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A Grief Like No Other

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Fatalities during the Civil War were not limited to the battlefield, as both first families discovered. Both the Lincolns and the Davises lost young sons within a couple of years from each other.

The Davises lost 5-year-old Joseph in 1864 when he fell to his death from their porch in Richmond, Va. According to one account from Rice University, home to the papers of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, rumors persist older brother Jeff Jr. pushed young Joseph, but there is no evidence to support this story.

Neither parent was home at the time of the accident and apparently the adults had only just arrived as their son died. A servant discovered Joseph lying on the pavement, having fallen from a height of about 15 feet. Older sister Margaret ran to the neighbors for help, and Jeff Jr. enlisted the aid of two people passing by on the street. One of these men, a Confederate officer, wrote that Joe’s “head was contused, and I think his chest much injured internally.” Following Joseph’s death, his father refused to see visitors and could be heard pacing all night.

Another account by William C. Davis, author of “Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour,” tells a slightly different story, placing both Jefferson and wife Varina home at the time of the accident. Little Jeff found his brother’s body and told his nurse, who then ran to alert the senior Davises.

Drinking polluted water piped into the White House from the Potomac River likely caused the typhoid fever to which 11-year-old Willie Lincoln succumbed in 1862. His passing was extremely hard on his family. Of his death, his father Abraham Lincoln said, “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!”

Mary Todd Lincoln grieved so intensely for Willie that her family feared for her sanity. According to Elizabeth Keckley (or Keckly), former slave and personal confidante to the first lady, Mary was “an altered woman” and she never again went into the guest room where her son died or the Green Room where he was embalmed.

Mary Todd Lincoln to Julia Ann Sprigg, May 29, 1862, Mary Todd Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division.

A featured item in the Library’s soon-to-be-opened “The Civil War in America” exhibition is an autographed letter on mourning stationery from Mary Todd Lincoln to Mrs. John C. Sprigg, dated May 29, 1862, commenting on Willie’s death.

“Your very welcome letter was received two weeks since, and my sadness & ill health have alone prevented my replying to it. We have met with so overwhelming an affliction in the death of our beloved Willie, a being too precious for earth, that I am so completely unnerved, that I can scarcely command myself to write.”

According to historian Michelle Krowl of the Library’s Manuscript Division, the text of the Mary Todd Lincoln letter has been known to scholars for some time, but to the best of her knowledge the original letter has not been on view in a public repository until now.

“While the text is moving on its own, seeing the black mourning band around the edges of the stationery does add visual reinforcement to Mary’s words expressing her grief,” she said.

Make sure to check back next Wednesday for another spotlight on other items from “The Civil War in America,” which opens on Nov. 12. Until then, you can read a bit about them in last week’s blog post.


  1. Having the LOC on line is a godsent. Being a civil aa2Mr buff

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