House of Abraham: Lincoln & the Todds, a Family Divided by War

House of Abraham: Lincoln & the Todds, a Family Divided by War

by Stephen Berry, Michael Prichard

A rising star among historians charts the fortunes of a family shattered by the Civil War—Mary Todd Lincoln's family—and their surprising impact on how Lincoln fought that war.See more details below


A rising star among historians charts the fortunes of a family shattered by the Civil War—Mary Todd Lincoln's family—and their surprising impact on how Lincoln fought that war.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Compelling.... Brings to vibrant life Lexington aristocrats never before studied in depth by Lincoln biographers...remarkable.... A riveting account." —Kirkus
Michael F. Bishop
House of Abraham is a compelling chronicle of a unique American family, and sheds new light on the domestic pressures endured by the Civil War president.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Divided families make the stuff of drama. When the divided family is Abraham Lincoln's, its divisions are metaphors for the nation's own collapse. With a skilled and pleasing pen, Berry tells the tangled story of the sad and often painful element of Lincoln's life that deepened his understanding of the nation's travails. Lincoln was closer to his wife's large clan-she had 13 siblings-than to his own. Originally from Kentucky, the Todds had members in both the North and South and backed both the Union and the Confederacy. Four of them, including Lincoln, died as a result of the conflict. Some were honorable and others scoundrels, some were easygoing and others problematic. Berry, an assistant professor of history at the University of Georgia, calls many of them "miserable," and their family a "wreck." He manages to tell the story of each Todd with full sympathy yet critical distance, and adds another level of understanding to the president who would "bind the nation's wounds." Finally, he rescues the Southern Todds from their obscurity. The result is a fast-paced, sobering story, never better told, of the pains of a clan and their significance for American history. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Nov. 5)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Placing the Civil War President in the context of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and her many siblings and half-siblings, Berry (history, Univ. of Georgia) shows the Todds as metaphor for the nation: ripped asunder, never to be the same. His demystification of Lincoln's depression is acute, albeit his use of Joshua Shenk (Lincoln's Melancholy) as a source expands on an error relating to Shakespeare. Lincoln knew the Bard well, which makes such errors by Lincoln scholars a pity. Berry covers new ground on the Todds with brio-and with a rather rushed finish. For public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ7/07.]

—Margaret Heilbrun
Kirkus Reviews
A compelling collective biography of the Kentucky in-laws of Abraham Lincoln. Berry (History/Univ. of Georgia; All That Makes a Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South, 2003, etc.) brings to vibrant life Lexington aristocrats never before studied in depth by Lincoln biographers-all the more remarkable given that before the war, the rising politico was closer to them than to his own family, and that in the conflict their divisions caused him no end of heartbreak and scandal. Mary Todd Lincoln and her 13 siblings symbolized the war's divisive toll on families-six sided with the Union, eight with the Confederacy. Four either became casualties themselves or had husbands who were-most notably Lincoln. With swift strokes, Berry sketches the broad characteristics of the clan (intelligence, quick tempers, alcoholism, litigiousness, ambition), as well as the individual traits that led them to nearly every major event and theater of the conflict. The children or their spouses included a Confederate brigadier general killed at Chickamauga; a Richmond prison commandant accused of mistreating Union soldiers; a talented rebel surgeon also charged with prison abuse; a brother-in-law who tried to blackmail Lincoln so he could retain an appointive Illinois post; and another sister who not only showed up in Mississippi at Jefferson Davis's inauguration as Confederate president but likely committed treason. Berry is especially shrewd in analyzing the Lincolns's marriage, showing how Abraham's pity for Mary's blind rages often fed her desire to punish him for this feeling. Berry also sensitively examines how the president's anguish over his in-laws led him to transform the shopworn metaphor of familyinto transcendent rhetoric that united the nation in a new "House of Abraham" built on freedom and forgiveness. A riveting account of the bluegrass bluebloods who embodied Lincoln's prewar notion of a "house divided" more than he ever expected. Agent: Andrew Wylie/Wylie Agency

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The division of "house against house" foretold by our Lord was never more
complete and utter.

