Holland – Lincoln’s Little Girl


The President never had a daughter, except for Julie Taft.

Sitting in the White House and chatting with the First Lady would have challenged a socialite, but 16-year-old Julie Taft was up to the moment. The slight, curly-haired girl had gone to the best finishing school in Washington to master situations just like this one. In contrast to Julie’s own mother, a strict Victorian matriarch who believed children should be seen and not heard, the President’s wife asked her questions, listened to the answers, appreciated her opinions. They quickly discovered a keen mutual interest in clothes, one of the few creative outlets available to an imaginative woman in 1861. Julie admired the First Lady’s lilac organdy dress, and the First Lady liked Julie’s new hat: The two got along wonderfully at once.

Compared to Julie’s own house, anyway, the President’s quarters were unintimidating, even shabby, with threadbare rugs and dilapidated furniture that made it seem, as one visitor remarked, like a rundown hotel. Julie was very conscious of her family’s social position, and certainly she was more of an old Washington hand than the First Lady.

The Tafts had lived in Washington for years; her father was an important man in the Patent Office, an expert on steam engines. The Tafts had known the previous President, James Buchanan, and his formidable niece Harriet Lane, who had served as his hostess. During the Buchanan administration Julie attended receptions, levees and concerts at the White House (in the much more splendid public rooms on the first floor), and she knew many of the permanent staff. In those days anybody could walk off the street onto the White House grounds, and into the mansion itself, and for a long while, on her way to school, Julie had taken a short cut through the lawns and gardens on the west side, so she knew the place well.

For her part, the First Lady, newly arrived from Illinois, was lonely, and aware that most of Washington society had dismissed her even before they met her. “Very Western,” someone wrote of her, sight unseen, “crude and unmannerly.” (Illinois at the time was the wild frontier.) Julie Taft’s well-bred charm applied a soothing balm to wounds the new President’s wife received at the hands of the condescending upper crust.

Probably, also, Julie reminded the First Lady of her own privileged childhood; whatever the snooty gossips said, the new President’s wife came from an aristocratic Kentucky family and was used to thinking of herself as upper crust.

So the two chattered happily away together, and Julie was showing off her new hat, a straw bonnet called a flat, when a very tall man strode into the room.

The well-bred Julie sprang to her feet, as she had been taught to do when grown-ups appeared, and the tall man stopped in front of her. “Well, who is this, Mary?”

“This is Julia Taft, “ his wife said. “She brought her brothers over to play with our boys.”

“So this is Bud’s sister,” the tall man said, and slipping his hands under the girl’s arms lifted her effortlessly up in the air, eye to eye with him.

Startled, she shrank back a little, afraid he meant to kiss her. His homely, whiskery, weather-beaten face, so close to hers, was “very different” from the smooth pale well-barbered city men she knew. Perhaps he sensed her uneasiness, because he put her down at once, and patted her on the head, and said something reassuring. Julie had come face to face for the first time with Abraham Lincoln.


* * *


Julie Taft had actually seen Lincoln, but at a distance, only a few days before. With her parents and several of their friends she was sitting on a chair in the window of Clement Woodward’s hardware store to watch the inaugural parade pass by. This was less a celebration than a grim reminder of the state of the country in 1861 and proof of how serious and precarious the capital’s position was.

Rumors had flown for weeks that the new President would be murdered before he took office — maybe before he even entered Washington. Lincoln had come to the city unannounced and in disguise to avoid just this fate. Street gossip now suggested he would be shot on his way to his Inauguration. As he rode toward the Capitol, the outgoing President Buchanan at his side, no banners waved, no applause or cheering followed after. A close guard of cavalry surrounded the carriage. Armed troops lined the street, a mounted orderly at every corner. While Julie sat there beside her mother and father, the thunder of footsteps sounded in the hall, and through an open door she saw a file of riflemen in green uniforms race up the stairs to the roof: sharpshooters, ready to gun down anybody approaching the presidents’ carriage. This looked more like the imposition of a dictator on an unwilling people than the inauguration of an American President.

This was not wholly untrue. In 1861 Washington was still a Southern city, sandwiched between the slave states Virginia and Maryland, and the local aristocracy, dominated by the wealthy, well-bred, slave-owning families of Alexandria and Maryland, loathed the North and sympathized entirely with the rebellious Confederacy. Sitting in the window of the hardware store, Julie overheard one of her mother’s friends say, “There goes that Illinois ape, the cursed Abolitionist. But he will never come back alive.”

The Tafts, however, were staunch Unionists, if not exactly abolitionists. Julie’s father, Horatio Nelson Taft, had grown up on Long Island, a loyal Union Democrat, and he had been involved in local politics: When his law practice foundered in the panic of 1857, he joined the U.S. Patent Office and moved to Washington. He had an intense personal loyalty to Lincoln. He believed outright that Divine Providence had sent Lincoln to save the Union. After he and a friend met the new President for the first time, the friend said, “There is something in his face I cannot understand…We can safely entrust the Union cause to him.” Julie’s father said simply, “We have found a great man.”


Before the war, Washington was a small town, with only a few thousand inhabitants, many of them slaves. A few fine buildings stood here and there on the broad straight avenues — the new Capitol dome was halfway constructed, and the Washington Monument was rising nearby — but only a few blocks from the White House pigs rooted in the fields and swamps, trash accumulated, and mosquitoes bred by the millions. Everything was within walking distance of everything else. In these close quarters everybody knew everybody, everybody knew where he stood, and the society was rigidly stratified. Prewar Washington was a society of manners and precedence and protocol.

On the evening before the inauguration, it was customary for the well-bred and the well-heeled to call on the President-elect in the posh Willard’s Hotel, the first family’s residence until they could move into the White House. In 1861 the Southern-leaning local aristocracy snubbed the Lincolns, but the Tafts were happy to attend on them. Entertaining the Tafts in the parlor of their suite over the course of an agreeable hour, Mary Lincoln discovered that the Tafts’ two middle sons were close in age to her own boys. At once she began to arrange for play dates at the White House.

“Send them over tomorrow, please, Mrs. Taft,” she said. “Willie and Tad are so lonely, and everything is so strange to them here in Washington.”

So the next day Julie’s mother got her children all up in their best bib and tucker, crisp white blouses and ties and neat wool trousers for Bud and Holly, her best walking dress for Julie, every hair brushed into place, every button buttoned, every blouse tucked in, and sent them off across Lafayette Park to the White House. Bud, or Horatio Nelson Taft, Junior, was 11. Holly, or Halsey Cooke Taft, was 8.

The Presidential mansion was smaller than it is now, although it was very modern for the mid-nineteenth century, with hot and cold running water, indoor toilets, central heating, and gaslights. The main part of the building, with its flat roof and grandiose porticos — flat on the north side, round as a belly on the south — looked pretty much as it does now, but the two wings wouldn’t be built for 50 years. Where the West Wing is now there were neatly trimmed gardens and lawns, trees, the stables, and the Conservatory. This was a glass greenhouse, which Buchanan had built in 1857, where the staff grew vegetables and flowers.

