Lincoln, Four Days After Son Willie's Death, Tells Sumner Mary Lincoln Needs His Help - "Can You Come?"

February 24, 1862

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Lincoln, Four Days After Son Willie's Death, Tells Sumner Mary Lincoln Needs His Help - "Can You Come?"
Autograph Note Signed
1 page | SMC 1034

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      Background

      Good marriages are easier to endure than bad ones, but harder to write about, which is why, when it comes to the contentious union of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd, a bare outline best suffices.

      Their courtship was rocky. Broken off once, they resumed talking a half-year later, and decided to wed, immediately. The resultant ceremony, in the Springfield home of her brother-in-law, was small; outside, a torrential rainstorm raged, rattling the doors and windows.

      The marriage was not easy. Lincoln was gone half the year, “riding” the Eighth judicial circuit from county courthouse to courthouse to be hired to settle disputes or represent clients. Back in Springfield, he was likewise absent. Either at his law office, or so absorbed in thought at home, his attention was not easily roused: wife Mary, once, smacked him in the face with a piece of firewood to get it. That she resorted to such an extreme measure was in keeping with her temper, and his neglect. Still, they had between them, ultimately, four children, and respect for each other’s intellect.

      Not all of their married life was hellish. Many anecdotes testify to her doting on him, and his affection for her. Yet the neighbors gossiped; his friends condemned; the words of his fellow lawyer and Republican, Milton Hay, seemed common wisdom. “I think she made his home tolerably disagreeable,” Hay asserted, “and hence he took to politics and public matters for occupation. If his domestic life had been entirely happy, I dare say he would have stayed at home and not busied himself with distant concerns. In that way she may have been of use to Lincoln.” Be that as it may, or may not, they shared political ambition, love for their children, and mutual forbearance.

      By the time of Lincoln’s election to the presidency, one of their sons – the second born – had died, in 1850, at three years old. Tuberculosis was probably the cause. Lincoln had been bereft, Mary inconsolable: she would not leave her bed, or eat, but lay for weeks, stunned. “Eat, Mary,” Lincoln would beg her, “for we must live.” Ten years later, they had much to live for, and entered the White House with two active boys, and a son away for college.

      Son Willie Lincoln was 11, and precocious; his younger brother Tad was 8, and a scamp. Sweet-natured if rambunctious, they were uncommonly indulged. Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon famously described how, visiting their father’s office, they would tear books from shelves, empty ashes from the grate, and grabbing papers, inkstands, and gold pens even, pile them all into a heap - upon which they’d dance. Lincoln, either so abstracted, or so charmed by their antics, never rebuked the boys’ madcap behavior. “Had they shit in Lincoln’s hat and rubbed it on their boots,” Herndon huffed, “he would have laughed and thought it smart.” But Lincoln, who had grown up in conditions he once described as akin to slavery, adored his two youngsters, and was determined that they, unlike him, were free and happy, unrestrained by parental tyranny. Not surprisingly, the Lincolns gave the boys full rein in the White House. It turned out a terrible gift.

      For most of the 19th century, few places in America were as unhealthy, and polluted, as the White House. It was built on muggy Potomac bottomland. The stream flowing behind the south lawn served, effectively, as Washington’s public sewer. A nearby marsh was used to dump animal carcasses and human waste. The walls of the White House were damp; the basement stank. And even when, in 1833, running water was piped into the mansion, it came untreated from the Potomac – so that, in fact, typhoid was on tap. Whether the boys played near the fetid river, or in the noxious marsh, or just drank a glass of piped-in water, both came down with typhoid.

      It looked at first as if Willie had a cold; then Tad. By February 5, 1862, the night of a glamorous White House reception – hailed by the Washington Star as “the most superb affair of its kind ever seen here” – Willie began to show signs of serious illness. His anxious parents ran upstairs throughout the night, only to stroke his fervid brow, and then reappear downstairs amid the glittering throng. Willie took two agonizing weeks to die. Tad would recover. But for Lincoln, and his wife, and Tad too, everything was different. Lincoln, grief-stricken, plunged evermore into work. Tad became his companion, the sharer of his bed – a last bit of joy in a world of staggering carnage. As for Mary, her grief went from unassuageable, to paralytic, to Lincoln’s fearing he would have to hospitalize her for mental illness. In this midst of this triple trial – a lost son, a bereaved son, an as good-as-mad wife – Lincoln summoned Senator Charles Sumner, of whom Mary, with her unerring eye for great men, had made a friend: 

      Mrs. L. needs help. Can you come?

      Mary eventually resumed normal life, albeit more extravagant, outspoken, and unstable than before. Tad found comfort in having his father for a best friend. And Lincoln? The historian Harold Holzer believes losing a son hardened him to win the War. “Willie's death might have been, in its way, the turning point of the Civil War. After he was gone, his father buried his pain and inflicted it as needed to guarantee victory,” Holzer wrote.

      Harder, or softer, Lincoln took his grief with him to the grave – first Willie’s, in Georgetown, where he would repair alone to weep, and then, to his own, in Springfield. After Lincoln’s assassination, Willie’s body was exhumed, and they traveled home together to be buried.

      Autograph Note Signed (“A. Lincoln”), as President, 1 page, sextodecimo, on a black-bordered card, no place, February 24, 1862. To Senator Charles Sumner.
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      Hon. Charles Sumner,

      Mrs. L. needs your help, can you come?

      Feb, 24. 1862

      A. LINCOLN