— Union army recruiter, 1861

By September 1861, the Todd family, once "united and happy," was a wreck.
Like the nation itself, they had come apart at the seams, leaving sister Elodie
to marvel at the political world's destructive power. "Sometimes it seems hard
to realize all that has transpired in the last five months," she noted. "It
appears more like a painful dream." Elodie was a member of the Kentucky
Todds. Her sister was Mary Todd Lincoln. Two of their brothers had joined the
Confederate army. Elodie had made her choice when she had rashly become
engaged to a Confederate captain she barely knew. Now, with Kentucky
standing by the Union, she was trapped in the Deep South, cut off from her
home and her mother. Her sister Mary seemed inclined to cut her off entirely.
Stretched between the federal White House and the Confederate trenches,
the Todds were a national catastrophe, and Elodie worried that worse was
yet to come. "Surely there is no other family in the land placed in the exact
situation of ours," she lamented, "and I hope [there] will never be [another] so
unfortunate as to be surrounded by trials so numerous."

Of the fourteen children born to Robert Smith Todd, six sided with
the Union and eight sided with the Confederacy. Four of them were either
casualties of the Civil War or had husbands who were, if we count Lincoln in
that number. And certainly Lincoln should be counted a casualty of thewar.
Less obviously, but no less certainly, he should be counted a Todd. His
contact with his wife's family was far more sustained than his contact with
his own. His entire adult life had been awash in a sea of Todds. Not including
his wife, he dated a Todd, loafed with Todds, confided in Todds politically and
personally, benefited from Todds, and benefited Todds in turn. For all the
important moments of his adult life — the births and deaths of his children,
the successes and failures of his career — there was always a Todd around
to slap his back or squeeze his hand. And it was a presence he counted on.
From the house on Eighth and Jackson in Springfield, and later from the
White House, the call to "Come" continually rang out from the Lincolns, and
Todds came. Extending the survey to cousins, Todds introduced Lincoln to
his wife and to the law; they plucked him from obscurity, marveled at his rise,
and then followed his body to its deathbed and its grave. In short, the Todds
were a critical part of the matrix in which Lincoln was formed.

He was not unappreciative. "In the scramble for jobs presidential
relatives did well," reported the New York World in 1861. "In an unparalleled
display of nepotism, [President Lincoln] has appointed his whole family to
government posts." Mary Lincoln objected vehemently to such
characterizations. These are "villainous aspersion[s]," she wrote of a later
case. "Mr. L. has neither brother nor sister, aunt or uncle, and only a few
third cousins, no nearer ones; that clears him entirely as to any connection."
Technically, she was right. With no brothers or sisters, with a mother who
had died early and a father with whom he was never close, Mr. L. was
unusually alone in the world. But in pointing all this out, Mary had only
cinched the World's case. If the Todds weren't Lincoln's family, then who

And Lincoln was good to his family. Worried that the war would
divide them, he had offered political and military positions to many of the
Todd males, some of whom had rejected the offers and instead joined the
Confederacy. Even then, he did not turn his back on them; over the course of
the war he wrote multiple passes for various rebel Todds to come north, and
on one occasion allowed Emilie Todd, the wife of a slain Confederate general,
to stay in the White House, despite the ensuing scandal. The Todds became
for Lincoln the emblematic family of the war: his attempt to keep them
together paralleled his larger struggle to keep the national family together.
From the Todds, he learned much of what he knew about family; through the
Todds, he experienced many of the agonies of a family divided by war and
shattered by grief.

In their grief, the Todds were not always as good to Lincoln. Even
before the Civil War he was sued and slandered by Todds. Some of
introduction xi them disliked him because they thought he would never
amount to anything, and then disliked him even more when he did. During the
Civil War, things got progressively worse. Sometimes innocently, often on
purpose, a few members of the Southern wing of the family waged
psychological war on the White House and used their connection to assail
and scandalize its occupants. For the entirety of his presidency, Lincoln had
to live down one after another humiliation at Todd hands.