Julie was supposed to take the boys up to the front door and present them to Mrs. Lincoln, but on her many trips across the grounds, she had struck up a friendship with the gardener, Major Watt, who liked to tease her with the plants’ extravagant Latin names. (Sometimes, she thought, he made these names even longer and more extravagant than they actually were.) So she took her brothers around to the place she liked best, the Conservatory. Major Watt gave her a friendly welcome and shooed them upstairs, where they found Willie and Tad Lincoln at the water lily pond, dreamily watching the gold fish.

Such nice, quiet, shy boys, Julie thought. Within minutes, her brothers and the Lincoln boys had run off to play. Julie went home.

At dark Bud and Holly finally came back to their house on L Street, looking, as one of the Taft servants said, as if they had been crawling through the brush after raccoons. The scrubbed boyish faces were dark with dirt, the spotless white blouses stained and disheveled, the tidy combed hair standing on end. Clearly they had had a wonderful time. They were bubbling over with excitement. Willie and Tad Lincoln had taken them all over the White House, which was full of amazements, an attic crammed with mysterious chests, papers and old furniture, a basement that went on forever. The President had “jounced them on his lap and told them stories.” They were to go back the next day and bring Julie with them.

For the next 10 months, the four boys were almost inseparable. They stayed overnight at each other’s houses, they wore each other’s clothes, they went to church together, they ran in a pack through the halls of power, a counterpoint to the terrible events of 1861, the merry laughter of children like errant sunshine gleaming through the deepening horror of the war.


After Lincoln was elected in November 1860, South Carolina (“too small for a republic,” as one of her own congressmen said, “too large for an insane asylum”) had led the charge of the Cotton States out of the Union, and since then had been sparring with Washington over some Federal forts in Charleston Harbor, but most people, Lincoln among them, still thought the crisis would be resolved in some kind of compromise, some papering-over of the problem. After all, this had been going on since the Revolution, this contention over slavery, and the Cotton States were even now saying the whole issue would blow over if the North would simply admit that slavery was a matter of property rights. Let the North agree that slaves were property, and not people, and everything would be fine. The whole idea of equality for the Negro was ridiculous anyway. Not even Lincoln agreed with that. God had ordained the peculiar institution and so it was sacred. Et cetera.

In March 1861, the war was still a matter of hot and airy words. Nobody had fired a shot, nobody had died. But the disturbance had already begun to pick apart Julie Taft’s neatly organized upper-class life. For years she had attended the exclusive finishing school run by Mme. Smith at 223 G St, the old Russian Embassy, where she learned French, etiquette and proper address, how to dance with a train, and how, when she was done dancing, to drop the train and kick it back into line and sit down. Then in the fall of 1860, with the election looming, Mme. Smith had abruptly decamped to Richmond. Julie was sent off to school at Elmira, in New York, where she confounded everybody with her fluent French and good Spanish, her knowledge of literature and culture, and her inability to multiply. But only a few months later, as the crisis deepened, her father ordered the school to send her home, and a local sheriff, going to the Inauguration, escorted her back to Washington and her family. She felt, she said, “like a convict on the way to the gallows.” She was not quite 16 years old.

She found the city full of ominous noise. Late one night, lying in her bed, she heard a “curious jarring rumble” out on the street and ran to her mother’s room. Her parents were standing at the window, looking out. Below in the street a horse-drawn object wrapped in blankets clunked and lumbered by, loud in the silence of the night. In the morning, an artillery battery stood at the corner of her street, armed, manned and ready to fire.

The city was becoming a military camp. Even the Tafts had a cache of guns in the house. One day, walking across Lafayette Park, Julie and her mother encountered a aged neighbor lady, who said, in ominous tones, “These are troublous times, Mrs. Taft. Troublous times. We need a firm determined leader, one who is not afraid to use armed force.” The old woman turned her gaze meaningfully to the statue of Andrew Jackson that ruled the park. Jackson, of course, had been a Southern slaveholder.

The Taft family, well-bred and well-connected — good citizens of what Julie called “French Washington” — had many friends on the Confederate side. Julie was witness to intense conversations between her father and the Southern sympathizers. She remembered rotund Senator David Yulee of Florida stalking around their parlor, shaking his fist and shouting, “I tell you, Taft, when the Southern army enters Washington, you’ll be hanging from one of these lamp-posts!”

In this charged atmosphere Julie went with her mother to Congress, to hear Jefferson Davis’ farewell speech. In those days before radio and television and movies, live oratory was the great national entertainment, and Davis’ rolling thunder of a speech awoke in the girl a sense of dread. She began to sob uncontrollably. Her mother said sharply, “Julia, compose yourself at once.” There could be no sign among the Tafts of sympathy for the Confederacy. No sign anyway of unseemly emotion. Julie pulled herself together, but she wrote everything down in her diary.


Another frequent visitor to the Tafts was Mrs. Rose Greenhow, beautiful, socially prominent, and inveterately Confederate. When the Taft children became such fast friends with the Lincoln children, Mrs. Greenhow took even more interest in them, asking many questions. Julie did not think much of this, until later.


The White House was rigged up with an extensive system of bells, used to call servants and alert guards and declare emergencies. One day early in March all these bells began to ring at once.

The mansion was thrown into chaos. Lincoln’s secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, rushed into their boss’ office, expecting to find a national emergency; Old Edward the doorkeeper came panting up the stairs, the servants dashed from room to room trying to find out who was calling for them. Nobody was calling. There was no emergency. The bells seemed bewitched, ringing by themselves. Then somebody thought to go up to the attic, where the center of the whole system was.

There they found Willie and Tad Lincoln. Willie was roaring with laughter. Tad was sitting on the bell yoke, pulling all the ropes at once, making the White House jangle from roof to basement.

It’s not recorded what trouble the boys got into for this prank, but likely it wasn’t much. the Lincolns were permissive parents, the exact opposite of the Tafts. “Let the children have a good time” was the family motto. Lincoln loved his children, but even more, he seemed to become a child when he was with them. He was a very hands-on father, always hugging the boys, carrying them around — Julie Taft’s sense he was about to kiss her, in that first meeting, was probably true. As a boy he himself had endured the brutal poverty and endless hard work of frontier life, and he refused to impose that crushing discipline on his little boys. Instead he lavished his time on them, his attention and praises. In return, they gave him a new boyhood.

By contrast, Mary Todd Lincoln’s parenting style was a kind of learned helplessness. In Springfield, in earlier days, when Bob, her eldest son, turned up missing (which he did often), she would go out on the front porch of their home and scream, “Bobbie’s lost! Bobbie’s lost!” until the neighbors spilled out of their doors and scoured the area for the little wanderer. She even sent downtown to Lincoln’s office to get him to come home and search. Sometimes Bob got a good whipping for running off, but this didn’t deter him.

