Lincoln: The Deepest Sadness

Abraham Lincoln

“It is hard, hard to have him die.”

Man of Sadness

Most historians agree that Abraham Lincoln, when he wasn’t laughing and telling droll stories, was a generally sad man. He described his upbringing as the “annals of the poor.” His mother died when he was nine. His only sibling died in childbirth when Lincoln was still in his teens. 

While he made friends easily and engaged socially, he still remains elusive. Other than a long-standing close relationship with Joshua Speed, his friendships remain superficial or professional rather than deep bonding. He was, by and large, a solitary soul. His deepest feelings were “conceptual” rather than personal, in the sense that he was distraught over the enormous deaths of the Civil War: but they were people he did not know.

He was nearly thirty-three when he married, partly due to insufficient income, and partly due to his lack of ease with the fair sex. When he married Mary Todd, a well-to-do Kentucky belle, it followed a rocky courtship of misunderstandings. Maybe. The marriage itself was “average” for its time, with the usual ups and downs. Probably. Undoubtedly he cared deeply for her, and was devoted to her welfare and comforts.

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Mary and sons – in better days.

The word used to describe him best, was “abstracted.” In his own world.

The Weight of that World

With most deep thinkers, thoughts and conclusions not only run deep, but usually go through convoluted channels to arrive at whatever conclusions finally surface.

By his own admission, Lincoln was slow to learn, but once learned, the knowledge remained. He was also slow to stray from the middle road. He was always opposed to slavery, but never considered himself an abolitionist. He was a lifelong Whig, slow to embrace the Republican party. His own political inclinations could and would change – if he believed they might be incorrect, or not viable. They were subject to change as the occasions demanded. 

His early months as President are usually considered unsure and uncertain. As he said, events were controlling him, not the other way around. Secession had begun before he took the oath of office; within weeks, it was a fait accompli. He would promote and demote a series of military generals whose accomplishments on paper fell far short of their accomplishments in the field. Totally ill-equipped in military knowledge himself, he needed to become a true Commander-in-Chief. That took time. Meanwhile, fighting a Civil War on many fronts – militarily, politically, industrially, financially and socially, situations and issues were flung at him daily. 

A Lincoln Family etching ca. 1861

Early 1862

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Willie Lincoln

The year had started bleakly enough. The Union defeat at Bull Run six months earlier was an eye-opener. The war would not be a few skirmishes and the expected “empty chair.” The casualty list horrified everyone, but compared to what would follow, a mere spat. 

Determined to present the White House (i.e. the presidency) as a continuation of what-should-be, the Lincolns planned a gala affair. There was the usual carping about “don’t you know there’s a war on?” Then there was the unsettling situation with the two youngest Lincoln boys. They had caught cold and were feverish. Their 3-year-old son Eddie had died several years earlier, and both Lincolns were always skittish about their childrens’ health. But the doctors assured them the boys were not seriously ill, and the big-do did not need to be cancelled.

Tad, the youngest son, was eight. He recovered.

Willie, at eleven, was touch and go for several days. He was the apple of both his parents’ eyes: smart, affectionate, warm-hearted, and, it is said, the most like Lincoln. His mother commented that she expected Willie to be the solace of her old age. 

By the time the doctors confirmed that his “cold” had become typhoid fever, it was already too late. Willie was rapidly failing. Both Lincolns kept a vigil at their son’s bedside, but on February 20, he died.

The grieving father entered his secretaries’ office and said, “Well, my boy is gone.” Then he left. 

Willie was laid out in his coffin in the black-draped Green Room of the White House, with the mirrors and windows covered in crepe. Mary Lincoln was so distraught, she could not leave her bed, except to advise the mother of Willie and Tad’s best pals, “not” to send her sons to play with Tad anymore. She could not bear it. 

Despite his own unbearable grief, Lincoln personally brought the two young playmates into the Green Room to say their goodbyes. Tad Lincoln would never see them again. 

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Mrs. Lincoln wore black for two years.

After a brief service conducted by Rev. Phineas Gurley, Willie’s coffin was placed in a borrowed crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery until such time as the Lincolns returned to Springfield. 


Grief comes in many patterns. Some build shrines; some remove all mementos as too painful. Most fall in between. But all parents are devastated when they lose a beloved child.

Mary Lincoln wore her grief, and those deep losses that followed, like a badge of punishment for whatever sins she perceived she might have committed. Her convulsive sobs could be heard throughout the White House for weeks. 

Abraham Lincoln’s grief was internal. He knew that by February 1862 there were already thousands of parents, North and South, who had lost sons. Those parents mourned too. He may have even suspected that many more thousands of sons would lose their lives, and as the war continued, so would the grieving. 

Lincoln could only put aside an hour or two on Thursdays, the day Willie died, and retreated to the privacy of his room to grieve alone. It is also said that on occasion, he sat in quiet contemplation at the borrowed crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery. He considered it the worst blow of his life. “It is hard, hard to have him die.”

Three years later, Willie’s coffin was disinterred, and he returned to Springfield. With his father.

The Lincoln Tomb in Springfield


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

Randall, Ruth Painter, Lincoln’s Sons, Little, Brown, 1955

Family: William Wallace Lincoln (1850-1862)

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