Taken as a clan, then, the Todds were not always very nice. They
could be pampered and prideful. They could be quick-tempered and vain.
They made grudges easily, and they held them long. They were often
preoccupied with the surfaces of things and insensitive to the substance.
Mary Lincoln once described her sister Ann as malicious, miserable, false,
wrathful, and vindictive. Glancing over the list, Ann recognized the traits
instantly: "Mary was writing about herself," she responded coolly. Sister
Elodie was more self-aware, though no less critical. Above all, she warned
her fiancé, "I am a Todd, and some of these days you may be unfortunate
enough to find out what they are." Of course, with his gift for language, it was
Lincoln himself who most pithily lampooned the pretensions of his wife's
family. "One 'd' was good enough for God," he quipped, "but not for the

The Todds suffered for their sins, however. Before the war, as
North drifted from South, the Todds drifted from one another. The older sisters
moved one by one to Springfield. The younger brothers moved one by one to
New Orleans. The rest of the siblings remained in a Kentucky that began its
career as a western state and ended it as a Southern one. Thus, by the time
Lincoln was elected, the Todds found themselves strung across the nation's
great divide; their experience of the war would be an emotional mess. But it
was a mess on a grand scale. The Todds were everywhere in the war. They
were present at Lincoln's inaugural. They were present at Jefferson Davis's
inaugural. They were present at most of the war's major engagements, from
Bull Run and Shiloh to Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and more. And they paid the
price for their participation. Brother Sam was shot through the gut and died at
Shiloh. Brother Aleck was killed in a friendly fire incident outside Baton
Rouge. Hardin Helm, Emilie Todd's husband, was shot off his horse and died
at Chickamauga. Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd's husband, was shot in the
back of the head at Ford's Theatre. As a family, the Todds lived the war — in
all its drama, division, confusion, exhaustion, and trauma — more completely
than any other. Indeed, if one wanted to write the history of Civil War misery
on both sides from the perspective of a single family, one could scarcely do
better than the Todds, who belonged, after all, to the first family of the United

The Todds, then, were a miserable family in both senses of the
word. They were occasionally hard to like. They were not merely divided by
the Civil War but shattered by it, left broken down, hollowed out, and haunted
by ghosts. But this is the war as it really was: damage heaped upon
damaged people. And all this partly deserved, totally self-inflicted suffering
was all but irredeemable, except perhaps by Lincoln. In this respect, the
Todds' misery was critical. Though it achieved nothing lasting for themselves
and only embarrassed the nation, it moved the nation's president. Despite
and sometimes because of their disreputable conduct, the Todds helped to
constitute Lincoln's understanding of family and, most important, his
understanding of a family at war. In the trials of the Todds, Lincoln saw all the
fractured families, and he took their collective grief and fashioned it into words
that gave the war whatever redemptive meaning it has. When Lincoln
delivered his second inaugural address, calling on Americans to "bind up the
nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his
widow and his orphan," he was talking, in part, about his own family. Two
Todd brothers had been killed in the war; one Todd sister had lost her
husband. There were two widows and seven orphans in the Todd family
alone. In prescribing "malice toward none" and "charity for all," Lincoln was
addressing a nation of Todds, united by blood and divided by bloodshed.

This book is not a complete biography of the Todds, nor could it be. The
historical record, especially for the early years, is too thin. Besides, following
fourteen "principal characters" — and their spouses, and their children — over
the course of a lifetime would be unwieldy. Of necessity and by design, this
book focuses on the fates and movements of the handful of Todds about
whom the most is known and with whom Lincoln had the closest association.
And of necessity and by design it focuses on the war years, when the Todds'
tragedy played before a national audience.

Of the Northern wing of the family, particular attention is paid to
two sisters: Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth was the eldest Todd and was like
a mother to her younger sisters. It was she who first moved from Lexington,
Kentucky, to Springfield, Illinois, and there established the seat of the
Northern Todds. In the 1830s, Lincoln and Elizabeth's husband, Ninian
Edwards, were up-and-coming Whigs together. Their relationship soured, but
Lincoln and Elizabeth remained close all their lives.

The Southern wing of the family has never been studied. Most
biographies of Mary mention the irony of her Confederate connections but
nothing more. Here particular attention is paid to two sisters, Emilie and
Elodie, and one brother, David. Emilie was called "Little Sister" by the
Lincolns. She was their favorite and remained so even after she married a
fellow Kentuckian, Hardin Helm, who rose to the level of brigadier general in
the Confederate army. Elodie — "Dedee" to the Lincolns — was not as dear
to them. She married her Confederate captain, Nathaniel Dawson, and
managed to love the Lincolns personally even as she loathed them politically.
Brother David was not close to the Lincolns at all. During the war he often
said that he wanted to cut his brother-in-law's heart out. Together these
Todds represent the full range of Confederate relations with the Lincolns.
They are given the most attention, however, not because they are the most
informative but because the most information has survived about them. Other
Todds will be introduced, sink, and resurface as the limits of the historical
record, and of narrative, permit.

