Lincoln. Mary. Robert. War.

The Lincoln family early in his administration.

Of all the decisions Abraham Lincoln was obliged to make during his administration, few were as personally difficult as his son’s participation in the Army.

Robert’s Story

Young Robert Todd Lincoln sincerely wanted to enlist.

Robert Todd Lincoln had just entered Harvard when his father was inaugurated in March, 1861. Within weeks, Fort Sumter was attacked, and the new President called for 75,000 volunteers. At the outset, everyone believed the so-called “war” would be a big brouhaha: a battle fought, some unfortunate casualties, and cooler heads would prevail to settle the problems.

The battle was fought, the casualties staggered the imagination, nobody went back to the table, and nothing was resolved other than more battles and unthinkable casualties. Robert Lincoln diligently attended to his studies, but many of his Harvard classmates were enlisting in the Union Army. The President and First Lady continually counseled that by finishing his education, Robert would become a better officer. They likely believed that the war would be long over by the time Robert graduated.

But the Civil War dragged on and on, and Robert was getting constant ribbing from his fellows: he was a mama’s boy, or a slacker. Or worse, a coward. He was none of those things, and by mid-1864, at twenty-one, he was determined to enlist. His arguments with his parents grew heated – but they were valid.

Mary’s Story

First Lady Mary Lincoln was petrified that something might happen to Robert – and had already lost two sons.

Only a year into the Lincoln Presidency, 11-year-old Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever. It was a devastating blow to both parents. Lincoln buried his private sorrow as best he could, overwhelmed by managing the cares of state. Mary Lincoln collapsed in hysterical grief. She had already lost a three-year-old son years earlier. Had he lived, Eddie would have been fourteen.

The First Lady was an emotional person, a fact well known to her husband. But with Willie’s death, her grief had been disturbingly excessive. By 1864, she was just starting to resume life, but death and dying was all around her. The casualty lists from the Civil War were numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

It was a shooting war. It was a disease-ridden war. It was a crippling war. It was deadly. The mere idea that Robert wanted to enlist threw her into a frenzied panic. There was no way she could consent. The likelihood that something could happen to her eldest son was not exaggerated. Her arguments were valid.

The War

The Civil War had turned into something nobody had predicted or expected. For all its numerical edge in industry, resources and population, the North was not doing well at all. By mid-1864, it was actually going poorly, and Lincoln believed he would lose the election, and possibly the War itself.

Thus far, he had been cautiously refereeing the arguments between Robert and Mary, becoming increasingly anxious that if anything happened to their son, Mary would never recover. And worse, she could – and would – blame him.

Meanwhile hundreds of prominent Union citizens had sent their sons to War. Mourning bands were common in the halls of Congress. Lincoln had written more letters of condolence than he could remember. There was continual sharp criticism in Congress and in the newspapers that the President’s twenty-one-year-old son was still not in uniform. That criticism was valid, too.

Lincoln’s Story

Abraham Lincoln visibly aged during the Civil War, family strains being part of his plate of cares.

Abraham Lincoln was not insensitive to anyone. Years earlier, when he was Robert’s age, he had signed up with a bunch of his townsmen to fight in the Black Hawk War. It was little more than a skirmish, and he never saw fighting or fired a shot – but it had been a seminal moment in his youth, and an experience he treasured. He certainly understood his son’s desire to participate.

No question about Mary’s fears. He understood them all too well. And that included the possibility that she would blame him for whatever might befall Robert. How could he bear that, too?

And he also understood the reasons for the sniping comments from Congressional leaders whose own sons were in uniform, or in hospitals. Or in the grave.

Everything was valid. He had no answers. And with all else on his Presidential plate, he could barely deal with his own private agony.

The Wisdom of Solomon

Sherman’s March to the Sea undoubtedly helped win Lincoln’s second term. The end was now in sight.

It was General William T. Sherman who unknowingly helped provide an answer. By September, 1864, his huge army had captured Atlanta and was sweeping across Georgia toward the coast – where it would march north to join General Ulysses S. Grant, whose equally huge army was besieging the Confederates only a few miles from Richmond. Lincoln won re-election and could finally see, along with his key generals, that the end of the War was in sight. It would continue, of course. There would be more casualties, of course. But there was an end in sight.

In mid-1864, Lincoln had appointed General Grant as General of the entire Army. The two men had grown to understand and appreciate each other. They also liked each other.

General Grant was happy to have Robert Lincoln on his staff – and to oblige the President, who he sincerely admired.

Lincoln wrote to Grant as a friend, not as a Commander-in-Chief. He asked as a favor, if a position could be found on his personal staff for Robert, who at a mature twenty-one and Harvard graduate, wanted to “see something of the Army.” He suggested that Robert’s age and education would merit the rank of Captain, and that Lincoln personally, would pay his salary. Grant was pleased to oblige.

Robert could finally join the Army. He was satisfied.

Robert was assigned as an administrative officer on Grant’s staff, out of danger, and far from the front lines. It relieved Mary’s worries. She was satisfied.

The President’s son was finally in uniform. Congress was satisfied. The newspapers were satisfied.

Lincoln had found a balance and had satisfied everyone. Including himself. And it was all valid.


Epstein, Daniel Mark – The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage – Ballantine Books, 2008

Donald, David H. – Lincoln – Simon & Schuster, 1995

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 Lincoln. Mary. Robert. War.

  1. energywriter says:

    You did an excellent job of describing the family’s dilemma. sd

  2. Kerry says:

    “It was all valid” – agreed. There are no easy answers in such situations. Lincoln had to do the best he could, and he obviously felt he could risk the political hit of Robert not participating. So he accepted the valid criticisms but did not respond to them and get into an argument. He was not defensive because his feelings were also valid. I’ve been doing a lot of old newspaper research on Mary Lincoln and I actually haven’t seen very much dealing with Robert’s absence from the army. There were definitely people who were mad about it, but it doesn’t seem like it became a huge media story. The Civil War was horrendous, and so is what happened to the Lincoln family, and those are things that I think need to be dealt with to understand this country and its politics. The narrative most people are taught glosses over so much and prevents us from learning from the past.

  3. sheafferhistorian says:

    Reblogged this on Practically Historical.

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