Mary herself seems like a bystander — stories abound of Lincoln romping with the boys like an overgrown puppy, but nobody wrote about Mrs. Lincoln playing with them, or even spending much time with them, unless they got sick, when she devoted herself to their care night and day. She had lost one child, her second son Eddie, at the age of 4, and her anxiety hovered over the rest of them like restless incapable hands. She had frequent headaches, of the kind for which physicians then routinely prescribed darkened rooms, utter silence, and tincture of opium.

So, by the time they reached the White House, the Lincoln children were accustomed to doing exactly as they pleased. This liberty extended to their friends and playfellows the Tafts.

Their own mother — her “lady mother,” as Julie usually referred to Mary Malvina Cook Taft — was enforcing a stiffly corseted Victorian upbringing on all her children. From this position, Mrs. Taft frowned on her daughter’s expressing a mind of her own. But she did have a mind of her own. For Julie, therefore, the White House meant freedom. Her parents sent her to supervise her brothers — “keep those young rascals from tearing down the White House” — but she quickly realized that in the Lincoln household she could do whatever she wanted.

The proper Victorian woman did not stoop to reading novels, for instance. However, the Lincolns were enthusiastic readers of all kinds of popular literature, and given the run of their library, Julie soon buried herself in Lord Byron, Bulwer-Lytton, Nathaniel Hawthorne. She liked to curl up to read in a favorite chair in Lincoln’s own study, often with Lincoln himself sitting nearby reading his Bible, one long leg crossed over the other, the sock foot gently wagging. If Mary Lincoln came in and saw him, she waxed indignant at his frayed trouser cuffs, and sent somebody to fetch him his slippers.

Sometimes the boys would pile in, and leap on their father, who would put his book down. Then one long arm “reaching all across the room” would attach Julie and pull her into the circle, and the stories began. Lincoln fed the children a steady diet of Indian stories, usually ending “they galloped and they galloped, with the Redskins close behind.”

“But they got away,” Tad cried, concerned. “Pa, they got away.”

“Oh, yes, they got away,” Lincoln said. He must have been glad to tell them that somebody, anyhow, was out of danger.

Julie could read anywhere, and did, plopping down happily wherever she found herself. Once she was sitting on the stairs, lost in her book, and Lincoln came on her. “Don’t get up, Julie,” he said, and stepped right over her. But he thought she should go to the sitting room, where the light was better.

The open-hearted Lincolns loved the sweet, spirited girl, just budding into womanhood. “I wish I had a little girl like you, Julia,” Mary would say. (She always called her Julia, although the rest of the family called her Julie.) They both loved gossip and dressing up. Mary had a mania for clothes, especially the height of Victorian fashion with the lavishly decorated gowns, enormous skirts, pleats, ribbons, trimmings and swags, and the extravagant hats, and Julie loved helping her try on clothes and talking about clothes and planning new clothes. The two shared many a confidence. When Mary talked about losing little Eddie, her second child, she wept, and Julie wept with her.

Lincoln himself not resist teasing her. “Flibbertigibbet,” he called her, and she gave him a startled look, and with her customary curiosity asked what that meant.

“You don’t know what a flibbertigibbet is?” Lincoln asked, straight-faced, but Julie could see he was amused. “I thought everybody knew that.”

“Well, I don’t,” Julie said. “Is it French?” She was very proud of her French, which of course was the language of the urbane aristocrat, and a sign of superior breeding.

“Not French,” said Lincoln. “I’m really surprised you don’t know what it means.”

“I don’t think you do, either,” she said, feeling she was being made fun of, and Lincoln broke into a big smile.

“Of course I do. It’s a small, slim thing with curls and a white dress and a blue sash who flies instead of walking.” Then he put his hand on her head and mussed up her curls, a favorite caress. This was not a simple pat; he swiveled his hand back and forth, causing her curls to pop out of their confining ribbon into an unruly mop. He did this all the time. Clearly, for Lincoln, the temptation to disturb that neat beribboned little head was irresistible — as if he could liberate the wild child within.

Julie didn’t much like him tousling her hair, but she put the habit to good use anyway. One night her mother gave her a long look and commented on how disorderly her hair was. “I can’t help it,” Julie said, “when the President musses up my curls every time he sees me.” Outranked, Mary Taft said no more.


The Tafts lived on L Street near Twelfth, just down from the White House. Julie’s mother had summered in Charleston as a girl, and had the Southern aristocrats’ manner and acute awareness of class, as well as a Northerner’s political morality. She would have been aghast to think she countenanced slavery, but she was used to having a lot of household help, and the family’s servants were slaves “hired” from a Virginia plantation. Washington was full of slaves, who did all the menial work; slaves had rebuilt Washington after the British burned the city in 1814, and slaves were building the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument.

They fascinated Julie, who loved their stories and their otherness, their mysterious connection to some world beyond her reach. She was still young enough to enter into magic and prophecy, still young enough, also, to cross the treacherous gulf between white and black. Friends of her parents had an old woman named Oola, rumored to be African-born, tall, gaunt, with a piercing look that seemed to see everything. She cast spells and told fortunes as well as stories. The other slaves feared her and the children were drawn to her, terrified and entranced.

When in April 1861 a great comet, visible even in the daylight, appeared in the sky over Washington, Julie went to Oola to ask her what it meant. The old slave called the comet “a fire sword.” “There’s a great war coming,” she told Julie, who recorded this in her diary in an outlandish dialect. “The handle [of the comet-sword] is toward the North, and the point is toward the South and the North is going to take that sword and cut the South’s heart out. But that Lincoln man, children, if he takes the sword, he’s going to perish by it.”

Julie repeated the whole conversation to the Lincoln boys, and Tad ran at once to his father to spread this prediction of success. His mother laughed off the story but Lincoln himself was drawn to it, and made Tad repeat it.

“I hope it won’t come to that,” Lincoln said, but later Julie saw him looking out the window at the comet. Lincoln, a man of portentous dreams, was susceptible as well to the eerie weight of magic.

Then on April 12, the long chess match in Charleston Harbor ended, and Confederate batteries fired on Fort Sumter. The next day the Union command surrendered and was allowed to leave unmolested, but the line was crossed. Lincoln went to Congress and asked for 75,000 troops to recover the Federal property seized by the rebel state.

Even so, for a few weeks, there was no real war. Instead, there was a lot of hot talk, and more strutting. A dreadful foreboding fell over Washington. Suddenly everybody realized that if Maryland and Virginia both seceded, the capital would be trapped between two hostile camps. There weren’t enough troops in Washington to defend against a concerted attack. Several Army regiments were supposed to be on the way from the North, but they had to cross Maryland to reach the city.

