The Civil War eventually would claim over 600,000 lives in a country with only ten percent of today’s population. Some families split their loyalties – some siblings throwing their lot in with the Union and others attempting to forge a new nation with an economy dependent upon a workforce of African slaves.
No family demonstrated this split more publicly than the Todds of Kentucky. Mary Todd had married the man who would not allow a permanent split in the Union. One brother and one sister remained loyal to the Union. The rest of her siblings – four brothers, and three sisters – went with the South.
The secessionist Todds had made their choice. Three brothers died on the battlefield, one at Shiloh, one at Baton Rouge, and one at Vicksburg. A brother-in-law died at Chickamauga. In a war that claimed so many lives, one would think the North’s leader had to turn his back on those who had chosen rebellion. But that was not entirely the case.
Benjamin Helm, the brother-in-law who died at Chickamauga, had married Mary’s sister Emilie in 1856. Lincoln had offered Helm a commission in the Union army early in the war. After Helm fell at Chickamauga in 1863, the Lincolns invited Emilie to stay with them at the White House. Emilie accepted the invitation and lived at the White House for several weeks, all the while making it clear she had not renounced her loyalty to the rebel cause, much to the chagrin of many Northerners. When Union General Daniel Sickles complained to the President, Lincoln issued a strong rebuke to the general, adding that the Lincolns chose their own guests.
Can anyone imagine a president behaving in a similar manner today? The more we learn about Lincoln – the burden of forging a united country split asunder by war, the compassion he demonstrated to friend and foe alike, his capacity for humor in the country’s darkest hours – the more we count our good fortune that this humble, brilliant man commanded this country’s highest office when we needed him most.