A black and white photograph of a woman in a long black dress with lace trim holding a handbag.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Understanding Mary Lincoln

5 min read

Mary Lincoln is quite possibly one of the most enigmatic and misunderstood figures in American history. Born Mary Ann Todd in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1818, Mary had six full siblings and nine half-siblings. As the daughter of a prosperous family, Mary had no need to work. She instead was sent to a private school where she was taught French, humanities, the arts and literature, in addition to the traditional subjects and social graces common to the time. It was her father’s close friendship with Whig Party leader Henry Clay that sparked her interest in politics and political issues.

“Lincoln at Home” Andrew O’Connor portrait of Lincoln and family. Library of Congress image from the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.rbc/lprbscsm.scsm0352

Mary and Abraham Lincoln married in 1842 and had four sons: Robert, Eddie, Willie and Tad. From 1844 to1861, the Lincolns lived in Springfield, Illinois, and during Lincoln’s years as an Illinois circuit lawyer, Mary was often left alone for months on end to raise their children and run their household. She was steadfast in her devotion to her husband, supporting him both socially and politically as his career in law and politics grew, even though her family disapproved of the match and doubted Lincoln’s abilities and potential.

According to historian Jean Harvey Baker, “Mary Lincoln is a much abused First Lady and unfairly so. Those who criticize her overlook her enormous contributions to her husband. An intelligent, educated woman from Lexington, Kentucky, she provided him with a home and family in Springfield, Illinois. As parents, both Lincolns cherished their four sons, though only Robert would survive his mother. Those who criticize her also forget her emotional support for her husband’s political career before his election to the presidency—during those years when he lost two senatorial elections in Illinois.”

Mary Lincoln carte de visite photograph [reproduction] The New York Public Library Digital Collections. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-c240-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

Mary Lincoln faced scrutiny from all sides when she and Abraham Lincoln moved to Washington, D.C. Following Lincoln’s election in 1860, 11 states seceded to form the Confederate States of America, and the Civil War began. President Lincoln was not the only target of people’s ire—Mary Lincoln found herself in the crosshairs quite often, especially from the press. Many Southerners considered her a traitor because she was from Kentucky yet firmly supported her husband’s policies and loyalty to the Union. Many Northerners thought she was a Southern spy. Additionally, it is very likely that Mary Lincoln had physical and mental ailments that were undiagnosed given 19thcentury medicine, which resulted in severe depression, migraines and mood swings. This only added fuel to the already growing fire against her.

During her time in the White House, she also was derided for spending excessively on decorations and fine china. However, Baker is quick to point out that Mary’s contributions and changes to the White House were both important and transformative not just to the building, but to the role of the First Lady itself.

“In the White House, Mary Lincoln was a superb hostess whose energetic efforts to improve the dingy presidential quarters transformed the building into an important meeting place for diplomats, congressmen and the general public who flocked to her soirees,” Baker says. “Never [were] the great rooms of the White House more important than during the Civil War, and never had they shone with an elegance that testified to the importance of the embattled Union. But with the presidency and its glories—for she was an ambitious woman—came family losses, especially that of Willie Lincoln who died in the White House in 1862.”

Even before the war began, Mary Lincoln had already endured the loss of one child, Eddie. In 1862, as the war was continuing to escalate, she lost another son, Willie, who died at age 11, likely of typhoid fever. This Republic of Suffering author Drew Gilpin Faust says, “Mary Todd Lincoln sought regularly to communicate with her dead son Willie. She sponsored a number of séances at the White House, some of which the president himself was said to have attended.” However, Mary Lincoln was not the only person during this time to conduct séances to reunite with loved ones. Faust writes, “many bereaved Americans … were unwilling to wait until their own deaths reunited them with lost kin, and they turned eagerly to the more immediate promises of spiritualism.”

In 2015, actress Mary Bacon portrayed Mary Lincoln in the Ford’s Theatre world premiere of James Still’s The Widow Lincoln, directed by Stephen Rayne. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

As the Civil War bloodily raged on, Mary would often visit Washington hospitals to write letters for wounded Union soldiers. Several of her brothers and brothers-in-law died or were wounded while fighting for the Confederacy. Daily, she saw the toll the war took on her husband and her country.  Not even the First Lady was immune to its effects.

After four long years of fighting, April 9, 1865, brought the surrender of Confederate General Lee to Union General Grant at Appomattox, and the end of the Civil War. Celebrations occurred throughout Washington, D.C., and on April 14, the Lincolns were invited to attend the comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. “On that dreadful night in April 1865,” Baker says, “just as the war was ending and Mary Lincoln looked forward to a more tranquil life with her husband, he was assassinated while they watched a performance in Ford’s Theatre.”

Mary’s own words in a letter to a friend:

“How I wish you could have seen my dear husband, the last three weeks of his life! … Down the Potomac, he was almost boyish in his mirth and reminded me of his original nature, what I had always remembered of him, in our own home—free from care, surrounded by those he loved so well and by whom he was so idolized. The Friday (April 14, 1865), I never saw him so supremely cheerful—his manner was even playful. At three o’clock in the afternoon, he drove out with me in the open carriage. In starting, I asked him if anyone should accompany us, he immediately replied, ‘No, I prefer to ride by ourselves today.’ During the drive he was so gay that I said to him laughingly, ‘Dear Husband, you almost startle me by your great cheerfulness.’ He replied, ‘and well I may feel so, Mary, I consider this day, the war, has come to a close’—and then added, ‘We must both be more cheerful in the future—between the war and the loss of our darling Willie, we have both been very miserable.”

Mary Lincoln

President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14 and died April 15 at 7:22 a.m., making him the first American president to be assassinated, and making Mary, the Widow Lincoln.

Patrick Pearson is the Director of Artistic Programming at Ford’s Theatre.

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Patrick Pearson was the Director of Artistic Programming at Ford’s Theatre.


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