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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Death of Willie Lincoln

From: Abrahamlincolnonline.org


In an elegant White House guest room, the 11-year-old son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln lay ill in a huge carved rosewood bed, now known as the Lincoln Bed. At five p.m. on February 20, 1862, William Wallace Lincoln died. Elizabeth Keckly, the former slave who designed Mrs. Lincoln's beautiful wardrobe, washed and dressed him. When the president gazed at him, he mourned, "My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!"

She watched him bury his head in his hands, "his tall frame convulsed with emotion." At the foot of the bed she stood "in silent, awe-stricken wonder," marveling that so rugged a man could be so moved. "I shall never forget those solemn moments -- genius and greatness weeping over love's idol lost." President Lincoln then walked down the hall to his secretary's office. He startled the half-dozing secretary with the news: "Well, Nicolay, my boy is gone -- he is actually gone!" John Nicolay recalled seeing his boss burst into tears before entering his own office.

Mary Lincoln was inconsolable in the loss of her favorite son. To add to the anguish, Tad, her youngest son, lay seriously ill in another room. Both children apparently suffered from typhoid fever, a common illness in disease-ridden Washington, D.C. Willie was the third son born to the Lincolns in Illinois, arriving on December 21, 1850, the same year their second son died. Now with Willie's death, the family circle grew smaller yet. Robert, a student at Harvard College, was the eldest son, the only one who would outlive his parents.

In the words of a government official's wife, "The White House is sad and still, for its joy and light have fled with little Willie. He was a very bright child, remarkably precocious for his age, and had endeared himself to every one who knew him." Mary Lincoln's cousin said he was "noble, beautiful ... a counterpart of his father, save that he was handsome." Mary herself called him the "idolized child, of the household."

Willie's body was taken downstairs to the Green Room where it remained until burial. Drs. Brown and Alexander handled the embalming, a procedure they would perform three years later after the president's assassination. Willie lay in a flower-covered metallic coffin designed to resemble rosewood, with his name and date of birth and death inscribed on a silver plate. Friends came to pay their respects on February 24, the morning of the funeral.

Just before the service the Lincoln family gathered around the coffin for a private farewell. Benjamin French, who supervised the arrangements, wrote, "While they were thus engaged there came one of the heaviest storms of rain & wind that has visited this city for years, and the terrible storm without seemed almost in unison with the storm of grief within, for Mrs. Lincoln, I am told, was terribly affected by her loss and almost refused to be comforted." Mary Lincoln grieved in her bedroom upstairs during the funeral and burial.

The funeral began at 2 p.m. in the East Room, where the huge gilt mirrors were draped in mourning, with black fabric covering the frames and white covering the glass. Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, pastor of the nearby New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, conducted the service. The Lincoln family attended Dr. Gurley's church, where Willie recently told his Sunday School teacher he wanted to become a teacher or preacher of the gospel.

President Lincoln, his son Robert, and members of the Cabinet sat in a circle, surrounded by a crowd which included representatives from Congress and foreign countries. The writer Nathaniel Parker Willis recalled the service as "very touching." He saw "[General] McClellan, with a moist eye when he bowed in prayer ... and senators, and ambassadors, and soldiers, all struggling with their tears -- great hearts sorrowing with the president as a stricken man and a brother."

Following Dr. Gurley's sermon, Dr. John C. Smith of the Fourth Presbyterian Church concluded the service in prayer. Most of the mourners accompanied the body to Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, creating a long procession. Two white horses drew the hearse, while two black horses pulled President Lincoln's carriage down Washington's unpaved streets and up the hill to the cemetery.

When the procession arrived at the cemetery, Willie's body was placed in the small chapel for a brief service of Scripture and prayer. He later was transferred to the Carroll family vault on the cemetery's northwest end (Lot 292). This vault, purchased by William and Sallie Carroll in 1857, contained the bodies of their three sons. Orville H. Browning, a political friend of the Lincolns from Illinois, inspected the vault the day before the funeral with William Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court. Carroll offered this space temporarily to the Lincoln family until they returned to Illinois. After President Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, Willie's coffin was removed and placed on the funeral train. Both father and son are permanently buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.

Willie's death left deep marks on the Lincoln family. Elizabeth Keckly said Mary "was an altered woman .... she never crossed the threshold of the Guest's Room in which he died, or the Green Room in which he was embalmed."

The artist Alban Jasper Conant noticed something different about Lincoln following Willie's death, saying, "ever after there was a new quality in his demeanor -- something approaching awe. I sat in the fifth pew behind him every Sunday in Dr. Gurley's church, and I saw him on many occasions, marking the change in him."

John Hay, another White House secretary, wrote that the president "was profoundly moved by his death, though he gave no outward sign of his trouble, but kept about his work the same as ever. His bereaved heart seemed afterwards to pour out its fullness on his youngest child." On the day President Lincoln was assassinated, he told Mary, "We must both be more cheerful in the future. Between the war and the loss of our darling Willie we have been very miserable."

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