Many people fled. Southern-sympathizing families withdrew into Virginia. The importunate office-seekers who had crowded the White House and the Capitol hurried away to the North. Lincoln wanted to send Mary and the boys to safety but she refused to go. People nervously clustered around the telegraph offices, always a flashpoint for news and rumor, and watched the trains coming in from the north, which would bring the troops to defend the city. “Why don’t they come?” Even Lincoln was impatient, on edge, as panicky waves of gossip swept Washington. Wild conjecture imagined gunboats sailing up the Potomac, crowds of plug-uglies (a political gang in Baltimore) advancing from Maryland. A large army of Southerners was advancing north through Virginia. Soon, the popular mind felt, these enemies would sweep in from all sides, overrun the defenseless city and hang good old Judge Taft from that lamppost.

One warm spring Sunday the city woke to find the telegraph wires had been cut and the railroad tracks leading into Washington torn up, severing the city’s connections to the outside world. In a swirl of panic, rumor and forebodings, Washington braced for an assault. In church Tad Lincoln reassured Julie that whatever came he and Willie were ready. He led Julie up to the roof of the White House, where the boys had assembled a few pieces of lumber into a fort and brought up a log to serve as a cannon. Tad chattered on about the boys’ elaborate plans for defending the White House. “Let ’em come. I and Willie are ready for them.”

From the flat roof Julie could see all around the city — the wide Potomac winding by on the west, with Virginia just beyond, and the fields and swamps north and east, with Maryland beyond that. Real guns, artillery batteries, fully loaded and crewed with blue-coated soldiers, lined Pennsylvania Avenue. Between the stump of the unfinished Washington Monument and the White House, the Capitol building had been turned into an armed fort. The great iron plates that would one day form the new dome had been wedged between the pillars and around the entrance and reinforced with barrels of sand, to form a defensive barrier. The statues were all boxed up and men in uniforms with rifle stood on the porch and along the front of the building.

From the roof of the White House, looking around, Julie could see how the war was already overrunning Washington, and wonder what use four little boys would be against this rising tide.


So it was with palpable relief that she and the rest of Washington cheered the Sixth Massachusetts as the regiment marched into the city in mid-April. The soldiers of the Sixth had fought their way through Baltimore, where hostile Marylanders battled to keep them from boarding their train. In the ensuing riot 16 people were killed, including several soldiers, the first blood spilled in the Civil War.

Maryland was still threatening to secede. If it had done so, that would probably have driven the Federal government out of the capital, and for a while the high command pondered ordering the artillery to shell Baltimore to keep the Rebels there in line. Instead, Lincoln suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus and had the worst of the potential insurrection’s ringleaders rounded up and jailed. So, growling and resentful, Maryland stayed in the Union.

For now, anyway, the danger was receding. Steadily more troops poured into Washington; they set up their camps in the city’s parks and the lawns of the White House, to the delight of the four little boys and their sister who had such a ringside seat on the whole deal. Tad especially loved to visit the camps, taking the soldiers flowers and fruit. Once he passed out tracts on religion; the soldiers used these to start their campfires, and ordered him to bring flowers next time, which saddened Tad no end.

Washington was quickly losing its Southern flavor. Those families who remained were largely Northern sympathizers who welcomed the Federal troops. Many people invited the soldiers into their homes. The Tafts, being from New York, especially favored the New York regiments. Mrs. Taft entertained the officers at dinner, and the whole family often visited their camps with gifts of oranges. Mrs. Taft struck up an alliance with the formidable Dorothea Dix, who was trying to build a support system for these soldiers, once the shooting started. Everybody in Washington felt a lot safer with all those soldiers there.


* * *


Willie Lincoln was, Julie thought, “the most lovable boy” she ever knew, courteous, gentle and bright, a lot like his father, “except he was handsome.” Tad was, as the gardener Major Watt said, “a wildcat.”

Tad, the lastborn Lincoln, had gotten his nickname because the newborn baby’s head was so large his father said he looked like a tadpole. He had some kind of speech impediment — perhaps a cleft palette — so that many people couldn’t understand his speech. He had crooked teeth, a full-round imagination and a wild and impulsive temper.

A photograph exists of Tad in a French Moroccan Zouave uniform, holding a rifle as tall as he is, and scowling ferociously at the camera. The war fascinated him. He was always begging for a gun. When he and Holly, prowling around the Taft house, came on the cache of rifles in the bathroom, Tad managed to shoot one off, hitting the house next door but fortunately hurting nobody. Julie’s older brother got her a pistol and taught her to shoot (skill with a handgun being somehow not incommensurate with the manners of a Victorian lady), which made Tad furious with jealousy. When he begged her to let him hold it, and she did, he promptly aimed it at Bud and pulled the trigger.

Fortunately it was unloaded. Julie snatched it away from him. “You’re not fit to have a revolver, Tad Lincoln!”

“Don’t tell Ma,” Tad begged her. “I think she’ll let me have a gun, and I’ll give you my After-David I’ll never point it at anybody.” Tad had overheard the word “affidavit” somewhere and it fascinated him for a while.

Eventually, after much nagging and pleading, his parent did gave him an old pistol. Some time later Lincoln had a bad dream about the pistol, and told Mary to take it away from Tad. Nonetheless it shocked Julie they would give him one at all, since she had no faith in Tad’s After-David.

Tad was a man of action. Tad rolled his toy cannon up to the door of the room where Lincoln was holding a Cabinet meeting and bombarded it until somebody came out and shooed him off. Tad stood at the stairwell and charged people five cents to go up to see his father. Tad plundered the gardens and the Conservatory, Tad dug a rifle pit in the Tafts’ garden, Tad sneaked his goat into his bedroom, where it liked to curl up on his bed and chew its cud.

One day, in a meeting with some of his Cabinet, Lincoln was standing at the window looking out toward Virginia, as he often did, when something much closer took his eye. Sprinting out of the room, he bounded down the steps and out onto the front lawn, where Tad had spread armfuls of the family clothes on the grass and was selling them to raise money for Clara Barton’s Sanitary Commission.

Willie was enthusiastic about adventure, also, but Willie had as well a powerful inner life. He read a lot, thought a lot, observed everything, and he had a wonderful self-possession, the more evident because Tad was so completely without any. Some of the halo around Willie, of course, could have been the nostalgic glow of memory looking back through the tragedy still to come.


