Robert Lincoln’s Secret Trip

Robert Todd Lincoln was a private man who assiduously shunned the spotlight.


Robert T. Lincoln: 1865

Robert Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln, had neither of his parents’ outgoing personalities. He made friends easily enough, but he was a laid-back fellow, who treasured privacy and above all, his dignity.

Robert Lincoln

Robert Lincoln, about the time of his father’s assassination.

When President Lincoln was assassinated, Robert was twenty-one, and now man of the family. His future plans were aborted. Having been discharged from the Union Army, he had planned to return to Harvard Law School. Now, he would become a lawyer by “reading” law, still an acceptable legal education.

With his mother bedridden with grief, and a kid brother, ten years his junior and babyish at that, it was left to Robert to escort the funeral train and casket back to Springfield, Illinois, the home they would no longer call home. Then he came back to Washington to bring his mother and brother to Chicago, where they had decided to live.

Robert readily found a law firm to take him on (being a veteran, a Harvard graduate, and POTUS son of Illinois did not hurt). But living with a demanding and emotionally fragile and self-absorbed mother, given to loud weeping and wailing, plus a brother who was somewhat spoiled and abysmally educated, was intolerable for the young man’s ability to study. Much as he sincerely wanted to be helpful, he could not help them. He needed to help himself. He moved out.

Robert T. Lincoln: 1871

mary harlan

Mary Harlan Lincoln, Robert’s wife.

Robert Lincoln studied diligently and was admitted to the Illinois bar. He took a partner and opened a growing practice. He married Mary Harlan, the daughter of an Iowa Senator who he had courted since Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. They bought a house. They had a baby. He was now a proper Victorian gentleman, ready to mentor Tad, the brother he barely knew.

Meanwhile, his mother and brother had been living in Europe for three years. She had gone there to escape an embarrassing episode, to live more economically, and in large part, to see to Tad’s education that had been woefully neglected. Now they wanted to return. Robert and his Mary were delighted to welcome them to their Chicago home.


Young attorney Robert Lincoln

The welcome was short lived. Mrs. Lincoln Junior, who had previously enjoyed a pleasant association with Mrs. Lincoln Senior, now determined that close quarter living with her difficult and demanding mother-in-law was impossible. The relationship deteriorated precipitously to a point that she packed up, took the baby and ostensibly went to care for her mother now living in Washington. Obviously one house was not big enough to hold two Mary Lincolns.

Tad at 18

Tad Lincoln. Said to be the last photograph taken of the young fellow who died at only 18.

Then Tad sickened, worsened, and died at eighteen. His mother was understandably inconsolable and consumed by grief. And loud weeping and wailing.


Tad was buried in the Lincoln tomb, along with his father and two older brothers.

Once again, it was Robert Lincoln who escorted a funeral casket back to Springfield to be interred with his father and two child-brothers. He went alone. His wife inexplicably remained in Washington. His mother remained secluded in Robert’s house.

The Trip to the Rocky Mountains

By this time, Robert was exhausted. He was not sleeping nor eating well. He was estranged from his wife and child, the brother he had just begun to know had died, his mother’s grief was draining all his energy, and he could not concentrate on his law practice. He felt horrible. He consulted his doctor who quickly determined that Robert Lincoln was on the verge of a complete breakdown and insisted that he get away immediately.

mary in mourning

Mary Lincoln. Some claim that Tad’s death caused her the worst grief of all, since she was now virtually alone in the world.

In 1871, Sigmund Freud, three years younger than Tad Lincoln, would still have been in high school. But for several decades, medical interest in the psyche had been growing, and theories and treatments were becoming better known. Treating patients perceived to be mentally disturbed had become kinder, pulling away from shunning and isolation in dungeon-like facilities. There was also growing understanding that stressful situations and emotional strain could cause physical reactions.

Robert Lincoln’s doctor recommended a place in the Rocky Mountains that had been established for “troubled young men.” He believed he would benefit from a complete separation from his toxic situation at home, and in an environment where he could breathe fresh air, rest comfortably and have a respite from care, he would regain his ability to take charge of his life again.

Robert took his doctor’s advice. Telegrams were sent, arrangements were made and he departed, advising a friend that his “nerves were shot.” Instead of facing his mother directly regarding his diagnosis-decision, he sent her a letter. (One hopes he also sent a letter to his wife, now living in Washington with her parents.)

Much Much Later


Proper Victorian gentleman Robert Todd Lincoln.

It is interesting that with all the historical interest in Lincoln, Mary Lincoln and even Robert Lincoln, there is little available knowledge about Robert’s stay out west – other than the fact that he went, and stayed for a month – two weeks longer than he had planned. It is a gaping hole for many reasons, most notably due to his aversion to the public eye, maintaining his personal privacy, and being the de facto custodian of the Lincoln legacy.

In 1975, Robert’s personal file on Mary Lincoln’s insanity trial was discovered in a false-wall in his Vermont home. The trial which he truly believed was for her own protection, caused him unbearable anguish, and for more than a half century after his death at 83, history continued to portray him as a monster-son (his mother’s description) who had his mother “put away.” Among the letters and documents in that hidden file is the correspondence concerning his own private torments in dealing with his troubled mother. One could begin to understand what a burden it was to be the son of Abraham Lincoln.


Emerson, Jason – Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln – Southern Illinois University Press, 2012

Emerson, Jason – The Madness of Mary Lincoln – Southern Illinois University Press – 2007



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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One Response to Robert Lincoln’s Secret Trip

  1. energywriter says:

    The mysteries continue to unfold. Thank you.

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