LINCOLN IN MOURNING
The war was not going well. With General McClellan dodging battle and little news from Grant in Tennessee, the Union settled in for a long, savage war. But on a mid-February evening in 1862, guests at the White House were more concerned about the Lincolns.
First Mary, then the president left the gala. Each went upstairs, returning to the chandeliered room, grim-faced, hollow-eyed. Rumors spread that the Lincoln's son was sick. Very sick.
The 2017 Booker Prize novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, puts Lincoln in a graveyard purgatory. Author George Saunders spices history with fantasy, letting an assortment of souls help the grieving president mourn. According to the novel, Lincoln even exhumed the boy's body to hold him. "When a child is lost there is no end to the self-torment a parent may inflict," Saunders writes. But what really happened when the president's son was interred, not in the Buddhist netherworld called the Bardo, but in history?
Willie Lincoln was the president's favorite. Eldest son, Robert, was "a Todd and not a Lincoln," a friend observed. "His mother's baby all through." Eight-year-old Tad was an imp, racing around the White House, bursting into cabinet meetings, charging an "entrance fee" to stairwells. But Willie "was the true picture of Mr. Lincoln in every way," one observer noted. Lincoln and Willie often held hands. Lincoln, a Springfield neighbor said, "was fonder of that boy than he was of anything else."
The president was not the only admirer. Blue-eyed and serene, Willie was: "the most lovable boy I ever knew;" "studious and intellectual;" "ambitious to know everything, always asking questions, always busy."
Willie had been born in grief. Ten months before his birth, the Lincolns had buried another son, Eddie, age four. Mary Lincoln broke down, spending weeks in bed, but Willie soon became "her comfort," and she expected, "the hope and stay of her old age." The White House lay in wait.
In 1862, the president's home was a "dirty, rickety concern," festering with mosquitoes in summer, foul odors year-round. The basement teemed with rats and sludge. Everyone knew the house was unhealthy, but no one thought it lethal. Then Willie and Tad came down with typhoid fever.
Tad rallied, but Willie's fever ignited. His moans filled the White House. For days on end, the president and First Lady took turns by his bedside, mopping his forehead. The war had to wait. An aide saw Lincoln "worn out with grief and watching."
At 5 p.m. on February 20, Willie Lincoln, age 11, died. The president stood over the body, sobbing. Moments later he went to Tad's room to deliver the news. His "two little codgers" would never again hunt "rebs" from their fort on the White House roof.
Days later, the White House went black. Black crepe adorned frames and doorways. Willie Lincoln lay in the Green Room, one hand clutching a bouquet, the president towering over the open casket. "My poor boy," Lincoln said. "He was too good for this earth. . . We loved him so much. It is hard, hard to have him die!"
It was harder still on Mary. Confined to her bed, she flirted with madness. Once Lincoln took her to a window to point out a nearby asylum. "Mother, do you see that large white building on the hill yonder? Try and console your grief or it will drive you mad and we may have to send you there." A balm of religion and spiritualism, including séances in the White House, helped Mary go on, but the Lincolns never fully recovered.
"Do you ever find yourself talking with the dead?" Lincoln asked an officer. "Since Willie's death I catch myself every day involuntarily talking with him, as if he were with me." And with the war finally won, he said to Mary, "We must both be more cheerful in the future -- between the war and the loss of our darling Willie, we have both been very miserable." Hours later, the Lincolns went to Ford's Theater.
As in Saunders' novel, Lincoln often visited Oak Lawn Cemetery, but historians doubt he held his son's body. Still, tragedy changed the president and the war.
"Willie’s death might have been, in its way, the turning point of the Civil War," historian Harold Holzer noted. "After he was gone, his father buried his pain and inflicted it as needed to guarantee victory."
The novelist agrees. Touching bottom, Saunders' Lincoln comes to realize "that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone.”
Lincoln never wrote of Willie's death. He clung, instead, to a favorite poem -- "Mortality."
'Tis the wink of an eye, 'tis the fraught of a breath,
From the blossoms of health, to the paleness of death,
From the gilded saloon, to the bier and the shroud
Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?