By Steven Wilson, Assistant Director, Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum
Mary Todd was born in Lexington, Kentucky to a prominent banker and his wife. If Mary had not been buffeted about by the swells of life’s misfortunes her futures might have been assured. But Mary’s mother died when she was six, and her father’s marriage to Elizabeth Humphries, compounded the pain of that lose. There was always a void in Mary’s soul, a sense of longing weighed by shame, anger, and a lack of self-confidence. These are natural conditions brought about by abandonment. An intelligent child, well educated (she attended a finishing school for twelve years) Mary Todd was bright, ambitious, and accomplished in her role as a lady of the 19th Century. Twenty-year-old Mary Todd joined her sister Elizabeth and her husband Ninian Edwards in Springfield, the raw frontier capital of Illinois. In a whirlwind of social events, the sophisticated, vivacious Mary met Abraham Lincoln. The man I marry will be president of the United States; Mary is reported to have said. Her blazing ambition to achieve and acquire makes such a statement possible. They were married, the lady of society, and the self-made country lawyer, in 1842.
Mary Todd Lincoln is unfairly condemned by history. She was difficult, and had an explosive temper, and once she felt you had wronged her, there would be no reconciliation. But she managed a home for her husband and children on Lincoln’s modest income. Mary Todd Lincoln was the driving, if tyrannical force in the Lincoln family’s livelihood. Her husband was something of a child himself, often slipping into melancholy, or setting out for months on a time to ride the circuit. She referred to him as Mr. Lincoln, and he called her Molly. Theirs was a quaint, sometimes playful relationship punctuated at times by Mary’s volatile temper.
She might have envisioned a reprieve from the mundane drudgery of everyday life when she and her family arrived at the Executive Mansion in 1861. But Washington was a dreary town, the Executive Mansion had all the charm of a second-rate boarding house, and the city’s inhabitants looked upon her and her husband as nothing more than crude frontier folk. Mary Todd Lincoln was abandoned once more—her husband was consumed by the war, many of her family had chosen to fight for the Confederacy, and she was adrift in a dark sea of faithless sycophants.
William Wallace Lincoln, age eleven, died early in 1862. She was the most powerful lady in the land, and yet she was not immune to loss. Willie was the second child to be taken from her—little Eddie died in 1850. She immersed herself in mourning, teetering on the edge of madness, a pathetic spirit dressed in black, wandering the halls of the Executive Mansion. For a while she withdrew to her room, cutting herself off from all human contact. Eventually, Mary Todd Lincoln emerged from the darkness, deeply scared by pain, melancholy, and fear.
She sought the companionship of others who had suffered as she had, and found them in the military hospitals surrounding Washington. She visited these cities of comfort filled with horribly wounded and sick soldiers, sat at their bedsides, and spoke to them. She would read letters from loved ones, or write for those unable too. She forbade any acknowledgement of her service, insisting that she remain anonymous.
It is unfair for tragedy to make repeated visits during one person’s life. But equitable or not, just or not, it is the nature of life. Mary Todd was a victum of heartbreak, and misunderstanding, and deserves, under the sometimes harsh glare of history, compassion.
By Steven Wilson, Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum
In the second year of the Civil War the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia stumbled into one another at the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The first of the three days of battle was, as most battles generally are, a confused affair of noise, smoke, and fear. General John Buford, 1st Cavalry Division, native of Woodford County, Kentucky and graduate of West Point, led about 2,000 men into position south of the town. The issue was simple: hold the high ground and deny Confederate Major General Henry Heath and his 8,000 men entrance to Gettysburg. Heath’s men collided with Buford’s cavalry early on the morning of July 1, 1861, and the greatest battle of the Civil War began. Later, Buford told Major General John Reynolds there was the devil to pay in his attempt to keep the Confederates from breaking through his line. His men, dismounted, fought with Sharps, Maynard, Burnside, and Smith carbines—firearms with limited range but a greater rate of fire than the rifled-muskets, and smooth bore muskets the enemy possessed. Buford was a pragmatist. He had his men discard their romantic but virtually useless sabers in favor of carbines and pistols. Swords added weight, and made a racket on the march, and no man’s reach was greater than a pistol’s range.
It was a contest of brute strength, Heath feeding in more troops, Buford’s line bending, but holding, the general watching the struggle from the cupola of the Lutheran Theological Seminary and at the same time searching for the first elements of Reynolds’ I Corps whose appearance meant relief. They came mid-morning, the Army of the Potomac, blue lines of infantry thrown against gray ranks of infantry, and the Kentucky general’s men could relax, at least momentarily. It had been a contest of time—time for the Union reinforcements to arrive, a thin strand of time used by Buford to bind up the defense.
A considerable military lineage stood with Buford on that hot summer’s day. His grandfather was a cavalryman in the American Revolution, and his great-uncle fought the infamous Banastre Tarleton, and aside from the fact members of his family fought for the Confederacy, there wasn’t a hint of disloyalty in Buford. Or of any reluctance to do battle.
It would have been appropriate for John Buford to rise in rank and spend old age telling war stories with other gray-haired soldiers in a haze of blue cigar smoke. But if Buford could deny Henry Heath his coveted ground on that blistering summer morning, he could not forestall his own journey into that long night. He died shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg of illness. On his deathbed Lincoln promoted him to major-general.
