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