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How did Abraham Lincoln’s son die? The history of death

Discover the intriguing history of Abraham Lincoln’s son’s untimely demise. Uncover the circumstances surrounding “How did Abraham Lincoln’s son die?” and delve into this captivating chapter of American history with Emily E. Garrison!

How many babies did Abraham Lincoln have?

How many babies did Abraham Lincoln have?
How many babies did Abraham Lincoln have?

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, had four children. Their names were Robert Todd Lincoln, Edward Baker Lincoln, William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln, and Thomas “Tad” Lincoln. However, only one of his children, Robert Todd Lincoln, survived into adulthood. Edward and Willie died at young ages, and Tad passed away at the age of 18.

How did Abraham Lincoln’s three sons die?

How did Abraham Lincoln's three sons die?
How did Abraham Lincoln’s three sons die?

The Lincoln’s would have two more sons after Eddy: William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln who died in the White House aged twelve from typhoid fever in 1862 and Thomas “Tad” Lincoln, the youngest of the quartet, who would die at eighteen in 1871 from an illness.

The eldest, Robert Todd Lincoln, had a law career in Chicago, served as secretary of war under President James A. Garfield, was Minister to the Court of St. James and was president of the Pullman company. He died a multimillionaire in 1926 at age 82.

Robert Todd Lincoln and his wife, Mary, had three children. A son, Abraham Lincoln II, died at age 16 while on a trip to Europe in 1890. A daughter, Mary, married Charles Bradley Isham in 1891. They had a son, Lincoln Isham, who died in 1971 in Dorsett, Vt.

The youngest of Lincoln’s grandchildren, Jessie, eloped in 1897 with Warren Beckwith, a classmate and football star at Iowa Wesleyan College. They had two children: Mary Lincoln Beckwith, who died in 1975, and Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, who was born in Riverside, Ill., on July 19, 1904.

The great-grandson received a law degree from what is now Georgetown University. He donated most of his famous forebearer’s documents, artwork and furniture to the state of Illinois.

In February 1984, Beckwith had the name of his uncle, Abraham Lincoln II – the president’s grandson, carved on the massive stone sarcophagus that marks the Arlington cemetery grave shared by the younger Lincoln and his parents, Robert Todd Lincoln and Mary Lincoln.

The younger Lincoln’s name had been left off the monument because of rules prohibiting the listing of minors’ names. Until then, the only clue that the boy was buried there had been a small footstone with the initials ”A.L. II,’’ almost completely covered with grass and earth.

Beckwith was married three times, but his lawyer said he was childless. His widow, Margaret, lives in Chevy Chase, Md.

How did Abraham Lincoln’s son die? The Death of Willie Lincoln

How did Abraham Lincoln's son die? The Death of Willie Lincoln
How did Abraham Lincoln’s son die? The Death of Willie Lincoln

In an elegant White House guest room, the 11-year-old son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln lay ill in a huge carved rosewood bed, now known as the Lincoln Bed. At five p.m. on February 20, 1862, William Wallace Lincoln died. Elizabeth Keckly, the former slave who designed Mrs. Lincoln’s beautiful wardrobe, washed and dressed him. 

When the president gazed at him, he mourned, “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!”

She watched him bury his head in his hands, “his tall frame convulsed with emotion.” At the foot of the bed she stood “in silent, awe-stricken wonder,” marveling that so rugged a man could be so moved. “I shall never forget those solemn moments — genius and greatness weeping over love’s idol lost”. 

President Lincoln then walked down the hall to his secretary’s office. He startled the half-dozing secretary with the news: “Well, Nicolay, my boy is gone — he is actually gone!” John Nicolay recalled seeing his boss burst into tears before entering his own office.

Mary Lincoln was inconsolable in the loss of her favorite son. To add to the anguish, Tad, her youngest son, lay seriously ill in another room. Both children apparently suffered from typhoid fever, a common illness in disease-ridden Washington, D.C. Willie was the third son born to the Lincolns in Illinois, arriving on December 21, 1850, the same year their second son died. Now with Willie’s death, the family circle grew smaller yet. Robert, a student at Harvard College, was the eldest son, the only one who would outlive his parents.

In the words of a government official’s wife, “The White House is sad and still, for its joy and light have fled with little Willie. He was a very bright child, remarkably precocious for his age, and had endeared himself to every one who knew him.” Mary Lincoln’s cousin said he was “noble, beautiful … a counterpart of his father, save that he was handsome.” Mary herself called him the “idolized child, of the household.”

Willie’s body was taken downstairs to the Green Room where it remained until burial. Drs. Brown and Alexander handled the embalming, a procedure they would perform three years later after the president’s assassination. Willie lay in a flower-covered metallic coffin designed to resemble rosewood, with his name and date of birth and death inscribed on a silver plate. Friends came to pay their respects on February 24, the morning of the funeral.