* * *


The city was now crowded with soldiers, but the war was still a fantasy. Soldiers walked around in their gaudy new uniforms as if they were going to a costume ball. Elmer Ellsworth, an intimate family friend of the Lincolns, who had clerked in Lincoln’s office in Springfield, had accompanied the family to Washington. He was close enough to the boys that when they came down with measles, he did too. But he was energetic, vigorous, charismatic. After Fort Sumter was fired on, and the President called for troops, Ellsworth went up to New York City and recruited his own regiment from among the firefighters (in those days firefighters were both pugilistically inclined and politically active), and dressed them in the flashy uniforms of French Moroccan Zouaves, with their short embroidered jackets and baggy trousers. All the pomp and dazzle of this enchanted the boys and Julie. The war so far looked like a great gaudy chess match. Julie loved to go with the boys to watch Ellsworth drill his men on the side lawn of the White House; Ellsworth called them his monkeys because of their nimble maneuvers. At a dance, one night in May, he favored Julie with much attention, and walked her home afterward, enough to make a young girl’s head whirl.

A few days later, after Virginia seceded, the President was looking south from the White House (which he did very often). Alexandria, Virginia, was clearly visible across the river, and as Lincoln looked he saw a Confederate flag flying from a hotel over there. Ellsworth offered to go capture that flag. He led his Zouaves in their bright new uniforms across the river and into Alexandria, found the inn, and went up to haul in the offending cloth with his own hands.

As he went down the steps he came upon the innkeeper, rushing up, and the innkeeper shot him. The Zouaves promptly shot the innkeeper. But Ellsworth was dead. The Lincolns were horrified and grief-stricken. He was laid out in the White House and a stream of mourners walked by; someone gave Julie a bouquet of white flowers and pushed her forward toward the coffin. She had never seen a dead man before. As she went up to put the flowers on his body, a wave of nausea filled her and she almost fainted.

Later, a local musician wrote a piano piece in Ellsworth’s honor. On Mrs. Lincoln’s insistence, Julie learned to play it, although she was never especially good at the piano. Once the Ellsworth March was in her repertoire, she had to play it for the Lincolns. She could manage this well enough if she heard voices in the room around her, as if nobody was really listening to her. As soon as she sensed people were paying attention her stomach turned to butterflies and her fingers turned to wood and she blundered all over the keys. Lincoln praised her playing, tousling her hair, as he always did. Both of them must have wondered at the perverse alchemy that could replace a vibrant, beloved young man with an entirely forgettable piece of music.


* * *


In May, with the capital now secured, and the war still hanging fire, Mary Lincoln discovered that Congress allotted her an allowance of $20,000 to fix up the White House. Mary, who loved spending money, took herself off to New York, to buy furniture, carpets, drapes, and clothes. In 1861, $20,000 was a considerable sum of money but she would manage to spend it all and then some.

She left the boys behind, with a plea to Mrs. Taft to let Bud and Holly stay at the White House to keep Willie and Tad company. This granted, the gang of four descended on the Taft house and carried off clothes and other essentials. Over his shoulder, as he left, Tad cried, “We’re going to have fun, you bet.”

The next day Julie went over to the White House with a bundle of clean blouses for her brothers. As soon as she walked in she knew something was up; when she asked after her brothers the servants broke into wide grins, and Old Edward, the doorkeeper, sent her up to the attic.

This cavernous space at the top of the stairs was one of the boys’ favorite playgrounds and a major source of material for imaginative adventure. As soon as Julie appeared Tad was rushing at her, his face shining with excitement.

“Hurry, Julie — we’re having a circus!”

They had strung a couple of sheets across the attic, to make a curtain dividing it into stage space and audience. Already a small, giggling crowd was gathering in the audience part: soldiers, servants, gardeners, anybody, black or white, with a nickel for the admission. The boys had written up an elaborate program: They would sing songs, they would present tableaux. In one such Tad was to pay The Black Statue, and he was intent on smearing himself with bootblack to achieve the necessary effect. Julie got the bootblack away from him, found some burnt cork and covered his face with that. Behind him, Willie, intending to play a Victorian lovely, was enveloped in the folds of a dress of Mary Lincoln’s, and Julie quickly rearranged him, pinned up a lot of the excess, and cinched him into the top with its splendid Victorian décolleté spread across his bony boyish chest. Bud had wedged a bonnet backwards onto his head; she took it off and put it on right. Tad now presented her with a bottle of Mrs. Lincoln’s perfume, “Bloom of Youth,” and she sprinkled everybody liberally.

Tad, meanwhile, was singing one of his favorite songs at the top of his voice — “Old Abe Lincoln came out of the wilderness.” On his nose sat a pair of familiar spectacles. The waiting crowd was growing boisterous. As this point Julie’s sense of decorum overcame her. As the boys gathered to open the show with a booming chorus of “Hail, Columbia,” she took off down the stairs. On the way down she met the President’s secretary, John Hay, puffing up the steps, looking harried.

“Have those boys got the President’s spectacles?” He rushed past her, grim-faced; Hay had no patience with the children.

A moment later, he came plunging down again, the spectacles in his hand, and Tad was shouting, “Julie, come back! Make Holly go find us some spectacles!” He had noticed that a houseguest of the Tafts’ had two pairs. Julie hurried away, disgusted.

At the foot of the stairs she met the President on his way up. Lincoln took her by the hand. “Well, here is Julie come to the circus. Having a great time up there, eh?”

“They’re making a dreadful noise, and they have Mrs. Lincoln’s things on and they look horrid.”

Lincoln gave a shout of laughter, the loudest she had ever heard him laugh. “Let’s go up and see it. How much is it?”

“Five cents,” Julie said. “But, please, I don’t want to go. They’ll make me help them, and I don’t want to. It’s horrid of them to wear Mrs. Lincoln’s clothes.” She brushed past him and ran off down the stairs.

Lincoln went up to the attic, sat in the audience and laughed and applauded with everybody else. An intolerable pressure was mounting on Lincoln. The war growing like a tumor that would consume everything. The children gave him a way to escape for a moment, and he took it, well worth a nickel.


* * *


Across the river in Virginia, as the spring went on, the Confederate army remained camped within striking distance of the Union capital. Newspapers and Congress began to clamor for the President to drive them away. The troops in the city were still green men, barely drilled and disciplined, but Lincoln finally yielded. If his men were green, he reasoned,  the Confederates would be green too. It’s not recorded why he thought this would add up to any good result.

On July 16, the whole city resounded with the tramp of marching feet. In glorious array the battalions were advancing to sweep the Confederates out of northern Virginia. Speculation raced ahead of the expected victory: Driving the Confederates ahead of them, the Union troops would battle their way to Richmond, seize the enemy capital, and win the war in a single stroke. Julie watched them march by and over the long bridge, their flags flying, their guns wreathed in flowers, singing the great hymns — “Eine Feste Berg,” the Marseillaise, “John Brown’s Body.” Washington sizzled with excitement: Surely this was the climax of the conflict, and the war would soon be over. In the sweltering summer heat everybody waited breathlessly for news.

The next Sunday, the city woke to claps of distant scattered thunder. Julie’s brothers and the Lincoln boys came back from church still clutching their pennies. They had been sent home before the collection. Willie Lincoln was vivid with excitement. “Pa says there’s a battle in Virginia,” he told Julie. “That’s big cannons going off that sounds like slamming doors.” The two armies had closed, out on the Virginia countryside, near Manasses Junction.

