On this day in 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, passes away. He’d been gravely ill for weeks. It was the second time that Abraham and Mary Lincoln would lose a child.
Unfortunately, only one of the Lincolns’ four sons would live past the age of 18.
Willie was the Lincolns’ third son. Was he extra special to them, in some ways, because of the timing of his birth? He was born in 1850, less than a year after his older brother Eddie had passed away. Willie was said to be “his mother’s favorite child.” He was also described as “a counterpart of his father, save that he was handsome.”
You have to wonder how his father took that last statement!
Willie and his younger brother Tad apparently had mixed feelings about their life in the White House. On the one hand, they were adventurous boys who loved inspecting every nook and cranny of the White House. On the other hand, the public attention wasn’t always fun for the boys. Willie was said to complain: “I wish they wouldn’t stare at us so. Wasn’t there ever a President who had children?”
Sadly, Willie would not be a part of White House life for too long. He fell ill less than a year into Lincoln’s term, in February 1862. He was then only 11 years old.
At first, doctors were confident that Willie would recover. Thus, his parents continued on with their normal White House schedule, including a grand ball that Mary had planned.
Even in the midst of the ball, though, Mary was troubled. Others later reported that Abraham Lincoln looked worried throughout the evening. No dancing was allowed because of the sick boy upstairs, and Mary repeatedly left the festivities to check on her son.
As if things weren’t bad enough, Tad also fell ill soon after his brother did. Moreover, Willie was not responding to treatments and continued to grow “weaker and more shadow-like.”
By now, it was becoming clear that the doctors had been too optimistic. Mary spent all her time with her sons, “& almost wore herself out with watching. . . .” Nothing the doctors did seemed to make any difference, especially for Willie.
Tad did finally recover, but Willie passed away on February 20. Upon seeing the boy’s body, Lincoln is said to have cried out: “My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!”
On that same day, as if matching the Lincolns’ mood, the city saw “one of the heaviest storms of rain & wind that has visited this city for years, and the terrible storm without seemed almost in unison with the storm of grief within . . . .”
The Lincolns were devastated. Lincoln poured himself into his work, but Mary sought solace in other ways. She shut herself off in her room, and she consulted with spiritual mediums. Mary was said to be “an altered woman,” and one contemporary would observe that “she mourns as no one but a mother can at her son’s death.”
For her part, Mary would simply ask: “[W]hen I can bring myself to realize that he has indeed passed away, my question to myself is, ‘can life be endured?’”
Several years later, as the Civil War was coming to a close, the Lincolns went for a ride in their carriage before getting ready for an evening at the theater. According to an artist then working at the White House, Lincoln told his wife: “We must both be more cheerful in the future. Between the war and the loss of our darling Willie we have been very miserable.”
That same night, in a horrible twist of fate, Lincoln was assassinated. In the end, Willie’s body would be transferred back to Illinois on the same train that carried his father’s body home for burial.
The Lincolns’ youngest son, Tad, would pass away less than six years later.
Mary Lincoln must have felt that the years surrounding the White House had been nothing but unbearable sacrifice and grief.
Betty Boles Ellison, The True Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (2014)
Charles Lachman, The Last Lincolns: The Rise & Fall of a Great American Family (2008)
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005)
Jason Emerson, The Madness of Mary Lincoln (2007)
Julia Taft Bayne, Tad Lincoln’s Father (1931)
Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (1994)
Terry Alford, The Spiritualist Who Warned Lincoln Was Also Booth’s Drinking Buddy (Smithsonian, March 2014)