mary todd lincoln


February 20th 1862: William Lincoln dies

On this day in 1862, William Wallace Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln, died aged eleven. Known as ‘Willie’, he died due to illness which was most likely typhoid fever. His brother Tad also became ill, but later recovered, though the illness greatly troubled his family, who feared they would lose another son. Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd were deeply affected by Willie’s death, with President Lincoln not returning to work for three weeks and Mary Todd being so distraught that her husband feared for her sanity. His son’s death occurred in the midst of Lincoln’s presidency, and in the second year of the American Civil War that was prompted by the election of the anti-slavery Republican Lincoln. Despite these personal setbacks, Lincoln successfully oversaw the Union’s victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery - leading to him being known as the ‘great emancipator’.

“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!”
- Lincoln upon his son’s death



Mary Lincoln’s purple velvet skirt with daytime bodice is believed to have been made by African American dressmaker Elizabeth Keckly. The first lady wore the gown during the Washington winter social season in 1861–62. Both pieces are piped with white satin, and the bodice is trimmed with mother-of pearl buttons. An evening bodice was included with the ensemble. The lace collar is of the period, but not original to the dress.

After Abraham Lincoln’s death, Mary went into mourning and remained in widow’s clothes until her own death in 1882. She gave some of her White House finery to family members. Her cousin, Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, received this purple velvet ensemble. In 1916 Grimsley’s son, John, sold the ensemble to Mrs. Julian James for the Smithsonian’s First Ladies Collection.

John Grimsley attributed this dress to a “seamstress of exceptional ability” who “made nearly all of Mrs. Lincoln’s gowns.” Although he mistook her name as “Ann,” he most likely was referring to Elizabeth Keckly.

The Civil War made it particularly important that the ceremonial functions of the administration appear dignified and competent. This public image helped calm domestic critics and reassure foreign governments, especially England and France, which were being courted by the Confederacy. The Lincolns faced the challenge of maintaining proper decorum without appearing self-indulgent when so many were sacrificing so much. Their background made this task even more difficult, as they had to overcome eastern stereotypes of “uncultured” westerners.

Mary Lincoln took her role as first lady very seriously. Some newspapers portrayed her as “the republican queen,” elegant and admirable at public occasions. Others criticized her for conspicuous consumption in time of war and sacrifice. Although she came from a genteel Kentucky family, she was the wife of “the rail splitter,” and many people expected her to embarrass the nation with uncouth western manners.

Bequest of Mrs. Julian James, 1923

Culture: American

Date: 1861-1862

Material: Velvet, lace, satin

What girl doesn’t love a look that easily transitions from day to night?! I did notice that the color of the dress in the photos taken by The Smithsonian look a little off so I went digging. 

It is more of a rich purple than that heinous electric color, we won’t blame the dress, no one looks good in such intense light. Also, it hurts my heart that the sleeves on the afternoon bodice are very noticeably replacements. 


“The conversation becomes a verbal sparring in which Mary’s repartee shows her intelligence, humor, sarcasm, venom, and fiery strength. […] The writing and acting are brilliant, and leave the audience cheering her strength and cheekiness. And this was one side of the real Mary: someone who would not back down from a fight and would stand up for herself and her husband. […]

Another great aspect of the scene is Lincoln himself. When the camera pans back to show Lincoln watching the exchange, his look of pride and admiration (and even a hint of smugness) is a profound flourish that shows why he fell in love with her – and why he loves her still.”

                        -  Jason Emerson, for The Civil War Monitor

Voices From The Civil War-

-Mary Todd Lincoln-

Mrs. Abraham Lincoln describes her mourning and loss of her husband in a letter addressed to Sally Orne in 1869, an old friend from the White House years…


Mrs. Lincoln writes:

“Time brings so little consolation to me and do you wonder when you remember whose loss. I mourn over that of my worshiped husband, in whose devoted love, I was so blessed, and from whom I was so cruelly torn? The hope of our reunion in a happier world than this, has alone supported me, during the last four weary years.”

Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln

He won best performance by an actor in a leading role Lincoln (2012)

Accepting the award, Day-Lewis thanked the film’s director, Steven Spielberg, and then paid tribute to the “mysteriously beautiful mind, body and spirit of Abraham Lincoln.”

It took director Steven Spielberg three attempts to persuade Day-Lewis to take on the role of Lincoln.


December 13th 1818: Mary Todd Lincoln born

On this day in 1818, the future First Lady of the United States, Mary Todd Lincoln, was born in Lexington, Kentucky. Born to a prominent and wealthy family, Todd was fortunate enough to receive a good education. She moved to Springfield, Illinois, where she met the young politician and lawyer Abraham Lincoln. Her parents disapproved of Lincoln due to his poor background, but the couple married in November 1842. They went on to have four children - Robert, Edward, William, and Thomas. Mary staunchly supported her husband’s political career, even while members of her family supported the Confederacy during the Civil War that Lincoln’s election prompted. The First Lady was widely unliked in the White House and often accused of being mentally unstable, perhaps a result of the death of their son Edward in 1850 and William in 1862. She was sitting next to the President when he was shot dead by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre on April 14th 1865. Mary Todd sunk even further into depression in 1871 when her youngest son Thomas died, which led her sole surviving son Robert to bring her to court on charges of insanity in 1875. The charges were successful and the former First Lady was committed to an insane asylum for a few months, and rarely spoke to her son after the incident. After living abroad for a few years, Mary Todd returned to Illinois and died of a stroke in July 1882 aged 63.


“You think we choose to be born?”

“Are we fitted to the times we’re born into?”