The thrill of combat infected the city. Flocks of people in carriages and on foot raced out to Virginia to watch. The first news was excellent: The Union troops were pushing back hard on the Rebels; they were winning; they had seized Manasses Junction; and the Rebels were outnumbered and on the run.

Then the news turned bad.

By late afternoon the crowds gone out to watch the fighting were streaming back in terror along the roads, a chaos of carriages and horses and frightened people. The Confederates had held their ground, until reinforcements had appeared, and now they were pushing back. The counterattack would bring them into Washington within a few days. Night fell, and it began to rain. The brilliant, confident battalions that had marched out of Washington came straggling over the long bridge in a dazed and bloody rabble. They had failed. As soon as the battle turned against, them the green young soldiers had fled, many wounded, many dying.

Washington quickly filled up with the broken, battered army. Remembering where they had found comfort before, swarms of New York soldiers gathered at the Taft house. Judge Taft was off at the Patent Office, and Mrs. Taft had gone away with Dorothea Dix; only the children and the servants were in the house. The servants were, of course, slaves, and the younger one hid in the closet screaming, while the older woman fumed at the invasion and muttered dire prophecies and imprecations against the Yankees. Julie kept close care of her brothers, but she could do nothing for the soldiers now packing into the house. Finally her mother came back, swiftly gathered all the food she could find and fed the exhausted and defeated men.

The defeat at Bull Run stunned Washington. Rumors swept the darkened rain-slickened streets that the Southern army would assault them and burn the city. Phantom spies were everywhere, cutting telegraph lines, blocking roads, plotting to murder nearly everybody. Lincoln struggled to cobble together a new plan, asking Congress for half a million more troops, trying to figure out how to pay for all this with the government already in debt. Around him everybody was beginning to understand that this was going to be much worse than they had expected. Almost a thousand men died at Bull Run. Thousands more were injured, missing, taken prisoner. The war was not over. It had hardly begun. The bloodshed, the deaths and the grief, all, hardly begun.


Shortly after Bull Run a stranger came to the Tafts’ house and questioned them all about Rose Greenhow. The spirited Southern socialite was still in Washington, still holding court in her house on Sixteenth Street, still coming often to visit the Tafts. After a while, the stranger revealed himself as an agent of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Lincoln’s makeshift intelligence service. Rose Greenhow, the children learned, was a spy for the South.

Thrilled, they rushed off to Mrs. Greenhow’s house, where a curious crowd had already gathered. Riflemen from General McClellan’s own bodyguard stood watch over the house. The children badgered these sentries for information but got none. The crowd, however, was full of news. Mrs. Greenhow had actually been arrested several days earlier, and had promptly, proudly confessed to having uncovered the Union battle plans before Bull Run and tipped off the Southern command. Since her confession, she had been kept confined in her house, where a number of unsuspecting friends and confidants had come to see her and had also been arrested. The scam went up when Mrs. Greenhow’s little daughter climbed a tree in the garden, leaned out over the wall, and started screaming, “Mama’s been arrested. Mama’s been arrested.”

Julie and her brothers loitered around the house a while longer, enjoying the general excitement, and feeling very important, although no one else seemed to recognize their central position in all this.

Their elders’ bloody games were infiltrating the children’s innocence: In their way they acted out their own version of the war. One morning Julie was helping Mary Lincoln try on a new dress when a terrible clatter began outside the window.

“What is that noise, Julia?” asked Mary.

“It’s probably the ‘dead march,’” Julie said. “I suppose the boys are burying Jack again.”

The Sanitary Commission (forerunner to the Red Cross) had sent Tad a cloth doll got up as a Zouave, with the puffy trousers and jaunty embroidered jacket and cap. Jack’s main role in the boys’ play was to get himself charged with desertion or sleeping on post and then executed by firing squad and buried.

“O Julia,” Mary cried. “Go quick and tell them not to dig holes among the roses, Major Watt says they’ll kill his young plants.”

This of course was part of Tad’s long feud with Watt the gardener. Julie went swiftly down the stairs and came on the four boys, trooping solemnly around the garden while blasting out “music” from a broken fiddle, a battered horn, a comb covered with paper, and Tad’s drum. In their midst they hauled along Jack the Doll, already bedraggled from previous encounters with the grave. The racket was enough to raise the dead, as well as lower them, and Major Watt appeared almost immediately to defend his flowerbeds.

Julie was trying with no success at all to get the boys to go elsewhere, but then Watt hit on a solution.

“Boys, why don’t you get Jack pardoned?”

The boys pounced on this. Presidential pardons had become a big story lately, with everybody wanting every guilty soldier pardoned, except the ones who didn’t; the President was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

“Come on, Bud,” Tad cried. “We’ll get Pa to fix up a pardon.”

Julie was horrified. “Don’t you dare bother the President!”

They ignored her. “Pa won’t mind!” and raced away into the White House and up the stairs toward Lincoln’s private office.

Julie pursued, trying to get them to leave the President alone. At the office, the President’s secretary, John Hay, blocked the entrance, and he and Julie began to argue with the boys to go and wait for a better time. But then the door opened, and Lincoln himself came out.

At once everybody quieted, looking up at the tall man before them, who said, “Well, boys, what is it?”

“Oh, Pa — “Tad flung himself past Hay and jumped on his father. “We want a pardon for Jack the Doll, and they say we shouldn’t bother you, but you’ll fix it up, won’t you, Pa?”

To Julie’s amazement (and Hay’s disgust) Lincoln solemnly invited the boys into the office, sat down, one leg crossed over the other, and his fingers steepled together, and said, gravely, “State your case, Tad.”

“Well, you see, Pa,” Tad said, “most every day we try Jack for being a spy or a deserter or something and then we shoot him and bury him, and Julie says it spoils his clothes, and Major Watt says it digs up his flowers, and so we thought we’d get you to fix us up a pardon.”

Lincoln at once saw the way out of this. “It’s a good law,” he said, “that no man shall twice be put in jeopardy of his life for the same offense and you’ve already shot and buried Jack a dozen times.” Turning to his desk, he wrote a few words and handed them to Tad. As the children rushed out, he said to Hay, “I only wish they were all that easy.”


Tad gave the pardon to Julie, who kept it the rest of her life. But a few days later, Jack was hanging by the neck from a tree in the orchard.

Lincoln treated all the children like grown-ups. This won them to him forever. In return they gave Lincoln what he could get nowhere else: a moment’s freedom, here and there, from the crushing responsibilities of his office and the war.


The war was hanging fire again. Lincoln had replaced the General largely responsible for the disaster at Bull Run with General George McClellan, the most celebrated officer in the country, and McClellan was drilling and disciplining the Federal Army into a spit-and-polish unit. Of course that shine would soon wear off if they had to go out and fight, which McClellan was not inclined to do.

