The Short Sweet Life of Willie Lincoln

  Despite the fact that Willie Lincoln died before his 12th birthday, he was arguably the happiest of the Lincoln family.

Willie Lincoln in Springfield, IL

William Wallace Lincoln (1850-1862) was named for his uncle-by-marriage. Dr. William Wallace, married to Mary Lincoln’s sister Frances, had been devoted to caring for little Eddy Lincoln, a sickly boy, who died shortly before his fourth birthday, only a few months before Willie was born.


Willie Lincoln as a little guy.


Tad Lincoln, taken when he was around three.

Willie was a healthy baby and thrived. His older brother Robert, was seven years his senior, and by the time Willie was old enough to play, Robert was in prep school with other interests. But by the time Willie was old enough to have memory, he had a baby brother to play with. Thomas, called Tad from birth, was two years younger.

Mary Lincoln, the boys’ mother, was a pleasant middle-class housewife who did her own cooking and most of the housekeeping. She was devoted to raising her family, and caring for her husband, who was “her all,” in the Victorian sense of the word.

Perhaps most importantly, Willie’s father, Abraham Lincoln, was by the mid 1850s, a successful Illinois attorney, who no longer spent weeks and months away from home, riding the “court circuit” in order to earn his living. Now he could work nearby, and his time on-the-road was far less. He had the time to be a father, and in his mid-forties, wanted to. Nothing made him happier than engaging in horseplay and other antics with his two young sons, perhaps because he did not have that luxury with Robert. Or with his own father, for that matter.

mary and boys

Mary Lincoln was a devoted wife and mother, pictured here with Willie and Tad.

Lincoln’s office was within walking distance, and as the boys got a little older, he brought them to the office from time to time, to the annoyance of  William Herndon, his law partner. Willie and Tad proceeded to make a mess of everything, throwing papers and spitballs and spilling ink. Lincoln smiled benignly and made no effort at discipline.

The Character and Personality of Willie

Willie Lincoln, unlike Robert and Tad who favored the Todds in looks, was the most like his father. His legs were long, promising a tall fellow. He was also better looking than his brothers, but it was his character and personality that seemed to be most compelling.

Even at school in Springfield, Willie showed an  aptitude for learning, and appeared to enjoy study. He loved to read – but then, both his parents were avid readers. His disposition was a sweet one, patient and kind, and with a sense of humor – qualities usually attributed to Abraham Lincoln himself. His mother once commented that Willie was surprisingly religious for such a small boy, and also noted that he was “the idolized one” of the household.


One of the few photographs taken of Willie Lincoln.

Willie also seemed to share his father’s deliberative thought processes as well. Lincoln once told a visitor that he could watch the boy at breakfast and know every step of the process Willie took to find the satisfactory answer to a problem – since it was exactly the slow and deliberative way he himself arrived at an answer.

The Happy Year: 1861

Within days of arriving at the White House, the Lincoln boys found boon companions their own age in Bud and Holly Taft, whose parents were long time Washingtonians. The four youngsters became inseparable, enjoying sleepovers and dinners and even lessons together. It was a huge relief to Mary Lincoln to know that her boys were happy in their new surroundings, since both the President and First Lady had so many other obligations.

Lincoln family

One of the many images produced of the Lincoln family in the White house. Willie is seated next to his mother.

No child could have been happier living in the White House that year! Willie and Tad were the perfect age: old enough to find excitement and fun in all the soldiers camping out all over town – and young enough to be semi-oblivious to the harsh realities and sorrows of war.

The sadness of the Civil War still managed to affect the youngsters, however. Lincoln’s law clerk, Elmer Ellsworth, had joined the Union Army and was one of the first to give his life. Edward Baker, Oregon Senator and newly commissioned Colonel was another old friend and great family favorite, also killed in action. Eleven-year-old Willie was so moved by Colonel Baker’s death that he wrote a poem eulogizing the man. The poem was even published in the local newspaper.

The Death of Willie Lincoln

Lincoln family3

Another family depiction of the Lincolns in the White House. Willie is shown next to his father.

Nobody would have predicted that Willie Lincoln would have such a short life. He had been strong and healthy, smart and sensitive, and indeed what his mother would later refer to as her hope for solace in her old age.

But early in 1862, both Willie and Tad caught colds, as young boys do in the winter, and were treated and dosed accordingly. They seemed to be on the mend. The Lincolns had planned a gala party since they believed the activities of government needed to continue despite the War. The Lincolns had modified the festivities accordingly, and thought to cancel, but the doctors had assured them that Willie was not in any danger, even though his recovery seemed to be erratic. Both the President and First Lady took turns slipping away from the party to sit with their sick son.

But Willie was in danger. His cold became typhoid fever, and without antibiotics and modern treatment, usually resulted in death. He lingered only days after the only gala event the Lincolns ever hosted in the White House.

The Lincolns were devastated. Willie was laid to rest in a borrowed crypt in Washington. When Lincoln was assassinated little more than three years later, Willie’s body was removed from it’s temporary location, and his small coffin rode alongside his father’s larger one on the train back to Springfield. When the Lincoln tomb was finally completed, Willie’s coffin was finally re-interred where the other members of the Lincoln family are laid to rest.


Bayne, Julia Taft – Tad Lincoln’s Father – Bison Books (reprinted) – 2001

Randall, Ruth Painter – Lincoln’s Sons – Little, Brown & Co., 1955





About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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3 Responses to The Short Sweet Life of Willie Lincoln

  1. energywriter says:

    What a sweet, sad story. sd

  2. Susan Ozmore says:

    A sad story and beautifully told.

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