Special Report: Civil War 150

Willie Lincoln’s death: A private agony for a president facing a nation of pain

Mathew Brady/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS PRINTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION - Willie Lincoln, the third son of President Abraham Lincoln, died Feb. 20, 1862, at age 11 of typhoid fever. This photograph was taken shortly before his death

The wind and rain swirling outside the White House on Feb. 24, 1862, seemed fitting given the darkness that had descended inside its walls.

The Civil War was gathering steam. Jefferson Davis had just been inaugurated president of the Confederacy. Bloody battles and long months of uncertainty lay ahead. On that dreary Monday afternoon, however, those troubles took a back seat to a more personal tragedy that had befallen the first family.

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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.”

The first lady fared even worse.

“Mrs. Lincoln’s grief is inconsolable,” Keckley wrote. During one of her fits of grief, the president led her to a window and pointed toward the insane asylum, later known as St. Elizabeths Hospital. “Mother, do you see that large white building on the hill yonder?” he said. “Try and control your grief, or it will drive you mad, and we may have to send you there.”

On the day of the funeral, “a great many friends of the family called to take a last look at the little favorite, who had endeared himself to all guests of the family,” reported the Washington Evening Star. “The body was clothed in the usual every-day attire of youths of his age, consisting of pants and jacket with white stockings and low shoes — the white collar and wristbands being turned over the black cloth of the jacket.”

His right hand held a small bouquet of flowers that later would be given to his mother, who remained upstairs to grieve in solitude. His plain metallic coffin bore a simple inscription on a square silver plate: William Wallace Lincoln. Born December 21st, 1850. Died February 20th, 1862.

At 2 p.m., the crowd gathered for the funeral in the East Room, where the mirrors had been covered and the frames draped with black mourning crepe. Government offices were closed. Cabinet secretaries filed in, along with generals and foreign dignitaries, members of Congress and family friends. They stole glances at Willie’s weary father.

“There sat the man, with a burden on his brain at which the world marvels — bent now with the load at both heart and brain — staggering under a blow like the taking from him of his child,” recalled the writer Nathaniel Parker Willis. “Men of power sat around him . . . all struggling with their tears — great hearts sorrowing with the president as a stricken man and a brother.”

In his eulogy, Phineas D. Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, called Willie “a child of bright intelligence and of peculiar promise. . . . His mind was active, inquisitive and conscientious; his disposition was amiable and affectionate; his impulses were kind and generous; and his words and manners were gentle and attractive. It is easy to see how a child, thus endowed, would, in the course of 11 years, entwine himself around the hearts of those who knew him best.”

Afterward, the mourners joined the long procession through unpaved streets and up a slope to Oak Hill Cemetery, off R Street in Georgetown, with two white horses pulling the hearse. Willie’s body was placed in a vault belonging to the family of William Carroll, a clerk of the Supreme Court, who had offered to let the Lincolns use the tomb as a temporary resting place until they returned to Illinois.

The remains of Willie Lincoln lay in the marble vault, locked behind an iron gate, for more than three years. On numerous occasions, author James L. Swanson wrote, “his ever-mourning father returned to visit him, to remember, and to weep,” even as he tried to hold the country together.

After Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Willie’s casket was exhumed and placed aboard the presidential funeral train for the journey back to Illinois. Father and son headed home together.

To walk through the gates of Oak Hill today is to slip back in time. Down the winding stone paths, past towering oaks and faded headstones, on a hilltop overlooking Rock Creek sits the weathered vault in the farthest corner of the cemetery. There is no sign that Willie Lincoln ever was here, no name carved into the marble, no marker to commemorate the dark days of winter 1862.

But the black iron gate still guards the entrance, and just beyond it lies the darkened vault where a president dealing with a nation’s sorrows could come and be a father dealing with his own.

PLUS: More on Willie’s death from expert Harold Holzer

This story was included in a Washington Post special section, “Civil War 150: Ripples of War.” See more stories on the Civil War.

 
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