Just before the service the Lincoln family gathered around the coffin for a private farewell. Benjamin French, who supervised the arrangements, wrote, “While they were thus engaged there came 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, for Mrs. Lincoln, I am told, was terribly affected by her loss and almost refused to be comforted.” Mary Lincoln grieved in her bedroom upstairs during the funeral and burial.

The funeral began at 2 p.m. in the East Room, where the huge gilt mirrors were draped in mourning, with black fabric covering the frames and white covering the glass. Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, pastor of the nearby New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, conducted the service. The Lincoln family attended Dr. Gurley’s church, where Willie recently told his Sunday School teacher he wanted to become a teacher or preacher of the gospel.

President Lincoln, his son Robert, and members of the Cabinet sat in a circle, surrounded by a crowd which included representatives from Congress and foreign countries. The writer Nathaniel Parker Willis recalled the service as “very touching.” He saw “[General] McClellan, with a moist eye when he bowed in prayer … and senators, and ambassadors, and soldiers, all struggling with their tears — great hearts sorrowing with the president as a stricken man and a brother.”

Following Dr. Gurley’s sermon, Dr. John C. Smith of the Fourth Presbyterian Church concluded the service in prayer. Most of the mourners accompanied the body to Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, creating a long procession. Two white horses drew the hearse, while two black horses pulled President Lincoln’s carriage down Washington’s unpaved streets and up the hill to the cemetery.

When the procession arrived at the cemetery, Willie’s body was placed in the small chapel for a brief service of Scripture and prayer. He later was transferred to the Carroll family vault on the cemetery’s northwest end (Lot 292). This vault, purchased by William and Sallie Carroll in 1857, contained the bodies of their three sons. Orville H. Browning, a political friend of the Lincolns from Illinois, inspected the vault the day before the funeral with William Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court. Carroll offered this space temporarily to the Lincoln family until they returned to Illinois. 

After President Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Willie’s coffin was removed and placed on the funeral train. Both father and son are permanently buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.

Willie’s death left deep marks on the Lincoln family. Elizabeth Keckly said Mary “was an altered woman …. she never crossed the threshold of the Guest’s Room in which he died, or the Green Room in which he was embalmed.”

The artist Alban Jasper Conant noticed something different about President Lincoln following Willie’s death, saying, “ever after there was a new quality in his demeanor — something approaching awe. I sat in the fifth pew behind him every Sunday in Dr. Gurley’s church, and I saw him on many occasions, marking the change in him.”

John Hay, another White House secretary, wrote that the president “was profoundly moved by his death, though he gave no outward sign of his trouble, but kept about his work the same as ever. His bereaved heart seemed afterwards to pour out its fullness on his youngest child”. On the day President Lincoln was assassinated, he told Mary, “We must both be more cheerful in the future. Between the war and the loss of our darling Willie we have been very miserable.”

“White House Kids” Series – Robert Todd Lincoln

Robert Todd Lincoln, by his own accord, imagined his life to be filled with sorrow and heartbreak. The eldest of the four sons born to Mary Todd Lincoln and President Abraham Lincoln, Robert was the only one to survive to adulthood and die of old age. 

Robert would be in direct connection with three separate Presidential assassinations in his life: his father, President Lincoln of course, who was assassinated by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865; the assassination of President James A. Garfield by Charles Guiteau on a Washington, D.C. train station platform on July 2, 1881 when Lincoln was serving as President Garfield’s Secretary of War; and the assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz on September 6, 1901 at the Pan-American Exhibition where Lincoln just happened to be visiting with his family. Lincoln would say to a New York Times reporter after the shooting of President Garfield, “My god, how many hours of sorrow I have passed in this town.”

From his birth, Robert Lincoln lived in the shadow of his father’s political career. Born in Springfield, Illinois in August of 1843, the successful and devoted Whig politician Abraham Lincoln had already served in the Illinois House of Representatives for almost a decade. According to biographies written on Robert before his death, he recalls that his earliest memories are of his father leaving home, packing his saddlebags and waving “goodbye” from a distance. 

This unyielding desire of his father to serve his nation resulted in “any great intimacy between us [becoming] impossible”. In 1846 Robert became an older brother to Edward “Eddy” Baker Lincoln, who was named after a very dear friend of Abraham’s, Edward Dickinson Baker. Robert and Eddy were the pride and joy of Mary and Abraham, who exchanged nearly constant letters between one another while the latter was serving a term in the House of Representatives for Illinois’ seventh district. 

Despite the tepid relationship Robert perceived to have with his father, it is clear from these letters how deeply Abraham loved his sons; in a letter between him and Mary, he writes “Don’t let the blessed fellows forget father”, expressing his desire to be with his sons but acknowledging the duty to his nation as paramount. Eddy died a month before his fourth birthday in 1850 of chronic consumption. 

