Women of the Civil War: Mary Todd Lincoln

A new born child on Dec. 13, 1818, was destined to obtain an exceptional education in Lexington, KY, serve as a wife and mother in Springfield, Ill., and seek and find celebrity in Washington, D.C. Mary Todd Lincoln  prepared well for her eventual role as First Lady of the United States during the years 1861 to 1865. 

Young, exciting, and ambitious, Mary Todd, the daughter of a prosperous Kentucky family, lived through the misfortune of her mother dying at a young age, and a step-mother who failed to fill her need for love and compassion. 

Unusual at the time for young women, her father sent Mary to acquire an education over a period of 10 years at Shelby Female Academy and Madam Mentelle’s boarding school to learn reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic, history, geography, natural science, French and religion. Jean H. Baker relates in “Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography” that Madam Mentelle “also conveyed indelible images of female independence, aristocratic snobbishness, and individual eccentricity” — which Mary Todd absorbed quite well.

Nevertheless, it was Mary Todd’s destiny to seek liberation and love in Springfield, where she met a tall, lanky, young lawyer named Abe Lincoln who had a hardscrabble family background from her home state of Kentucky. The astute young lady perceived this person would one day be the president of the United States.

But first came marriage and domesticity in Springfield with Abe, and the birth of four children — only one of whom would live until adulthood. This caused much trauma in Mary’s life.

When her husband won the U.S. presidential election in 1860, Mary saw her ambition to reside at the White House fulfilled. Mary had to work hard to restore the mansion as a symbol of the nation’s prominence and prosperity after years of neglect.

This required Mary to be assertive with members of the administration and congress to allocate funds for restoration. As Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald wrote, Mary had gone “from room to room, finding the furniture broken down, the wallpaper peeling, the carpeting worn, the draperies torn … the whole place had the air of a run-down, unsuccessful, third-rate hotel.” 

Mary advocated on the part of friends and acquaintances for governmental favors and appointments. As seen in “Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters” by Justin & Linda Turner,  Mary wrote to Secretary of State William H. Seward that “Our friend Col. Mygatt, a resident of Cleveland comes to us highly recommended for the “consulship of Honolulu.” 

The First Lady had an assertive and sensitive nature that generated animosity and criticism. In a letter to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, she wrote, “I understand that you forgive me, for all past offences, yet I am not Christian enough, to feel the same towards you….”

Mary had little success in motivating the cantankerous Edwin M. Stanton who replaced Cameron as secretary of war. Stanton refused Mary’s request for an appointment for someone: “Madam, we are in the midst of a great war for national existence,” and to make this appointment would “strike at the very root of all confidence of the people in the government, in your husband, and you and me.” 

Mary had learned her lesson. Gerry Van Der Heuvel wrote in “Crowns of Thorns and Glory” that she replied to Stanton that she would never ask him for anything again. And, she never did.

While living in the White House, Mary suffered through the death of her beloved 11-year old son Willie, as well as her husband, the president. Her reaction to both caused irreparable mental anguish and agitation. 

Following President Lincoln’s assassination, Mary’s life became difficult in the extreme. Her son Robert, mortified by her neurotic behavior, had her committed to a mental institution.

When friends intervened to help obtain her release, Mary lived out the remaining years of her life abroad for her own welfare. She returned home to Springfield where she passed away at age 63, and is buried with her husband.

Despite living in an age when assertiveness and independence were not considered proper traits in a woman, Mary forged ahead to achieve goals she set for her family, her country, and herself. History has not been kind to Mary Todd Lincoln; but, she lived a full, rich, and exciting life — just as she had planned it.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign”; available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth, and Cardsmart in Milford. His latest book, “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863” is due out in August 2019, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.

 

By Tom Ryan

Special to the Coastal Point