Sunday, March 29, 2009

Just finished reading - House of Abraham: Lincoln & the Todds, A Family Divided by War by Stephen Berry

Elodie Todd, one of Mary Todd Lincoln's sisters (actually half-sister) once wrote, "Surely there is no other family in the land placed in the exact situation of ours, and I hope will never be so unfortunate as to be surrounded by trials so numerous." After reading House of Abraham I would totally agree. The Todd's experienced a Civil War that was unique in its destruction and ruin, some of which was circumstantial and some self inflicted.

Mary Todd's father, Robert Smith Todd had six children by Eliza Parker. When Eliza died Richard married Elizabeth "Betsy" Humphreys, and they had eight children. The old saying, "the more, the merrier" did not apply to the Todd family. The Todds were one of Lexington, Kentucky's elite families; they were friends of the Clay's (Henry Clay) another Lexington blue-blood family, but trouble and controversy always seemed to surround them. The Todds seemed to be an unusual group in their family circle relations. One contemporary observer remarked that the Todds were "a large family of boys and girls who jested much and seized on the slightest pretext to tease each other unmercifully." Robert Todd left much of the child rearing to his two wives and the family slave nanny, "Mammy Sally." This lack of fatherly discipline might explain much of their unresolved dysfunction, troubles, and issues later in life.

Two of the eldest Todd daughters moved to Springfield, Illinois after the oldest, Elizabeth married, and then Mary, and Ann, soon followed their sisters to Springfield. The other children, especially those from Robert's second wife, stayed mainly in the Lexington area and grew up with Southern principles.

With the separation of the family between Kentucky and Illinois it seems that they were potentially fated to be torn apart by war. Although Kentucky never seceded from the Union, it was a slave state and sent many men to fight for the Confederacy. A number of the male Todds and women Todd's husbands would fight for the South and eventually give the ultimate sacrifice. George Rogers Clark Todd was the last child from Robert and his first wife. George went to medical school, but a nasty temper and drinking habit cost him a marriage and earned him a bad reputation. He ended up serving the Confederacy as a surgeon. Samuel Brown Todd was the first child of Robert Todd's second marriage. Samuel moved to New Orleans before the war and joined in the fight as a private. He was killed at the Battle of Shiloh. David Humphreys Todd ran away at 14 to join the Mexican War. He went to California for the Gold Rush and fought in a Chilean revolution in 1851. Early in the Civil War he was in charge of a Richmond prison for Union soldiers, but was dismissed amid charges of abuse. Afterward he found his way to Vicksburg and fought in an artillery unit until the city was surrendered. Alexander Humphreys Todd was the youngest boy and had been coddled as a youth by his mother and sisters after being abused by a Todd house slave. He was killed by friendly fire at the Battle of Baton Rouge in 1862.

The Todd women were also torn by the war. The older sisters in Springfield married men that eventually served in army or government positions for the Union. The Lexington branch had husbands in the Confederate army. Emilie Todd married Benjamin Hardin Helm who was killed leading the Kentucky Orphan Brigade (so called because they couldn't go home during the war) at the Battle of Chickamauga. Elodie Todd married a Confederate officer and attended Jefferson Davis' inauguration in Montgomery, Alabama with sister Martha Todd. Martha was later accused in the press of being a spy and smuggler, which caused the Lincoln's no little embarrassment. The youngest Todd girl, Catherine (or Kitty to family) had one of the most interesting stories. She visited Springfield after Lincoln's election and became infatuated with Union Captain Elmer Ellsworth (who would later be killed by a private citizen for taking down a Confederate Flag in Alexandria, Virginia). Kitty quickly changed course though, and as the war went on she became even more pro-Confederate, and eventually married a Confederate officer that helped carry sister Emilie's husband Ben Hardin Helm off the battlefield at Chickamauga. I'm telling you, this would make one great Soap Opera!

One of the best points that Berry makes in the work is that Lincoln and the Todds serve as an microcosm of the nation during the Civil War. Lincoln learned a very important lesson from the Todds, and one that ends the book: "People, like families and nations, must own their flaws if they are to move forward."

If you don't read any other Lincoln book in this, the year of Lincoln, read this one to understand the impact of the Civil War on America's families.


  1. Hello Tim, I just wanted to drop by and say hi. Your mother reads my blog and let me know about yours. We are related. She was the first person to inform me that my great great great grandfather fought for North Carolina in the Civil War. I grew up in New Jersey and always thought that my ancestors fought for the North. My perspective of the Civil War has always been that of a Yankee.
    I read through several of your posts and they are very interesting. I'll be back to read the rest and get up to date with your writing.

    I now live just outside of Schuylerville, New York. Grant's Cottage, where he completed his memoirs, is about 15 miles away in the Southern Adirondacks.

    Robert Todd Lincoln's home, Hildene, is about one half hour away in Vermont.

    The Saratoga National Historical Park is 7 miles down the road. The area around the park is still very rural and unspoiled. The entire Schuylerville area is filled with road markers about who did what and where during the Battle of Saratoga. The British Army put down their weapons and surrendered in Fort Hardy Park, just across the Hudson River from where I live.
    I can see the top of the Saratoga Battle Monument from my back yard.

    I have always been interested in American history. Good luck with your blog and I wish you success.

  2. John,
    Thanks for the comments. I have always wanted to get up that general direction. I have read so much about Saratoga and Ticonderoga and also the French and Indian War battles. New York sites associated with abolitionists and the Underground Railroad also fascinate me.

    Thanks again and keep supporting your local history sites!