The Lincoln family was devastated by his passing, especially his mother Mary. The Lincoln’s would have two more sons after Eddy: William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln who died in the White House aged twelve from typhoid fever in 1862 and Thomas “Tad” Lincoln, the youngest of the quartet, who would die at eighteen in 1871 from an illness.

As a young man, Robert’s association with his father followed him like a specter; as the relationship between father and son was strained due to Robert’s view he was second fiddle to Abraham’s political career, the constant recognition of being “Mr. Lincoln’s son” aggravated Robert. 

In 1859, Robert took the Harvard entrance exam, and failed fifteen of the sixteen subjects the university required students to be proficient in. Much to his chagrin, Robert entered remedial classes at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire to prepare to take the entrance exam a second time. Robert succeeded in passing in 1860, though his biographers and historians alike both note that his time at Harvard was spent socializing rather than studying. 

Though Robert disdained being “Mr. Lincoln’s son”, there is mounting evidence that he used this familial connection to maneuver through his four collegiate years doing the bare minimum. Welsh historian Jan Morris wrote that Robert emerged from Harvard “an unsympathetic bore”.

Despite his assurances he would not end slavery, the South viewed Lincoln as a threat to their way of life – a life built on the backs of slaves. South Carolina wasted almost no time in following through with their threats of secession, issuing the order on December 20, 1860. They were followed by eleven other states within a year. 

Lincoln did not want a war, but was determined to repair the splintered union of states. With unending duties barraging him every waking moment, there was hardly any time for family. Lincoln did try to spend time with his sons, but as Willie and Tad were much younger and lived in the White House while Robert lived on his own, father and son very seldom had a chance to be together. Robert would write later he “scarcely even had ten minutes quiet talk with [his father] during his Presidency, on account of his constant devotion to business”. 

Robert entered Harvard Law School in 1864, but very quickly dropped out in order to join the Union Army; he would not get this chance however, as his mother Mary used every ounce of her standing as First Lady to prevent him from joining. President Lincoln disagreed with her actions, saying “Our son is not more dear to us than the sons of other people are to their mothers”. 

However, he did relent to the formidable Mary and wrote directly to Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union Army, asking if Robert could serve as a member of his staff (eliminating the risk he would perish or even be involved in direct combat). General Grant accepted, and granted Robert a secretarial position. He was present at General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865. 

On the evening of April 14th, 1865, First Lady Mary and President Abraham Lincoln invited their eldest son to see a production of the raucous popular play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. Just returned to Washington, the young Mr. Lincoln declined and planned to retire early that evening. 

History is uncertain as to which individual actually informed Robert of his father’s condition after Booth shot him – regardless, Robert rushed to Petersen House where his mortally wounded father had been taken. It is said that Robert wept openly by his father’s side. President Lincoln died the next morning at 7:22 AM. 

Robert, Mary, and Tad all moved to Chicago after the President’s death where Robert earned his license to practice law in 1867. He married Mary Harlan the following year and they had three children together. Robert was pestered by Washington big wigs since the time his father died, all suggesting rather forwardly he run for political office. 

Shrewdly, Robert refused on the grounds knowing that his name, rather than his aptitude for the position, is what they were after. Eventually, he did serve as Secretary of War to President Garfield and to President Arthur after Garfield’s assassination. Later in life he worked as the chief legal counsel for the Pullman Palace Car Company, later ascending to president when founder George Pullman died in 1897. 

Unfortunately, Robert and Mary became estranged until just before her death in 1882. Mary suffered from mental problems and depression for her entire life. After having her husband and three of her sons die, concluding with Tad in 1871, she was broken. Robert arranged to have his mother committed to an asylum in Illinois where she could recover. Mary did not want to be hospitalized, and actually managed to escape the sanatorium. She sued her son and was deemed competent enough to not be institutionalized.

Robert’s last public appearance was on May 30, 1922 at the unveiling of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall. President Warren G. Harding invited Lincoln as his honored guest. Robert died on July 26, 1926 just a few days before his 83rd birthday. The “son of Mr. Lincoln” was much more: he was a thoughtful and successful individual who managed to cement his own name in history while also honoring the Lincoln family name.

Which of Lincoln’s sons died in war?

None of Abraham Lincoln’s sons died in war. While his eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, did serve in the Union Army during the American Civil War, he survived the conflict and went on to live a long life, passing away in 1926. However, Abraham Lincoln did tragically lose two of his sons, Edward Baker Lincoln and William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln, to illness during his lifetime, not in a war.

In exploring the question of “How did Abraham Lincoln’s son die“, we unveil a poignant and tragic tale that remains etched in the annals of American history. The circumstances surrounding his death offer a glimpse into the challenges and hardships faced by the Lincoln family during a pivotal period in the nation’s history.

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