A rebel widow visits the Lincolns

One word for Emilie Helm’s visit to the White House — awkward.emilie hardin helm

Helm, Mary Lincoln’s younger half-sister, came to her sister’s home for sympathy after her husband Confederate Brigader General Benjamin Hardin Helm died in battle at Chickamauga.

The Lincolns, who favored her and her deceased husband even over other family members, welcomed her warmly. Still, having the widow of an enemy general in the presidential mansion presented some problems.

Visitors who encountered Helm were taken aback.

Tad Lincoln became agitated when his little visiting cousin shouted, “Hurrah for Jeff Davis” and when the cousin told him his father couldn’t be president.

Although Emilie Helm tried to disappear when visitors called, some of them wanted news about their friends in the South.

Political talk was prickly. Sen. Ira Harris of New York, a good friend of the president’s, blurted out to Helm, “We have whipped the rebels at Chattanooga, and I hear, madam, that the scoundrels ran like scared rabbits.” Emilie Helm managed to say, “It was the example you set them at Bull Run and Manassas.” Mary Lincoln tried to change the subject, but Emilie Helm, shivering and weeping stumbled out of the room.

Gen. Dan Sickles, who had lost a leg at Gettsyburg, hobbled up the stairs to the room where President Lincoln was resting in bed and said, “The child has a tongue like the rest of the Todds. You should not have that rebel in your house.”

Mrs. Helm soon left for Kentucky on a presidential pass that did not require an oath allegiance.

Reveille at Washington by Margaret Leech

Note to readers: Lincoln Wonk will go on hiatus during April so a non-fiction book on the Petersen family of Petersen’s Boardinghouse and their fascinating boarders can be completed.

Seward invests in real estate

headshot of seward

William H. Seward

Just about two years after Lewis Powell sliced Secretary of State William H. Seward’s throat on assassination night, a recovered Seward made an excellent bargain with Russia.

Seward, who stayed on as secretary of state in Andrew Johnson’s administration after President Lincoln’s death, purchased Alaska on this day in 1867.

Critics attacked him for paying $7.2 million for 586,412 square miles they dubbed “Seward’s icebox.”

Seward died in 1872, when Alaska’s principal industry was the lucrative seal fishing industry. He didn’t live to see the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896.

As Americans realized Alaska was rich in gold, copper and oil, Seward’s move was hailed.


More lives than a cat


Gen. J.R. O’Beirne

General James Rowan O’Beirne, who came to the U.S. as an Irish immigrant and ended his service to America as a diplomat stationed in the Boer Republic, made it to age 72 despite his exploits.

O’Beirne worked as a lawyer, a newspaper correspondent, supervisor of Ellis Island and soldier in the Civil War.

He was also the man who escorted Vice President Andrew Johnson up raucous and dangerous Tenth Street to visit the dying president on assassination night.

He won a Medal of Honor in the Civil War for his service at Chancellorsville, where he was a member of the Irish Rifles brigade. He was shot through the lungs, shot in the leg and hit by artillery shells on both sides of his head.


Marfan’s rumors are unfounded

It is unlikely President Lincoln had Marfan’s Syndrome, a gentic disorder that causes heart defects, lung defects, and eye problems.

People with Marfan’s often are unusually tall with extremely long limbs.Although he fit the outward physical description for Marfan’s and the rumors have been circulating for more than 50 years,  President Lincoln was exceptionally hardy and healthy.

The Marfan’s conjecture began with a 1964 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The physician who wrote it reported that a shirttail cousin of Lincoln’s father was diagnosed with Marfan’s.

Dr. Blaine Houmes, who has studied Lincoln and the assassination, says he has cared for several Marfan’s patients and they had medical challenges Lincoln did not have.

He said unaffected relatives do not pass Marfan’s syndrome on to their children and, in the case of the Lincoln family, several generations passed without other relatives affected.

In an interview on Abraham LIncoln Online.com, Dr. Houmes said it’s unfortunate that many people, including physicians, have heard of the journal article and continue to believe it.


New president missed his wife

In January 1861, after her husband’s election, Mary Lincoln went on a trip East. As she made her way through Buffalo and Cleveland, she basked in the attention given a new First Lady — and the gifts.

