Mary’s Little Sister

Note: posted on History for the Present, March 11, 2017

When Mary Lincoln was in Lexington in 1848, she developed a very close relationship with her young stepsister Emilie Todd; and afterwards, Emilie visited the Lincoln family emilie-helmin Springfield, where Lincoln fell in love with her, too. By 1856, however, there was a widening gap in political opinions between Mary and her Kentucky family. Emilie had married Benjamin Helm, an attorney and member of the Kentucky legislature who would just four years later be fighting for the Confederacy. An 1856 letter Mary wrote to Emilie reveals her fondness for her little sister and shares typical social gossip and family news. However, it also contains a calculated defense of her husband’s politics, a direct response to the increasing divisiveness of national politics as it pertained to the issue of slavery.

Mary Lincoln to Emilie Helm

Springfield Nov 23rd 1856

With much pleasure, my dear Emilie, I acknowledge, the receipt of one of your ever acceptable letters, & notwithstanding many weeks have passed since writing you. I have frequently intended doing so, & you have been oftentimes in my thoughts. Mr [Edwards] expressed great pleasure at meeting you last summer, you know you have a very warm place in his heart. You have been such a wanderer around with your good husband, and a letter might have failed reaching you. I must try & devise some excuses—for my past silence, forgetfulness you know it could not be.

Besides, there is a great deal in getting out of the habit of letter writing; once I was very fond of it, nothing pleases me now better than receiving a letter from an absent friend. So remember dear E. when you desire to be particularly acceptable, sit thee down & write one of your agreeable missives & do not wait for a return of each, from a staid matron, & moreover the mother of three noisy boys. Your Husband, I believe, like some of the rest of ours, has a great taste for politics & has taken much interest in the late contest, which has resulted very much as I expected, not hoped.

Altho’ Mr. [Lincoln] is, or was a Fremont man, you must not include him with so many of those, who belong to that party, an Abolitionist. In principle he is far from it. All he desires is, that slavery, shall not be extended, let it remain, where it is. My weak woman’s heart was too Southern in feeling, to sympathise with any but Fillmore, I have always been a great admirer of his, he made so good a President & is so just a man & feels the necessity of keeping foreigners, within bounds. If some of you Kentuckians, had to deal with the “wild Irish,” as we housekeepers are sometimes called upon to do, the south would certainly select Mr Fillmore next time [Mary harbored some nativists, Know-Nothing feelings that her husband did not share.] The democrats in our state have been defeated in their Governor, so there is a crumb of comfort, for each & all. What day is so dark, that there is no ray of sunshine to penetrate the gloom? Speaking of politics, Gov’s [etc.] reminds me of your questions, relative to Lydia M. The hour of her patient lover’s deliverance is at hand, they are to be married, privately I expect. Some of us who had a handsome dress for the season thought it would be in good taste for Mrs Matteson, in consideration of their being about the leave their present habitation, to give a general reception. Lydia, has always been so retiring, that she would be very averse to so public a display. [Lydia Matteson was the daughter of outgoing Illinois Governor Joel A. Matteson. She married John McGinnis in 1856.] This fall in visiting Mrs M I met with a sister of Mr McGinnis, a very pretty well bred genteel lady from Joliet—she spoke of being well acquainted with Margaret K. in [Kentucky]. Frances W. returned from her visit to Pennsylvania, two or three days since, where she had been spending the fall. Mr Edward’s family are well. Mr B & Julia are still with them [Mary Lincoln’s niece Julia was the daughter of Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards. She married Edward L. Baker in 1855]. Miss Iles was married some three weeks since, I expect you do not remember her, which gave rise to some two or three parties. Mr Scott is frequently here, rather playing the devoted to Julie Ridgeley, I suspect, whether any thing serious I do not know. I expect the family would not be very averse to him. Charley R was on a visit to him, in Lex. this fall. He, it is said, is to be married this winter to Jennie Barrett—a lovely girl, you remember her. I am very sorry to hear that our Mother, is so frequently indisposed. I hope she has recovered from her lameness. Tell her when you see her that our old acquaintance O. B. Ficklin took tea with us—an evening or two since, made particular enquiries about her. Still as rough & uncultivated as ever altho some years since married an accomplished Georgia belle, with the advantages of some winter’s in Washington. Ma & myself when together, spoke of our minister Dr Smith, who finding his salary of some $1600 inadequate, has resigned the church. Uncle & some few others are desirous of getting Dr Brown, your former pastor in Lex. within the last year, both his wife & himself, have been a great deal here. He has purchased lands, and appears rather identified with the country. I must acknowledge, I have not admired him very much, his wife appears pleasant but neither I think would suit the people. Dr Smith is talented & beloved, & says he would stay if they would increase his salary, yet notwithstanding the wealthy in the church, as usual, there are many very close. But I am speaking of things that will not interest you in the least. If you do not bring yourself & Husband to see us very soon we will think you are not as proud of Him, as rumor says you should be. Do write soon, in return for this long & I fear dull letter from yours truly

                                                                                                Mary Lincoln

Before the outbreak of the Civil War, President Lincoln offered Emilie’s husband a position as an army paymaster, but he refused and joined the Confederate Army. After he was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863, Emilie and her young daughter Katherine went to the Washington to stay with the Lincoln family. Their presence in the White House made some critics doubt Mary’s allegiance to the Union, and it was a minor political problem for President Lincoln. Even secretary John Hay was uncomfortable with Emilie’s arrival, noting in his diary: “I visited with Mrs. L. Her sister, Mrs. Gen. Helm is with her just arrived from Secessia.” But because the Lincolns deeply cared for their little sister, they sought to protect and nurture her during her time of need.

But after a trip south on a pass from the President and an awkward return visit to Washington during which Emilie was incapable of tempering her southern sympathies, the political differences between Mary and her little sister became too much to overcome. Emilie returned to the south, and her bitter letter to Lincoln in October 1864 ensured that the giant chasm between the sisters would never again be bridged.

Emile Helm to Abraham Lincoln

30th Oct. 1864.
Lexington, Ky.

Mr. Lincoln,

Upon arriving at Lexington, after my long tedious unproductive and sorrowful visit to you, I found my brother stretched upon a sick bed. Made sick by the harrowing and shocking death of your Brother in law, and my half Brother Levi Todd [Levi’s wife divorced him on grounds of cruelty and he died from alcoholism in 1864]. He died from utter want and destruction as a letter sent to Sister Mary by Kitty [Mary’s youngest steps-sibling.] gives particulars. Another sad victim to the poisons of more forced relations. With such a sad, such a dreadful lesson, I again beg and plead attention & consideration to my petition to be permitted to ship my cotton & be allowed a pass to go South to attend to it. My necessities are such that I am compelled to urge it. The last money I have in the world I used to make the unfruitful appeal to you. You cannot urge that you do not know them for I have told you of them. I have been a quiet citizen and request only the right which humanity and justice always gives to widows and orphans. I also would remind you that your minnie bullets have made us what we are [Emilie is blaming Lincoln and the Union Army for her sorrows.] I feel I have that additional claim upon you…

Will you reply to this. If you think I give way to excess of feeling, I beg you will make some excuse for a woman almost crazed with misfortune.

Emily Todd Helm

The Civil War robbed Mary of her southern family, and that is just another sorrowful fact of her life. Perhaps if Lincoln had survived the war, a reconciliation would have been possible, as his charitable heart may have been willing to overlook Emilie’s impertinence. But perhaps by the time that Emilie’s hateful letter came to her husband’s hands, Mary had completed her metamorphosis from a southern girl to a northern woman, and there was no chance for reconciliation, anyway. But, no matter.