragic death of William Wallace Lincoln, the 11-year-old son of the president, in February 1862.
After the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Willie composed a remarkably mature poetic tribute to family friend Edward Dickinson Baker, who lost his life there. The ode even appeared in a Washington newspaper. Baker was the second intimate of the Lincolns to die in the young war: E.E. Ellsworth fell first, and the death of Baker (for whom the Lincolns’ late son Eddy had been named) intensified their pain.
Understandably, no blow hit them harder than the death of Willie — reportedly his father’s favorite and much like him in temperament. The child succumbed to typhoid fever, caused by water pumped into the White House through an indoor plumbing system whose source was the fetid Potomac. He suffered an agonizing death.
After sobbing in front of his private secretaries, the president said little about his loss. But his wife, Mary, perhaps spoke for both of them when she exclaimed that “the serpents” had “crossed our pathways.” The word “serpents” carried a decidedly religious connotation in those days: The grieving mother was clearly expressing her belief that she and her husband had been repaid for their sins. Mary would later elaborate: “I had become so wrapped up in the world, so devoted to our own political advancement that I thought of little else besides. Our Heavenly Father sees fit, oftentimes to visit us, at such times for our worldliness.”
Mary never escaped what she described as the “fiery furnace of affliction” of grief. But Willie’s death never melted Abraham Lincoln, dimmed his resolve — or, for that matter, reduced his devotion to his own political advancement, which he came to see as inseparable from the goals of Union and freedom. In fact, Lincoln emerged from his mourning a tougher commander-in-chief than before, willing to deploy deadly weaponry, sacrifice unimaginable casualties and lay waste to acres of property in pursuit of victory.
Thousands of fathers had lost sons without losing their love of country or dedication to its preservation. A tougher-than-
ever Lincoln now identified with such fathers, emerging from his testing loss a warrior. Willie’s death might have been, in its way, the turning point of the Civil War. After he was gone, his father buried his pain and inflicted it as needed to guarantee victory. In a way, Willie Lincoln’s passing also doomed the age of Victorian innocence and gentlemanly fighting. The age of modern war had arrived.
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