Abraham Lincoln never lived to see any of his grandchildren.
Robert Todd Lincoln & Family
Abraham Lincoln’s eldest son Robert was twenty-one when his father was assassinated. He had completed his undergraduate studies at Harvard, and planned to re-enroll in Harvard’s law school once he was discharged from the Union Army. Abraham Lincoln had agreed.
That, of course, would never happen.
Robert had also become enamored of Mary Eunice Harlan, the daughter of Senator James Harlan of Iowa. The Lincolns knew her family, and they knew her. Mary Lincoln liked her very much and encouraged the romance but Mary was only eighteen and Robert twenty-one. Too young. They could, and must, wait.
Miss Harlan remained in Washington with her family, and Robert, now head of the Lincoln family, went back to Illinois with his mother and his only remaining brother. Tad, at twelve, was still much too young to assume any responsibility.
Robert quickly found a position with a prominent Chicago law firm to “read law,” still an acceptable form of legal education and in a year was able to pass the Illinois bar. He had been corresponding with Mary Harlan throughout. In 1868 once Robert Lincoln had begun what would become a successful law practice, they were married.
Immediately after the wedding, Mrs. Abraham Lincoln and Tad departed for Europe, where they would live for the next three years.
Mr. and Mrs. Robert T. Lincoln
The newlyweds returned to Chicago and set up housekeeping. Mary Harlan, who had known her mother-in-law since she had been fourteen years old, had little inkling of how difficult and troubled the Widow Mary had become. Robert, of course, had known about his mother’s mercurial temperament as well as the enormous debts she had incurred as First Lady.
Correspondence flowed readily between the two Marys, and when news arrived of an impending grandchild, Grandma-to-be Mary was thrilled. Gift after gift along with “motherly advice” was sent back to Chicago for mother-to-be and child. But once the baby was born, it was “Uncle Tad” who was homesick and longed to see his new little niece, named Mary, for her grandmother, but forever called “Mamie.” They returned to the United States. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Lincoln were happy to open their home to them.
That part did not last long. The reason (or reasons) for the rift between “the Mary Lincolns” has never been completely determined, but one consensus is that Mrs. Abraham Lincoln was imperious and bossy, and Mrs. Robert Lincoln had become accustomed to running her own household and intended to keep it that way. Whatever the dissatisfaction, within a short time, Robert’s Mary packed up, took little Mamie, and returned to her own family in Iowa. Things deteriorated further. Tad became ill, worsened, and died shortly after his eighteenth birthday. The Widow Mary collapsed with grief, and once again Robert, with no wife or baby to comfort him, rode alone to Springfield on a train-with-a-coffin.
Mary Harlan refused to come back to Chicago as long as her mother-in-law was there. Mary Lincoln obliged, and began her years of perpetual wandering. She would never again set foot in her son’s house, nor cuddle a grandchild.
Two more children would be born to Robert and Mary Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln II (1873-1890), and another daughter, Jessie. There is no evidence that Mrs. Abraham Lincoln made any effort to see, contact, or even acknowledge her other grandchildren. One might surmise that Mary Lincoln, who had always loved children, felt the pangs of a neglected or unwanted grandmother. Nevertheless, she would die in 1882 without ever having seen her grandson, named for his illustrious grandfather.
From the beginning, Abraham II was nicknamed “Jack.” Being named for his martyred grandfather was as much a burden as a blessing, as Robert must have known himself. Family lore said that “Jack” would have to “earn the right to use the name.”
Robert T. Lincoln never had the outgoing personality of either of his parents, and tended to prefer the quieter and more secluded life, far from the public eye but in 1880, President-elect James A. Garfield appointed 38-year-old Lincoln as his Secretary of War. It was a position he would hold not only for the six-months of Garfield’s presidency, but throughout the presidency of Chester Alan Arthur. The family assiduously kept a low profile in Washington.
When Benjamin Harrison became President in 1889, he appointed Robert T. Lincoln as Minister to Great Britain (the term “ambassador” was not used until 1893). The Lincolns were delighted and moved to London. Young “Jack” was said to be a bright young man with a fine future ahead, but like both his parents, kept out of the limelight. A rare studio photographs of him shows a boy with long thin legs, which might indicate some lanky Lincoln genes. He was preparing to enter Harvard University when the Lincolns returned to America.
On a vacation trip to France in 1890, Jack developed a carbuncle, or boil, under his arm. French doctors were summoned, and the carbuncle was lanced, but without the antibiotics of a later generation, infection set in and he developed blood poisoning. Robert Lincoln rushed him back to London, in the vain hope that British physicians might have a miracle cure for the sixteen-year-old young man who was bearing both pain and high fevers with (as his father said) pluck and determination.
But pluck and determination and good spirits were not enough, and Jack died at sixteen. Once again, Robert Lincoln rode a train-with-a-coffin to Springfield, where Abraham Lincoln II was interred in the family tomb.
Forty years later (and after Robert Lincoln’s death), Mary Harlan Lincoln had Jack’s coffin removed from his wall crypt, and reinterred in Arlington Cemetery, where Robert had been buried, and where she herself would be buried at her death.
Another forty years would pass before the name “Abraham Lincoln II” would be engraved on the marker.
Lachman, Charles – The Last Lincolns: The Rise & Fall of a Great American Family, Union Square Press, 2010
Wead, Doug – All the Presidents’ Children – Atria Books, 2003