One of her gifts was an ornate sewing machine with a richly silver-plated solid rosewood case inlaid with pearl. Similar machines were owned by British and Russian duchesses.

She was enjoying herself so much that Mary arrived back in Illinois later than expected. Her husband’s political friends may have been glad she was gone, but he wasn’t.

He went to meet incoming trains two days in a row before his wife finally arrived on January 25.

Source: Mrs. Lincoln: A Life by Catherine Clinton

Booth’s pay equals $17,000 a week

John Wilkes Booth made an average of $650 a week in the 1861-1862 theater season, when he was touring the country’s mid-section  — the equivalent of $17,000 a week today

That average was calculated from roller coaster paychecks. He banked $900 for his best week in Chicago, but only $117 for a week in Detroit. He spent six weeks in St. Louis, but the theater owners paid him in a locally issued currency worthless outside Missouri.

Meanwhile, his older brother Edward, one of the most sought-after actors in the country, could demand $5,000 for a two-week engagement. That’s the equivalent of $131,000 a week today.

Source: My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry That Led to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Nora Titone

Forrest reads newspaper accounts; Yankee Doodle no longer has pony

After the Battle of Paducah on this day in 1864, Confederate Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was reading the newspaper accounts of his raid on Union supplies in the Kentucky riverfront town. They included a disturbing fact.

The newspapers stated that Forrest missed more than 100 fine horses hidden by the Yankees.

Forrest sent soldiers back to Paducah several weeks later.

They captured those horses too.

This takes the hat — literally

Willian was the fashionable milliner on Pennsylvania Avenue, the place where everybody who was anybody went for bonnets and dresses in the early war years.

Julia Taft, who was a teenager when the Lincolns were in the White House, remembered her mother wearing a particularly delicate straw bonnet lavishly trimmed with purple ribbon embroidered with small black figures. It had long strings which tied with a bow under the chin.

When her mother wore it to a promenade concert on the Executive Mansion grounds, Mrs. Lincoln, whose favorite color was purple, stared intently at the bonnet. The First Lady then greeted Taft’s mother and pulled her aside.

Taft couldn’t hear what the women were saying, but she noticed a look of amazement on her mother’s face.

It turned out that Mary Lincoln had a bonnet trimmed with the same distinctive ribbon but she could not get enough for strings.

Mrs. Taft dutifully brought her bonnet back to Willian’s, where the ribbon was removed and applied to the First Lady’s hat.

Mrs. Taft’s hat was delivered a few days later, looking even more beautiful trimmed in a lavender ribbon embroidered in white.

 Source: The Lincoln Reader, edited by Paul M. Angle

The most unusual vice president

John C. Breckinridge was the only U.S. vice president ever to take up arms against the U.S.

Strangely enough, he also once lived in the house where Abraham Lincoln died.

When Breckinridge was a U.S. Congressman in the 1850s, he rented the two front rooms at Petersen’s Boarding House, the same house where President Lincoln was taken after the assassination.

The president’s bearers tried the door that once led to Breckinridge’s rooms on assassination night, but it was locked because the current resident was quickly dressing out of her bed clothes after she heard the commotion across the street at Ford’s Theatre.

Breckinridge had a stellar career in American politics, elected vice-president at 35 and even running for president in 1860 in a four-way race that his friend  Abraham Lincoln won.

The Kentuckian tried mightily to keep his home state from leaving the Union. When he failed and was forced to choose between his home and his country, he became a Confederate general.

On this day in 1864, General Breckinridge took control of Confederate forces in the Appalachian Mountains of western Virginia. He stayed in that role until he was named secretary of war for the Confederacy in the last weeks of the war.

He fled to Cuba and Europe after the war, until President Andrew Johnson extended official amnesty. Then he returned to Kentucky and opened a law office where he worked until he died in 1875 at age 54.


He fooled some of the people

In January 1861, after Lincoln was elected president, his family was seated in the dining room of the Metropolitan Hotel in Manhattan when they overheard some men loudly remarking: “Could he, with any honor, fill the presidential chair. Would his west gaucherie disgrace the nation?”

Mary Lincoln was rattled, but her politically savvy husband had often allowed himself to be underestimated, sometimes using it as a political weapon.

Source: Mrs. Lincoln: A Life by Catherine Clinton