“Anderson of Sumter” By Steven Wilson, Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum
The distance from Louisville, Kentucky to Charleston, South Carolina can be measured in time and distance or in at least one instance, a man’s lifetime.
Robert Anderson was born in the summer of 1805 into a family of soldiers. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1825 he served in the Second Seminole War, and was wounded in 1841 during the Mexican War. He was not a flamboyant soldier like some of his comrades. Anderson was a solid officer who made his historical appearances strongly tethered to irony. He swore Captain Abraham Lincoln into service during the Black Hawk War, fought in the Mexican War with other men who garnered fame in the Civil War, and became an unwilling pawn in the game that opened the conflict: the siege of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.
Another irony of course, was that the hot-tempered Confederate officer commanding the 120 cannons surrounding Fort Sumter was P.G.T. Beauregard. Major Robert Anderson, officer commanding the incomplete, undermanned fort in Charleston Harbor, was a former instructor of artillery at West Point. Beauregard had been his student. So had Confederate general Braxton Bragg, and Union general William Tecumseh Sherman. The American army before the conflict was a family, and like the nation it too was rendered asunder. Anderson, Kentuckian, soldier, loyal American, would not surrender Fort Sumter, sending word to his commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln (late Captain, Illinois Volunteers), that if nothing was done the fort would fall from lack of supplies. Anderson’s position was untenable. He was outgunned, surrounded, out-manned and he stood at the cusp of a whirlwind that once unleashed might wipe his nation from the face of the earth. Few people have, by virtue of their position, been capable of starting a war by making the wrong decision.
It made no difference what Major Anderson did, the war came. Sumter fell, but Anderson and his men were released (it was still a war of gentlemen), and the major was promoted to brigadier general. He toured the North, and then was named commander of the Department of Kentucky. It was a short-lived assignment, and he went on to command Fort Adams at Newport, Rhode Island. Anderson returned to Fort Sumter, by now a ruin of war, to celebrate the Union victory and his role in the defense of the fort. On October 26, 1871 Robert Anderson died. Like most soldiers he could have easily lived his life in obscurity, dying without historical notice. Anderson’s notoriety came because he embraced the credo; duty, honor, country. Not a bad epitaph, that.
SONS OF DESTINY
By Steven Wilson, Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum
Both were of the frontier, separated by time, distance, and wealth, but washed by Kentucky in destiny. As a child Abraham Lincoln of Hardin County, born in the late winter of 1809, remembered planting pumpkin seeds, only to watch his efforts destroyed by heavy rains. Jefferson Davis was of Christian County, born on June 8, 1808 of a well-placed family that eventually found its future in the deep south. It’s as if Kentucky, recognizing its position in the war that was to come, chose to send its sons to safety. But they were just two of the many Kentuckians who found themselves prepared to fight and die in a war that transcended states interests. Warriors from the dark and bloody ground of Kentucky fought for both sides, joining that long, sad roll of the fallen.
For Lincoln, a remarkable man of vision, a man who never lost his Kentucky roots, his purpose as President of the United States was clear and undistorted—save the Union. Confederate Jefferson Davis, a man of bravery and determination, but a man whose true calling was the military, saw only victory in the creation of a new country, a southern country. And Kentucky—the state that burst out of the mountains to the east, and rolled along the settled earth to tease the great Mississippi in the west, became a battleground itself. “I think to lose Kentucky,” Lincoln said, with an eye toward the Mississippi River in the west and the Ohio River in the north, “is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.” Kentucky became a strategic treasure. Armies snaked across its interior, camps sprung up like mushrooms on a forest floor and river cities swelled with industry.
Kentucky’s role in the war, not the one marked out by cautious politicians who thought they could declare neutrally with the wave of a hand, was determined by its position. The state, playing the natural role declared by fate, found itself a battlefield. As Davis made clear the Confederate position, and Lincoln created a strategy that remained, except in matters of necessity, unchanged, so was Kentucky defined. She had been so coveted centuries ago that it was said her land was covered with blood. Now it was so in the crucible of civil war, with her sons, remembered and forgotten, set against one another.
Historical Marker #85 commemorates the Battle of Middle Creek, fought near Prestonsburg on January 10, 1862. The battle was crucial in the struggle to control the Big Sandy Valley, and future U. S. president James Garfield won an early Union victory there.
In early 1862, Garfield was ordered to drive rebel troops from eastern Kentucky. After pushing the rebels from Prestonsburg, he attacked Humphrey Marshall’s Confederates near the mouth of Middle Creek.
The fighting was intense as Union troops scaled the ridges toward the Southern position. Marshall’s four cannons were largely ineffective, but the firepower made an impression. Garfield later wrote, “the whole hill was enshrouded in such a volume of smoke as rolls from the mouth of a volcanoe [sic], [and] thousands of gun flashes leaped like lightning from the cloud.”
In an example of the fratricidal nature of the war, enemy Kentuckians fought one other. After a decisive bayonet charge by the 22nd Kentucky Union Infantry, the arrival of Northern reinforcements dissuaded the Confederates from continuing the battle.
The Union victory helped give the Federals control of eastern Kentucky for most of 1862. The fight also put James Garfield in the spotlight. Garfield, who became the 20th president of the United States, was assassinated in 1881.
THE OFFICIAL SITE OF THE KENTUCKY DEPARTMENT OF TRAVEL
Capital Plaza Tower 22nd Floor, 500 Mero Street, Frankfort, KY 40601