What emerges is a portrait not of a family but a nation. Perhaps
the Todds weren't always likable. Neither was America. But America
punished the Todds for being representative of itself. The siblings who sided
with the North were suspected of Confederate leanings. The siblings who
sided with the South were suspected of Union leanings. It didn't matter how
many of them fought or bled or died for their respective sections; still they
could not do enough to prove their patriotism. To their contemporaries, the
Todds' division was not tragic or heart-rending but pathetic and disturbing.
The family embodied something the nation wanted to forget — that the war
wasn't "us vs. them" but "us vs. us." And yet precisely because the Todds'
experience was so relevant, the nation could not avert its eyes. The family
received inordinate press coverage. They were the wound into which America
couldn't help sticking its finger. And so the Todds lived the war in a fishbowl,
as a constant source of speculation and scandal, even as their numbers
dwindled, even as brother after brother sacrificed his "last full measure."

No family could have survived such a test. The war was an
emotional amplifier. Whatever dynamics a family had going in only became
more pronounced as the conflict dragged on. Thus fault lines became rifts
and rifts became chasms under the remorseless weight of suffering. By war's
end, there was little familial feeling left between the two halves of the Todd
family. Emilie Todd, the Southern sister closest to the Lincolns, was the last
to pour hate into the spaces love had filled. In 1864, she wrote a blistering
letter to Lincoln, blaming him for all her family's misery. Her husband and two
brothers lay buried in hasty graves, some of them in places she had never
heard of. At twenty-eight, she was threatened with becoming a brotherless,
fatherless, husbandless mother of three. The man who had made her so, the
commander in chief of the Union army, was her own brother-in-law and,
perhaps most painfully, the only man left who could help her. What could she
do with such grief except to lay it at his door? And when, shortly after she
wrote this letter, she learned that Lincoln himself had been assassinated,
what could she do with those feelings but write to his son Robert to ask if he
needed her to come comfort him?

The Civil War was a vast mosaic of such family crises. Across the
country, husbands, brothers, and fathers left their homes to kill or be killed;
wives, sisters, and daughters were left to tend to the dying, the newborn, and
the fields. No family had ever experienced such dislocation; many would
never be the same afterward. But the Civil War was a family crisis in a larger,
more symbolic, sense too. In the nineteenth century, the language of politics
was infused with familial meaning. Today, we rarely call George Washington
the "father" of our country. Senators don't call each other "brothers" (and not
merely because the brothers now have sisters). We don't talk about "fraternal
feelings" or "sister states." We don't talk about our "national family." But once
we did. In a still young country almost without history, these tropes grounded
our nascent patriotism in the sturdier soil of family love. At every barbecue
and picnic, ruddy politicians tight with whiskey and bloated with rhetoric
reminded every man in earshot that he owed two great and reinforcing debts:
one to his father for giving him a roof, an education, and a name and another
to the Founding Fathers because he breathed free air in a world everywhere
else ruled by tyrants and kings.

But by drawing familial meaning into civic life, such tropes made
the Civil War all the more disturbing. A Union was breaking up. A House was
dividing against itself. Siblings were seething with fratricidal rage. The familial
metaphor no longer underlined national affection but national dysfunction. As
Elijah Babbit warned his fellow Americans in 1860: "Feuds which exist
between members of the same families, where they do exist, are the most
bitter of all feuds. Wars [between] the same people . . . are the most bloody,
the most savage, and the longest continued, of any wars that take place in
this world." And so it was with the Civil War. Americans hated Americans
with an intensity that can only come from the perversion of former affection.
Capturing the prevailing mood, Mary Chesnut penned in her famous
diary: "We are divorced, North from South, because we hated each other so."

As with many divorces, the separation was protracted and painful;
as with many, hate, like love, proved too cramped a category to capture the
feelings of people who had lived together so long. And this is what makes the
Todds so emblematic. They lived all the untenable emotions of a nation at
war with itself. They were our nation in miniature — a maddened family in a
house divided, struggling vainly to hate its own blood.

Copyright © 2007 by Stephen Berry. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

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From the Publisher
"Compelling.... Brings to vibrant life Lexington aristocrats never before studied in depth by Lincoln biographers...remarkable.... A riveting account." —-Kirkus

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