Father’s Day

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | June 19, 2016

June 19, 2016
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“Father Abraham” was, by 1865, exhausted. The fight to suppress rebellion had become a war of liberation. Now, 4 million black slaves were free and 10% of the white male population between 13 and 43, dead. But the scope of the war’s carnage; its staggering human, material, political, intellectual and spiritual cost: placed a burden on Lincoln unprecedented in American history. Nor, at home, was there much respite.  His wife, always difficult, was now half-mad; his elder son, distant; a younger boy, age 11, the one most like him, had died in 1862 – a devastating loss. All that was left to him, his one personal joy, was his little son, Tad. Here a slip of paper, requesting a map, tells the story of that relationship…

He was, by the end of the War, the most powerful man in America. But he who could move armies, proclaim laws, and liberate whole peoples; who could throw into jail, without trial, any citizen, or release any prisoner, without excuse – could not control a single little boy. Tad Lincoln, turning 12, was a wild, illiterate, badly lisping, warmly loving hellion – which seemed to please his father to no end. “Let him run,” Lincoln would say; even if the running took place during a White House Reception, Tad having harnessed two goats to a dining room chair and driven them, pell-mell, into the East Room. As to the youngster’s education, his self-taught father saw no rush. “There’s time enough yet,” he said, “for him to learn his letters and get pokey.” “Mr. L was the kindest – most tender and loving… father in the world,” his wife recalled in 1866.  “He gave… unbounded liberty. He was always very indulgent to his children – chided or praised for it he always said, ‘It is my pleasure that my children are free – happy and unrestrained by parental tyranny. Love is the chain whereby to lock a child to its parent.’” With Tad, that chain was unbreakable, for however much the boy vexed others, Lincoln was entirely at his service, day or night. He allowed him to interrupt meetings, took him along when he left the White House, shared his bed with the boy at night. Tad was, perhaps, the only truly untroubled person in Lincoln’s life – and in this, it would seem, came relief and joy.

Three days after his second Inauguration – and a mere five weeks before his assassination – Lincoln, not untypically, sought to give a present to Tad:

“Will Gen. Delafield please allow the bearer, my son, to have a map or two for which he will ask? A Lincoln.”

Tad Lincoln in uniform
Tad Lincoln, standing, wearing a military-style uniform, circa 1860s. Matthew Brady. Library of Congress.

It was, in fact,  Lincoln’s wont to jot requests like this on small cards for Tad. During the terrible Battle of Chancellorsville, for instance, Lincoln wrote to the commandant at the Washington Arsenal requesting that he “Let Tad have the pistol, big enough for snap caps — but no cartridges or powder.” When, in July 1864, Federal troops hurried to Washington to defend the Capitol from Jubal Early’s invading army, Lincoln asked an unidentified correspondent to “Let Tad have the wagon, if you can spare it.” The note featured here  – which is, by four words, marginally longer than the others cited – begs from the Chief of Engineers, General Delafield,  “a map or two” of what, likely, were the most up-to-date renderings of combat theaters and battlefields. Perhaps then, with victory so literally close – and Lincoln himself so eager to see for himself the end of the war – Tad might have wished to look at maps showing the latest entrenchments. In any case, the boy was with his father on March 23rd, when the Lincolns hurried to the front, to be on hand for the fall of Richmond. Indeed, Tad accompanied his father, on April 4th, as Lincoln walked in triumph through the still-smoldering streets of Richmond. It was Tad’s 12th birthday – and probably, for father and son, the greatest day of their lives.

Some twelve days later, after his father’s murder, Tad asked a White House visitor if he thought Mr. Lincoln had “gone to heaven?” When the visitor replied he was sure of it, Tad said: “I am glad he has gone there, for he never was happy after he came here. This was not a good place for him!” As for himself, the boy noted, “I must learn to take care of myself now. Yes, Pa is dead, and I am only Tad Lincoln now, little Tad, like other little boys. I am not a president’s son now. I won’t have many presents anymore.”

ABRAHAM LINCOLN. 1809-1865. The 16th President of the United States.

Autograph note signed (“A. Lincoln”), as President, 1 page, sextodecimo, no place [Washington, D.C.], March 7, 1865. To General Richard Delafield.

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