Lincoln's Rebel Kin: the Todds of Kentucky
Although Lincoln was the Union commander-in-chief during the Civil War, most of his in-laws, the Todd family of Lexington, supported the Confederacy.
Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was a Kentuckian. Her grandfather, Levi Todd, was a pioneer founder of Lexington and her great-uncle, Robert Todd, cast the deciding vote to make Frankfort the capitol of the Bluegrass State. Another great-uncle, John Todd, was killed at the Battle of Blue Licks, Kentucky, one of the last battles of the Revolutionary War. Todd County, Kentucky, is named in his honor.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s father was Robert S. Todd, a merchant, banker, politician, and attorney. Born on February 25, 1791, Robert was Levi Todd’s seventh child. Robert entered Transylvania University at age fourteen, and, upon graduation, studied law. After serving in the War of 1812, Todd married Eliza Parker and opened a grocery in downtown Lexington. He served as clerk of the Kentucky House of Representatives, was on the Fayette County Court, and became a prominent Whig politician. In July 1825, Eliza Todd died after childbirth. Robert, thirty-four years old, was left a widower with six small children, including young Mary Ann, the future first lady. Robert later married Betsy Humphreys, and the future Mary Todd Lincoln had frequent quarrels with her stepmother. Robert S. Todd died on July 16, 1849.
||Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Ann Todd was the fourth child of Robert and Eliza Todd. Born in Lexington on December 13, 1818, Mary studied in local academies before moving to Springfield, Illinois, in 1839. According to Jean Baker, author of Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, Mary’s “twelve years in school made her one of the best-educated women of her era.” While in Springfield, Mary lived with her sister, Elizabeth Edwards. Here, she met Abraham Lincoln, then an attorney and state legislator. They married, after once breaking off the engagement, in November 1842.
Five years later, Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress, and Mary and their children joined him in Washington. After Lincoln’s election in 1860, Mary, as first lady, worked to improve the White House, visited the wounded in area hospitals, and raised money for the Federal war effort. The death of son Willie in the White House in February 1862, coupled with the stresses that the Civil War brought upon her family, sank Mary into a deep depression. Her husband’s assassination three years later was another in a long line of tragedies.
In the years following President Lincoln’s death, Mary suffered financial problems (partly alleviated by a congressional pension) and avoided the limelight. She lived in Germany for several years, and, after her return, her son Tad also died. In 1875, her surviving son, Robert, a successful attorney, had her committed to a sanitarium in Illinois. Procuring her release nearly four months later, Mary moved to France. She returned to the United States, as her health failed, in 1880. She died on July 16, 1882, at her sister’s home in Springfield, Illinois.
||Benjamin Hardin Helm and Emilie Todd Helm
Most of Lincoln’s in-laws supported the Confederacy. When the conflict erupted, Lincoln offered the post of paymaster to his brother-in-law, Benjamin Hardin Helm. Helm, from Bardstown, was married to Emilie Todd, who was Mary Todd Lincoln’s halfsister. Helm turned down this post. Instead, he joined the Confederate army and eventually led the famed “Orphan Brigade,” which was Kentucky’s most famous infantry unit. Brigadier General Helm was killed on September 20, 1863, at the Battle of Chickamauga. Lincoln reportedly wept when he heard the news.
After Helm’s death, his widow, Emilie Todd Helm, visited Abraham and Mary Lincoln in the White House. This created a stir in Washington, and newspapers complained when Lincoln’s rebel sister-in-law visited. Union General Daniel Sickles told Lincoln, “You should not have that rebel in your house.” The president retorted, “General Sickles, my wife and I are in the habit of choosing our own guests. We do not need from our friends either advice or assistance in the matter.” These divisions created bitterness in the family. Later, when Emilie was seeking the president’s permission to travel into the Confederacy to sell cotton, she told Lincoln that she had been “a quiet citizen and request only the right which humanity and Justice always give to Widows and orphans. I also would remind you that your Minnie bullets have made us what we are & I feel I have that additional claim upon you.”
||Other Confederate Todds
Helm’s death was not the only tragedy to strike the family. Mary’s half brother, Samuel Todd, was killed at the April 1862, Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee, while fighting for the Confederacy. Another half brother Alexander Todd was killed at the Battle of Baton Rouge while serving as Helm’s aide-de-camp. When Mary Todd Lincoln heard the news, she fell to her knees and shouted, “Oh, little Aleck, why had you too to die!”
Several of Mary Todd Lincoln’s other siblings were also Confederate soldiers or sympathizers. Her brother George Rogers Clark Todd was a Confederate surgeon, and half brother David H. Todd was a captain in the Southern army. David also served as commandant of the controversial Libby Prison in Richmond where many Union prisoners of war died.
Mary’s half sister Martha was married to Clement White, a Southern sympathizer. Lincoln was criticized for allowing her to freely travel between Northern and Southern states. Newspapers charged that during these trips Martha carried contraband goods into the Confederacy. Another one of Mary Lincoln’s half sisters, Elodie, married N. H. R. Dawson, a Confederate captain from Alabama.
The Todd family’s connections to the Confederacy continued even after the Civil War. In 1866, Mary Lincoln’s half sister, Katherine married William Wallace Herr of Louisville, who had been a Confederate soldier. Herr served in the 1st Kentucky Cavalry, which Ben Hardin Helm helped organize. The Herrs ventured to name one of their children after Helm. During the Civil War, Katherine Todd even wrote the president asking him to release certain Confederate generals who were held in Union military prisons.
Lincoln’s Kentucky Connections
Lincoln’s Rebel Kin: The Todds of Kentucky
Lincoln and Kentucky’s Political Culture
Lincoln and Kentucky’s Secession Crisis
Lincoln and Union Military Policy in Kentucky
Lincoln and African American Liberation
The Emancipation Proclamation