The Lincolns in the White House: Four Years That Shattered a Family

The Lincolns in the White House: Four Years That Shattered a Family

by Jerrold M. Packard

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From the day of Abraham Lincoln's inauguration, a nation divided by savage conflict confronted the new president. But what many don't know was that within the White House's walls, the Lincoln's family would soon find itself suffering turmoil mirroring that of the nation he led.

Savagely criticized for her extravagance by the American public and widely distrusted because of her southern roots, first lady Mary Lincoln's increasing instability would deeply strain her marriage and eventually end in her mental collapse. The couple was devastated when eleven-year-old Willie died in the White House of typhoid fever. Tad, the youngest son, remained the family joy despite his physical impairments. Though their son Robert's success at Harvard made his parents proud, his relationship with them was troubled and would result in a painful estrangement, one which would eventually permanently separate him from his mother. The president's assassination brutally crushed Mary's always-fragile spirits. After leaving the White House and following Tad's early death, the former first lady retreated into increasing eccentricity and seclusion until her death in 1882. A moving and poignant portrait of the family life of America's greatest president.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466852785
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/17/2013
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 713,979
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Jerrold Packard is the author of the best-selling Victoria's Daughters, and most recently American Nightmare. Mr. Packard lives in Vermont.

Jerrold Packard's books include the best-selling Victoria's Daughters, the life stories of the five princesses born to Britain's longest-reigning monarch; Sons of Heaven, a chronicle of Japan's monarchy over fourteen centuries; and American Nightmare, the history of Jim Crow and the racial torment that America endured for more than a hundred years in the wake of the Civil War.  Mr. Packard lives in Vermont.

Read an Excerpt

The Lincolns in the White House

Four Years That Shattered a Family

By Jerrold M. Packard

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2005 Jerrold M. Packard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5278-5



Grateful to be finished with the day's long and tiring ceremony, Abraham and Mary Lincoln cheerfully crossed the threshold into the White House, escaping bleak skies and a cutting northwest wind that mirrored Washington's sense of unease. "Old Edward," head usher since anyone could remember, held the dilapidated door and bowed to the new president and first lady as they entered, both nearly blue from the cold.

Husband and wife felt markedly different about the dwelling that confronted them. What was to be the couple's home for the next four years looked more like a run-down plantation house than the head office of the American presidency. But the just inaugurated president took hardly any notice of the mansion's sad condition. His wife, Mary, on the other hand, triumphant in her new self-styled status as "Madam President," decided on the spot she was going to make this dismal place fit for its role as the chief executive's home. But what husband and wife did share was that neither had the first idea just how horrendous their new life in the White House was going to be.

Other, assuredly more important, concerns occupied Mr. Lincoln's thoughts. In America's eighty-five years of independence, the nation had never before found itself in a situation as dangerous as the one it faced on Lincoln's Inauguration Day. Lincoln's election as president fourteen weeks earlier had almost guaranteed that half of America would leave the Union. The new "Confederate" flag already flew above the legislative houses of seven Southern states that had formally abandoned the Union. Eight other states were considering secession. It was virtually certain that the loyal, Northern half of the nation would militarily challenge these secessions. After assuming the leadership of the still young Republican Party — many Southerners ridiculed it as the "Abolitionist Party" — Lincoln himself had signaled that the central government would never permit the breakup of the United States.

Though disagreements with the federal government over "states' rights" headed the South's list of grievances, the specific issue of slavery had counted above all else in the just concluded election. Slavery indeed overwhelmed every other public concern in America, nearly so much that other quarrels about politics and social differences mattered relatively little. A single unavoidable reality stood above this day's events: Abraham Lincoln would not now be stepping across the White House threshold if it weren't for slavery. He would instead have remained in Illinois, practicing law, spinning amusing tales, and playing doting father to his rambunctious — many of his neighbors would have said "insufferable" — sons. But Lincoln now symbolized the nation's overarching split. The officiant at this morning's inaugural ceremonies had been the cadaverous Roger Taney, octogenarian chief justice of the United States, who four years earlier in the court's Dred Scott decision had written that "Negroes had no rights the white man was bound to respect," his finding offending and polarizing a huge part of Northern opinion on the issue of racial justice. Taney's participation had drawn painful attention to the abyss that Lincoln was facing.

