Guest post by Samantha Sayre Taylor
The Mary Todd Lincoln House, 578 W. Main St., Lexington, stands apart from its surroundings; an old woman surrounded by the young and mighty while she stands as a reminder of our past. Downtown Lexington has grown up around it, and it now stands with just the small back garden and the house itself. The tour is heavily centered on the most famous former occupant, Mary Todd Lincoln.
I am a Kentucky native, born and raised in Berea with weekly adventures in Lexington. We learn about the Todds and their — and thus our — connection to the tragic figure of Abraham Lincoln. Once the tour leads us to the parlor, we see photos of the various Todd siblings. Those who served in the Union army are on one side and their Confederate brothers and sisters are across from them; a family divided even in memory. Mary is not the only sad tale from the Todd sisters. Emilie Todd provides her own painful story to the hour-long tour.
Dr. Thomas Appleton, professor at Eastern Kentucky University, (and my graduate school professor) is the editor of Kentucky Women: Their Lives and Times (Southern Women: Their Lives and Times Ser.) in which Angela Esco Elder wrote a beautifully detailed examination of the relationship between Mary and her younger sister, Emilie. The chapter is titled “We Weep Over Our Dead Together.” Elder is a post-doctorate fellow at Virginia Tech University and a graduate of the University of Georgia (Lisa’s alma mater! Go Dawgs!)
As I am sure most readers are well aware, Mary Todd married Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Ill., in 1842. The fourth of nine children between her father and mother, Robert and Elizabeth Todd, Mary had a very comfortable childhood in a wealthy household. Elizabeth Todd died when Mary was 6, and her father married Elizabeth “Betsy” Humphreys. Together they had seven more children to add to the growing Todd family. Emilie was born when Mary was 18, resulting in the two sisters having very little interaction during Emilie’s childhood. The bond that would later exist between the two sisters was a result of Abraham and Mary’s fondness for Emilie’s spirited personality.
“Little Sister,” as Abe would fondly refer to her, was a startlingly beautiful young woman. Mary was considered as lovely, but her looks were overshadowed by those of her younger sister. Her quick wit, intelligence and headstrong personality were Mary’s best known traits. Emilie, on the other hand, quickly became the toast of Lexington society and made a very good match with Benjamin Helm, a handsome man from a good family. In contrast to Mary’s husband, who their father saw as a less than suitable match for his daughter, Emilie’s marriage was celebrated as advantageous for both the Todds and the Helms. The newlyweds were clearly enamored with one another, a point which Elder illustrates beautifully with excerpts from love letters between them as Benjamin traveled for his work.
The Todd Family is a perfect example of what the Civil War meant for Kentucky, and other border state, households. Robert Todd’s children from his first marriage sided with the Union, and those from his marriage to Betsy sided with the Confederacy. Lincoln called Benjamin Helm to the White House and offered him an appointment in Washington with the Union army. After much deliberation, he turned it down to be a Confederate general.
This tore at the Lincolns and the Helms, for it meant the two sisters would not be able to see one another as long as the war was being fought. Emilie followed her husband into Confederate territory and was the model of a Southern general’s wife, serving as a mother to his unit as well as the couple’s three small children. After only seven years of marriage and with three children younger than 6, Emilie became a Confederate widow when her husband was killed. With nowhere else to turn, Emilie traveled back to Washington to stay with her sister and brother-in-law. She was stopped at a Union outpost, and when Lincoln was telegraphed about a Confederate widow saying she was his sister, he said simply “Bring her to me.”
Both Todd sisters became famous Civil War widows after Lincoln was assassinated. Neither Mary nor Emilie remarried and would become well-known public figures, though for different reasons. Emilie came to personify the perfect Confederate widow, adopting her late husband’s orphaned unit and standing as a stoic figure in the aftermath of the war. Mary, on the other hand, would go on to have very public mental health issues that culminated with her son, Robert, having her institutionalized. A very intelligent, highly educated, quick-witted and lovely woman, Mary was often talked down to and about, especially when it came to her Kentucky roots.
Emilie had somewhat of an easier time since she was primarily surrounded by other Southerners and people who shared a common culture. The Todd sisters were alike in their beauty and intelligence, but their lives veered very far from one another other than the untimely deaths of their husbands. Two war widows from a family split in two by a tragic war that set brother against brother and sister against sister.
Editor’s note: If you’re interested in this, I recommend checking out my favorite podcast, the History Chicks. They have a two-part series on Mary Todd Lincoln, and another one on Elizabeth Keckly, Mary’s amazing dressmaker, a former slave.
You can also visit the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington.