The body of Willie Lincoln, 11 years old, blue-eyed and good-natured, the most treasured child of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, lay downstairs in the Green Room. He had died days earlier after a struggle with typhoid fever, probably contracted from contaminated water that supplied the White House.
It had been an agonizing stretch for the president and his wife, who had kept vigil day after day after Willie and his younger brother, Tad, fell ill. (Tad eventually would recover.) “The days dragged wearily by, and he grew weaker and more shadow-like,” Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who had become Mary Lincoln’s seamstress and confidante, later wrote. “He was his mother’s favorite child.”
Keckley recalled one particularly poignant evening when the president and Mrs. Lincoln hosted a lavish reception in the White House. The first lady repeatedly left the party and traipsed upstairs in her white satin dress to check on her dying son. The worried president forbade dancing. Keckley, who sat by Willie’s bedside, recalled how “the rich notes of the Marine Band in the apartments below came to the sickroom in soft, subdued murmurs, like the wild, faint sobbing of far-off spirits.”
Within days, Willie succumbed to the disease.
Gone was the only Lincoln child who possessed the amiable demeanor of his father, the one a family friend called “the most lovable boy I ever knew, bright, sensible, sweet-tempered and gentle-mannered.”
Gone was the boy who had shown his father’s command of language in a poem he had submitted to the National Republican newspaper about the death of a family friend who had died in battle. Gone was the boy who had romped around the White House with his younger brother, devising mischievous pranks and building a play fort on the mansion’s roof.
The Lincolns had lost another son, Edward, in 1850, just before his fourth birthday and only months before Willie was born. But the loss of Willie plunged them into an altogether deeper grief and cast a pall over the White House that would linger throughout the war. President Lincoln often turned inward, concealing his sadness and carrying on with the job at hand. Mary Lincoln wore her pain outwardly, like an albatross.
Upon first seeing his dead son, President Lincoln murmured, “My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!”
He buried his head in his hands, Keckley recalled, and his tall frame convulsed with emotion. “I stood at the foot of the bed, my eyes full of tears, looking at the man in silent, awe-stricken wonder,” she wrote. “His grief unnerved him, and made him a weak, passive child. I did not dream that his rugged nature could be so moved.”