Only a few hours earlier, Lincoln had endured the ceremony that had elevated him from ordinary citizen to chief executive. Fortunately, the cold late-winter skies remained free from rain or snow during his swearing-in, but the near freezing air still penetrated the gabardine frock coat he chose to wear to be inaugurated as the sixteenth president of the United States. A tall, silken stovepipe hat combined with his extraordinary height ensured that he stood out in the crowd, making it possible for anyone, friend or foe, to easily see him. As he took the traditional drive down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol with the outgoing president, James Buchanan, deep banks of onlookers lining the rough roadway nearly blocked their carriage. Lincoln was painfully aware that for the first time a heavy military presence had been mustered to keep an incoming president safe from would-be assassins. Both men must have been shaken by the symbolism of the rooftops lined with scores of troops, soldiers alert to any threat from the crowd. The seventy-five-year-old Winfield Scott, the federal army's commanding general, warned his men — most were members of the District of Columbia cavalry — to "watch the windows of the opposite side" and fire on anyone who looked to be pointing anything at the presidential carriage. In the Capitol itself, the largest structure in the country, guns protruded from every window while, just outside, dozens of musket-carrying soldiers surrounded the inaugural platform overlooking the building's east front.

Lincoln had started writing his inaugural address long before he'd left his Springfield home. But changes both momentous and perfunctory to the critically important speech continued almost up to the moment he appeared before the crowd of thirty thousand expectant people standing below the Capitol's still-unfinished dome. An inelegant wooden stand cobbled together on top of the building's wide steps lent the setting the character of a construction site, but the little structure's small canopy at least provided the occupants with a bare minimum of protection against the weather. When Lincoln rose to speak, he realized his hat was still in his hands and quickly looked around for a place to put it. Stephen Douglas, once the new president's bitterest political enemy and a man who had decades earlier courted young Mary Todd, reached out and took the hat, graciously keeping it on his lap for the remainder of the ceremonies.

The heart of Lincoln's message was his steadfast determination to prevent the breakup of the nation, if necessary by armed force. But he extended an olive branch to the rebellious slave states in the speech's final paragraph. In his frontier cadences and high-pitched voice, Lincoln spoke words that would either thrill or dismay, leaving the nation's thirty-one million people frighteningly little ground for conciliation. "We are not enemies but friends," he pleaded hopefully. Speaking directly to the South's firebrands, he continued, "We must not be enemies ... though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." Evidently agreeing with his rival's thinking, Douglas occasionally murmured "Good" and "Good again" as Lincoln spoke. The now ex-president Buchanan appeared to have slept through most of the proceedings. In any case, few believed that Lincoln's words, however poetic and soothing, would be able to still the oncoming storm.


Though the White House was the most famous dwelling in America, Mary Lincoln knew next to nothing about the home she was entering. For the past four years the Executive Mansion's hostess had been Harriet Lane, the bachelor President Buchanan's high-spirited niece. Since the previous fall's election, Miss Lane had openly belittled the new occupants-to-be as unsophisticated yokels. Harriet had been told on what she believed to be good authority that Mrs. Lincoln in particular was "awfully western, loud & unrefined" and conspicuously neglected to invite her successor to the White House for even a simple cup of tea and tour of the rooms. The Buchanan family's one thoughtful act was to order a meal to be ready for the new president and his family's party following the inaugural parade.

The capital's "traditions" in some measure explain the Buchanans' outwardly ungracious behavior. In antebellum Washington, old hands rarely lent much useful knowledge to the new family in the Executive Mansion, particularly regarding how to make the house function as a home. The departing occupants were never even expected to brief their successors on basic domestic matters. Furthermore, except for a doorkeeper, no real permanent White House administration existed, and nothing like a staff of civil servants was in place to get the place ready for the turnover. The Lincolns were to find no butlers or footmen who might render basic necessities to the family in their private quarters, nor even a domestic staff to sweep the floors or clear the dirty dishes from the departees' final, inauguration-morning breakfast. As matters stood, the Lincolns couldn't have been aware of the singularity of the meal laid on by Harriet Lane, a gift the new occupants were lucky to find waiting for them that first day.