Meanwhile, as the sweltering summer cooked the city, Mrs. Lincoln decided her sons needed some education. She had a blackboard and a writing desk installed at one end of the state dining room, on the first floor of the White House, and brought in a tutor. The two Taft boys joined Willie and Tad, there being no suitable schools anymore in Washington, and the four spent their mornings doing sums, making spelling lists, reading and reciting. Tad, of course, had no patience with the lessons and even less interest in the discipline of the schoolroom, but Willie thrived.

Willie Lincoln was his father’s pride and joy and his mother’s delight. Both of them saw themselves in him. He loved to read and write poetry — the Lincolns themselves had written poetry, including a touching tribute when their second son Eddie died, back in Springfield — and he was fascinated with trains. To the merriment of the elders he could conduct an imaginary train from New York to Chicago, hitting every stop and announcing every time.

He had an innate dignity beyond his years. One day when Prince Napoleon (a nephew of the late Emperor, but not the Emperor to come) was visiting Washington, he and Secretary of State William H. Seward arrived at the White House in a carriage to find Willie playing by himself on the round mat of lawn before the front door. Seward, with his characteristic humor, lifted his hat and made an elaborate formal bow to the President’s son. The French Prince did the same. Utterly unperturbed, Willie faced them, swept off his cap, and bent double from the waist. As they passed on, laughing, he went back to his game.

Julie loved the child’s warm heart and gift for happiness. Someone gave him a little gold dog, a watch charm; in those days men wore them like tags on their watch chains. He gave it to Julie, saying, “I will give you my little dog, Julie, because I love you, and you must keep it always.” She did. Willie, she thought later, was solid gold, although the little dog wasn’t.

Bud Taft, his boon companion, adored Lincoln, and often ran errands for the President, carrying notes here and there, and once buying him a pair of galoshes. Willie just liked being in his father’s company. In the fall Lincoln’s friend, the Senator from Oregon, Edward Baker, (for whom the little ghost Eddie Lincoln had been named) came to say goodbye; he was going out to the front lines. Baker had gone everywhere, done everything, fought in the Mexican War, practiced law and politics in Illinois and in Gold Rush California; he was one of the era’s great orators, and Lincoln loved him.

The two men talked for a while on the side lawn, Lincoln lying on the grass with his feet up against a tree trunk, and Baker walking back and forth. Nearby, Willie played in the autumn leaves, tossing them up and running through the shower, the leaves yellow, brown, red as blood. When Baker rode off, Lincoln stood a long while, looking after his friend..


A few days later Baker was dead at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, a blunder of McClellan’s which, characteristically, the General blamed on somebody else. The Lincolns were stunned with grief. Willie wrote a poem:


There was no patriot like Baker, so Noble and so true;

He fell as a soldier on the field, his face to the sky of blue.

His voice is silent in the hall, which oft his presence grac’d,

No more he’ll hear the loud acclaim, which rang from place to place.


Not bad, for a 10-year-old boy. But Baker was dead, another weight on Lincoln’s heart.


Often Julie found Lincoln in the study, staring out the window toward Virginia, or pacing up and down, and his careworn aspect woke her deepest empathy. She loved him. His grave courtesy astonished her, his utter lack of self-importance. He held the door open for her to precede him; once when she leapt up at his approach, spilling a lapful of silk scraps she was using to make a pincushion, he got down one knee and picked them up for her. The President loved her in turn, enjoyed her company, opened his life to her. Coming on her in the sitting room with her book, he would take her hand, tease her, muss her hair. One day he brought a stack of new photographs of himself to Mrs. Lincoln, and finding Julie there (she spent most of her time with Mary) asked, “Julie, do you want my picture?”

“Oh, yes, sir,” she said happily.

“Give me a kiss then and you shall have it.” He bent down to her and she pecked his cheek; she always remembered the feel of his scratchy whiskers on her lips. Lincoln put his arm around her, and they chose the picture together.

In return, she cast over him her feminine instinct to protect him. Once Tad was insisting she go into the sitting room and retrieve Jack the Doll. Julie refused. She knew Jack was there, she had seen the doll moments before under the President’s chair, but she had also seen Lincoln, stretched out in the chair, his head back, eyes shut, his long arms and legs stretched out, and “such a worn and weary look upon his face” that she drove the boys away with severe warnings if they made much noise at it.

Another time she heard a great commotion coming from the President’s sitting room, and ran to get her brothers out of there, less they disturb Lincoln. When she opened the door she came on an astonishing sight.

There was Abraham Lincoln, stretched out on his back on the floor, roaring with laughter, each arm and leg pinned down by a small boy. Seeing Julie, Tad screamed, “Julie! Come sit on his stomach and we’ll have him for sure then!” Julie turned and left them to the game, the President’s laughter echoing after her.


Christmas came. The Lincolns hosted a state dinner, sending the boys over to the Taft house, where they ran happily up and down screaming and singing and setting off firecrackers. After the formal public dinner the Lincolns had a family meal in their own dining room. Bob, the eldest son, was home from Harvard, where he was doing very well; Lincoln was proud of him, although there was a distance between them which would never close. Bob was already feeling the disadvantages to being the son of the President. People constantly berated him for not going into the army, but neither Lincoln nor Mary Lincoln would allow their boy to put on a uniform.

He was doing well at school — largely on his own initiative. When he first applied to Harvard, he flunked the entrance exams, and had to study on his own for a year to take them again and get into the college.

The little boys, Willie and Tad, with their mischief and their sunny spirits, delighted everybody. On this Christmas Day, Mary was in heaven, glorying in the sumptuous redecoration of their living quarters, the new carpets, the drapes, the ornate heavy furniture, all swagged and tasseled and fringed and figured in the best Victorian tradition. Lincoln, sitting there with his family before him, could look back on the terrible year just past and hope for better to come.

The threat to Washington had faded. The war was sputtering, but now George McClellan was commander in chief, the Little Napoleon, and surely soon he would lead his disciplined and well-armed troops out to take Richmond and end the whole thing. And whatever happened, here before Lincoln was his family, his children, the warmth of the family bond, to sustain him when the politics and the bloodshed rocked the outer world. “We were having so much bliss,” Mary wrote, later, about this Christmas.

We can hope Lincoln took this comfort, that he savored this bliss, because in a few months, it would all crumble out of his hands.



In January a few snowflakes fell on Washington, arousing in the Lincoln boys ecstatic memories of winter days in Springfield. They regaled Bud and Holly with stories of snowball fights and sledding, and the children watched eagerly as the flakes tumbled out of the sky. Unfortunately the snow didn’t stick, and soon it stopped. The boys resorted to their favorite source of play: the White House attic, where they found a box filled with the calling cards of generations of visitors.