The now ex-president Buchanan escorted his successor to the Executive Mansion and there bade the Lincoln family a relieved good-bye before leaving — doubtless ecstatic to be escaping — for his own Pennsylvania home. Exhausted from the whirlwind they had endured since dawn, the Lincolns knew these few hours of rest would be but a short respite before the afternoon public reception in the White House and the evening's inaugural ball at the City Hall that still awaited them. Having accompanied the first family to the White House, General Scott was enjoying his own sense of relief at having seen the Lincolns safely inside their new home and remarked in reference to the president's well-being, "Thank God, we now have a government." Given the dangerous atmosphere in the capital, for the sake of security Scott had farsightedly ordered a detachment of soldiers to surround the Executive Mansion.

Assorted sisters, cousins, and nieces of the new first lady, altogether fifteen privileged family members, excitedly tagged along in the presidential party's wake, and all happily and gratefully sat down to Harriet Lane's ad hoc dinner. The meal ended just before the reception started, when a large waiting crowd was admitted into the north hall to shake President Lincoln's hand. For several hours extending into the early evening, the president and his first lady greeted what seemed like most of the plain, anonymous Americans who the prior November had voted the Lincolns into their new prominence. When ushers finally shut the doors on the good-natured and curious crowd, most of whom had been well-wishers rather than the office seekers who would soon enough descend upon the president, the family climbed the grand staircase to the mansion's second floor. There they found a gloomy region divided by a long central hallway into a clutch of closet-sized nooks, a few only slightly larger offices, several dismally small bedrooms, and one good-sized living room. Too tired to engage in any real exploring, everyone homed in on the first available bed on which to nap before undertaking the elaborate dressing required for the evening's inaugural ball, the climactic gala that was a part of every new president's entry into office.

For the ball, the planners had chosen a spot behind the City Hall and there threw together a huge but temporary plank pavilion, a muslin-draped affair the inaugural committee optimistically christened the Palace of Aladdin. Though the pavilion was outfitted with separate dancing and supper spaces, no one had thought it necessary to provide the rough facility with a cloakroom or toilets for the several thousand attendees expected; gentlemen's and ladies' facilities could only be reached by walking over to the adjoining City Hall, the men's toilets in its courtroom, the women's in the Common Council chamber. Though the shoddiness of the setting in which she was making her debut as queen of Washington society disappointed the new first lady, she nonetheless was intent on looking and acting every bit the evening's sophisticated star.

For the occasion, Mary chose an immense blue silk crinoline, the great half-globe of her skirt draped with a French lace tunic. The new first lady further adorned herself with a matched set of pearl and solid-gold bracelets, earrings, brooch, and necklace; a blue-ostrich-feather-topped ornament crowned her head, the lavish confection trailing tendrils of sweet jasmine. Her glamor, if overelaborate by sophisticated Eastern standards, nonetheless belied any notion of frontier plainness. Lincoln, wearing his new swallow-tailed coat and visibly exhausted by the day's trials, constantly tugged at the white kid evening gloves Mary insisted he wear for the sake of etiquette.

The president led off the opening quadrille, marching spiritedly arm in arm not with his wife but, as protocol demanded, with Washington's Mayor James G. Berret. The odd though traditional arrangement left Mary to find her own partner for the grandest dance of the evening, and she coquettishly chose Stephen Douglas, who had earlier in the day held her husband's hat just as many years before in her native Lexington he had held her hand as a suitor for her affections. To the sprightly and patriotic notes of "Hail Columbia," the company marched smartly from one end of the flame-lit ballroom to the other, the ensemble providing a stirring sight for the rest of the guests, few of whom were members of the city's oldest and most entrenched high society but who nonetheless shone brightly enough under the room's giant gasoliers. Lincoln departed an hour after midnight, but Mary and her cousins and sisters stayed on to dance until the new day's sun rose to brighten the city.