These they flung into the air, running through the resulting showers, whooping and screaming. The cards of course made poor snowballs, although the boys did practice the enduring childish fun of sticking wads of this “snow” down each other’s shirts. The attic also provided them with an old chair, which they fixed up into a makeshift sled, and dragged full tilt around the White House.

Later Julie went up to the attic, and found the cards, which enchanted her. She picked up several of them — Louis Agassiz, Horace Mann, Jenny Lind. To the awakening mind of the girl these were like tickets of a wider world, and she kept them among her growing collection of mementoes.


People were forever giving the Lincoln boys pets — goats, dogs, rabbits, but especially ponies. In the New Year two new ponies kept the boys busy. Willie loved to ride, and Tad was fearless, although he was still so short that as he straddled his mount his legs stuck straight out to either side. It was a rainy, gloomy winter, but the boys insisted on galloping around the lawns of the White House nearly every day.

In spite of the nasty weather Mary Lincoln’s spirits also were high. She sent out invitations for a ball at the White House for February 5. She loved giving lavish entertainments, for which, as she said, all she had to do was dress properly and show up. She actually did quite a lot more than that. On this occasion, she had planned wonderful decorations — flowers from the Conservatory, splendid spun-sugar sculptures: Fort Sumter, and the battleship the Union, bristling with guns, the Stars and Stripes floating over her decks. Mary brought in a caterer from New York to oversee the food, and she invited everybody in Washington.

Then, the day of the ball, Willie fell sick.

It was too late to call off the entertainment. While the ground floor of the White House filled up with beautifully gowned women and men in formal dress, upstairs in his bedroom Willie tossed and turned in a scorching fever. His parents ran up and down the stairs, going from congenial conversation with political people to sitting stupefied and frightened beside their suffering boy.

The child fought back, recovered, was, a week after the ball, declared to be out of danger. It was Lincoln’s 52nd birthday. Even the weather seemed to improve. But then Willie relapsed. He may have had typhoid, a common source in cities without good sanitation, and Washington was surrounded by military camps dumping effluvia indiscriminately on the ground, into streams. And Willie had been sick, off and on, with other childhood diseases. When this one attacked him again, he had no strength to fight it off. By February 17, everybody knew that Willie was dying.

His mother hardly left his bedside. His father hovered over him. But it was Bud that Willie asked for, and Bud Taft came and sat beside him for the next several days, and held his hand.

Late one night, Lincoln came in and found Bud still there, and said, “You ought to go to bed, Bud.”

The little boy said, “If I go he will call for me.” Lincoln left him there. But later, when he found Bud asleep with his head on the bed, he lifted the little boy in his arms and carried him off to Bud’s own bed.

There was nothing anybody could do. Every day Willie grew weaker, paler, less responsive. On February 20, late in the afternoon, Lincoln came into his office, where his secretary, John Hay, was standing, sat down, and said, “Well, John, my boy is dead.” And lowered his head into his hands and cried.


Willie’s mother collapsed. Exhausted, hollowed out with grief, she went into convulsions, took to her bed, and cried for hours. Tad also had fallen ill, and he also was not expected to recover. Lincoln could not turn aside from his work, but for weeks later, at odd moments, he would go into a side room, bury his head in his hands, and sob. “My boy. My boy.”

Laid out in the Green Room, Willie lay in a silver and rosewood coffin, and hundreds of people came and wept and tried to console the inconsolable President. His wife and his youngest son remained in their rooms, too sick to attend the funeral. Bud came, at Lincoln’s behest, but when he saw Willie lying there he shrieked and fell down and had to be carried out. Finally the little coffin went into a vault belonging to a friend; the family intended, someday, to take it back to Springfield.

Three years later the rosewood box would make that journey, side by side with another, bigger coffin, through the mourning of the nation.

In February came the glad news that Fort Donelson had fallen to the Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant. This was the first good sign for the Union cause since the beginning of the war: Seizing Donelson and Fort Henry, on the Mississippi, the North took a long step toward controlling the whole great river and thus encircling the South. Around the same time the Tafts received unpleasant, private news. Mary Lincoln no longer wanted their presence in the White House. “Please keep the boys home,” she wrote to Mrs. Taft. “It makes me feel worse to see them.” The Tafts waited, expecting surely that they would soon be readmitted to the friendship of the President’s family, but the invitation never came. Finally, understandably upset, Taft sent his family north to New York, where they spent the rest of the war.

Lincoln had lost another hostage to fortune. By now also he knew his wife’s mind was giving way. Tad had recovered, and Lincoln devoted himself to his living son, but Tad himself never recovered his full strength, was never again the merry, wild boy who with Willie had made a playground of the White House.

Everything Lincoln loved and cherished, every source of comfort, was being stripped from him. Slowly the Providence that Taft had seen guiding Lincoln’s course was whittling him down to a single purpose: to save the country. Ahead lay three more terrible blood-soaked years, half a million more deaths, suffering, terror, and bottomless grief, in which the nation would die and be reborn, in which Lincoln would lose everything, except the war.


* * *


Julie Taft married a clergyman named Bayne, and lived out her life serving her church and her family. In later years she spoke often in public about her experiences in the Lincoln White House, and to the end of her days she kept the collection of mementos she had accumulated in that year of innocence: the gold dog, the pardon for Jack, the program for the circus, the calling cards from the attic. Her memoir, “Tad Lincoln’s Father,” is the source for most of these anecdotes. She wrote her essay many years after she last saw Lincoln, but it derives from a diary, now lost, written at the time, accounting for the extraordinary detail.

Her father, Horatio Nelson Taft, also kept a diary, recently come to light and online at memory.loc.gov/ammem/tafthtml/tafthome, which corroborates the broad outlines of his daughter’s narrative, as does the memoir of Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister, Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, “Six Months in the White House,” also written and published much later. John Hay, the President’s secretary, and his memoir, “Inside the Lincoln White House,” also supports Julie’s memories, although hardly in such detail.

Hay and his fellow Lincoln aide John Nicolay wrote “Abraham Lincoln: A History,” which is really a lengthy account of the Civil War, invaluable because of its immediacy and the inside information of its authors. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “A Team of Rivals” (Simon & Schuster, 2005) is among the best of the modern biographies, intensely readable and empathetic. Ruth Painter Randall’s book “Lincoln’s Sons” (Little, Brown, 1955) and


Harold Holzer’s “Father Abraham” (Boyds Mills Press, 2011) are longer accounts of the lives of the Lincoln boys; Julie Taft’s memoir is central to both.

The University of Illinois has published the huge amount of data collected by William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield, for his biography of the President. “Herndon’s Informants” contains hundreds of pages of statements by eyewitnesses and friends, priceless glimpses of the President expressed in the priceless voices of ordinary people. The Lincoln visible in these memories is the same man Julie Taft wrote about. She was young, but she saw true.