Though Washington had been the nation's capital for six decades, the city was far from having yet taken its modern shape by the time of Lincoln's inauguration, with Pierre-Charles L'Enfant's majestic plan still only a small fraction completed. Anthony Trollope, the British novelist, who visited the capital in 1861, said that "of all the places that I know it is the most ungainly and most unsatisfactory: I fear I must also say the most presumptuous in its pretensions." Countless Americans concurred in his assessment.

An almost endless list of factors made Washington the usually disagreeable place it was in which to live, do business, or conduct government. Foremost was weather. It was tropically hot and humid in the summer, bitterly cold, damp, and snowy in the winter, with only relatively short breaks of temperate pleasantness in between. Some of spring and autumn were admittedly appealing, but the rest of the year was routinely so bad that the British Foreign Office classified the American capital as an official hardship posting for Her Majesty's diplomatic representatives unfortunate enough to be stationed in it. In an age when summer heat was ameliorated only by fans and winter cold by fireplaces, Washington's extremes made for an exceedingly uncomfortable existence.

But more than just the weather gave the city its notable unpleasantness. Washington's water supply was not only dirty and polluted but represented in all its permutations a mortal threat to the health of the capital's inhabitants. The lowest parts of the city, which unfortunately included the White House and its precincts, rose mere inches above the sluggishly tidal Potomac River, some stretches of which were lined with swamps. As the stream coursed past the District, its most troubling habit was overflowing onto lower Pennsylvania Avenue.

If the effects of the uncontrolled Potomac weren't enough, smaller arteries of equally filthy water bisected the heart of the federal district. The Tiber Creek, formerly and less grandly named Goose Creek, emptied into the Potomac just below the White House; the canalized part of the stream flowed along what would one day become the Mall, crossed in front of the Capitol, and discharged into what was then known as the Eastern Branch, today called the Anacostia River. By 1860 the Tiber Creek and Canal were essentially sewers — filthy, dark, disease-carrying waterways, home to an inexhaustible supply of mosquitoes, the final resting place of numberless dead and bloated animals, the receiving culvert for a large part of the city's ordure, and chief creators of the foulest odors to be experienced anywhere on the Eastern seaboard. They were also breeding basins for every kind of human-threatening disease from typhoid and tuberculosis to malaria and dysentery. And, unfortunately, they were what lay at the bottom end of the White House's grounds.

What was more, dangerous humans represented nearly as much a menace as did dangerous vermin. Only brave men and destitute women ventured alone onto the city's unlighted streets at night, when footpads and hoodlums freely ruled the darkness largely because the city's police force employed only fifty patrolmen.

With its sixtysome thousand inhabitants, Washington was not small — at least when compared to America's other cities of the time. But it had little of the big-town liveliness or sophistication of New York or Philadelphia or New Orleans. Instead it lazed quietly, its "industry" being the pen pushing and bean counting of government supplemented by a small but steady stream of cash-carrying sightseers who came to look at the building in which Congress made the nation's laws and the palace in which their president resided. It was, unmistakably, a Southern town, one that shut down when the afternoon sun got too hot, or — for a considerably longer period — when the Congress was in recess. Most notably, it was a slave city, sandwiched between the slave states of Maryland and Virginia. The capital itself was thoroughly steeped in slave culture, the owning of black Africans perfectly lawful and accepted without demur by the District's white inhabitants.


Excerpted from The Lincolns in the White House by Jerrold M. Packard. Copyright © 2005 Jerrold M. Packard. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents


ONE March 4, 1861 — Washington City,
TWO Settling In,
THREE Calamity in War, Calamity at Home,
FOUR Death in the White House,
FIVE Shadows Everywhere,
SIX Victories,
SEVEN An Unfinished Work,
EPILOGUE The Flying Dutchman,

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