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Mary Todd Lincoln – Judged Unfairly by History?

By many historical accounts, Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of the 16thPresident of the United States, is portrayed as emotional, irrational, difficult, and spoiled. In all fairness, she might have been these things, but the explanations for the reasons behind these behaviors varies.

As a teenager, Miss Todd’s contemporaries described her as kind, intelligent, well-educated and vivacious.

Mary Todd LincolnMary grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, a town her family helped found. The daughter of a wealthy merchant or banker (accounts vary), Mary had every luxury a young girl in the 1800s could want. Her parents, Robert Todd and Elizabeth Parker Todd raised their children in comfort and refinement. However, wealth did not provide much happiness for Mary after the death of her mother who died while giving birth to her seventh child. Robert Todd soon remarried and Mary, at age six, did not get on well with her step-mother.

Despite her unhappy home life, Mary received an excellent education and excelled in school where she mastered the French language and studied dance, drama, music, and social skills. She also showed a keen interest in politics.

As a young woman, Mary moved to Springfield, Illinois to live with her married sister, Elizabeth Porter Edwards. Outgoing and social, she soon became popular among the blue-bloods of Illinois and had many beaus. Among them, a young lawyer Stephen A. Douglas, the man who would run against her future husband for the presidency. But, Mary chose Abraham Lincoln, much to the concern of her family who thought she married beneath her.

Mary and Abraham shared a love of literature and politics, and their endearment for one another lasted until his untimely death.

Though very much in love, the Lincoln’s experienced more than their share of loss with the death of two of their sons; Edward (Eddie) at age four, and William (Willie) at age fourteen. William died while the Lincoln’s lived in the white house, three years before his father.

During her time as First Lady, Mary came under intense scrutiny. Coming from a Confederate family didn’t help her cause. Mary’s family had been slaveholders and several of her half-brothers served in the Confederate army during the war. Some accused her of being a Confederate spy. Fiercely loyal to her husband, she always supported his views and his quest to end slavery and save the Union.

For much of her adult life, Mary suffered from migraines and depression. The migraines became more frequent and more intense after a carriage accident during her time in the white house. Mary’s depression worsened after the death of the couple’s son Willie in 1862. Despondent and overcome by grief, Mary experienced wild mood swings and was prone to temperamental outbursts—sometimes in public. To assuage her grief, she also explored spiritualism and used mediums to reach out to her dead sons, and later her dead husband. All of this added up to a kind of “female hysteria” in the public’s opinion.

Mary also came under criticism for her spending habits. During Lincoln’s presidency, she completed a lavish redecorating of the white house. Probably not a good idea as money was needed to fight the war. She also spared no expense in expanding her wardrobe to include fine silks and lace. Perhaps as first lady, she felt she needed these things to be presentable on the arm of her husband while he went about the business of being President, but others didn’t see it that way.

As one could imagine, when her husband was shot at point blank right in front of her and then later died from his wounds, the state of Mary’s mental health did not improve.

As a widow, Mary returned to Illinois to be nearer to her two surviving sons, but when Thomas (Tad) died in 1871, grief overwhelmed her again. Her son Robert Lincoln became alarmed at his mother’s increasingly strange behavior. He had her committed to an asylum, but her depression did not improve. She experienced fever, headaches, gait problems, delusions and hallucinations. After a year in the asylum and many imploring letters to her lawyer and finally the Chicago Times, Mary was released to the custody of her sister. Shortly after, she took up residence in France to escape further public scrutiny, and her estranged son Robert, who controlled her finances.

Her health continued to decline and after four years in Europe, she returned to her sister’s household and died in 1882.

Many historians contribute Mary’s odd behavior for some thirty years to bipolar disorder, but it has also been suggested that she suffered from pernicious anemia—a vitamin B12 deficiency. She might have suffered from both.

It is hard to imagine what it must be like to be the wife of a president, or a country’s leader, especially during a Civil war. Given the difficulty of Mary’s life before she became First Lady, and certainly with the pressures she endured after with the death of three children and her husband, in addition to physical and emotional health issues, it’s no wonder she seemed a little off her rocker.

Although not one of the most popular First Ladies in history, Mary Todd Lincoln can be remembered as a devoted wife and mother, and loyal to her role in the white house. Despite illness, incomprehensible grief, and public disapproval, she showed fortitude in keeping up the good fight and enduring despite it all.

Interesting Facts About Harriet Tubman (Part 2)

More Interesting Facts About Harriet Tubman! (Read part 1 here.)

She never lost a passenger on the Underground Railroad.

Having reached safety in Philadelphia, Harriet felt confident she could help others. She became involved in the Underground Railroad. She immediately returned to Maryland to rescue her family. Working slowly, one group at a time, she freed her immediate family and distant relatives. Dubbed  “Moses” for the deliverance of her people, Harriet made twelve to thirteen missions to free approximately 70 more slaves.

Harriet always carried a gun and was not above threatening anyone with immediate death who aimed to stop her crusade—even the slaves she rescued if they got scared and wanted to turn back.

She became a nurse, scout, and a spy for the Union forces during the Civil War.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Harriet wanted to join the Union cause to end slavery. Hearing of her heroism in freeing her people, and known for her intelligence and bravery, a group of Boston and Philadelphia abolitionists in Port Royal brought her on. She nursed the soldiers suffering from dysentery and smallpox.

In 1863, the group, under the orders of Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, and Harriet lead a band of scouts through the marshes and rivers of South Carolina, providing intelligence on the enemy. She was the first woman to lead an armed assault when Colonel James Montgomery raided plantations along the Combahee River. They freed over 750 slaves.

She joined the Suffragist movement.

Harriet TubmanLater in life, Harriet became involved with the cause for women’s suffrage. She would join forces with women such as Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland. She traveled to various cities on the East coast speaking in favor of the rights of women. In 1896, at the founding of the National Federation of Afro-American Women, Harriet served as the keynote speaker for their first meeting. The following year, a series of receptions took place in Boston, honoring Harriet for her years of service.

She refused anesthesia when she had brain surgery.

Due to the head injury she suffered as a child, Harriet, in her older years, developed insomnia due to the pain and buzzing in her head. She elected to have brain surgery to relieve the condition, but refused to be anesthetized and instead opted to “bite down on a bullet,” as she had seen many soldiers do for surgery in the Civil War. The operation did give her some relief making her more comfortable.

She Died in Poverty.

Harriet never received any kind of salary for her service. Any money she made she used for her humanitarian work to help former slaves and her family. She purchased a small property in Auburn, New York, and provided shelter for most of her family and some friends. She took in boarders to help pay the bills. In 1873, she was swindled out of money in a gold deal, leaving her penniless.

In 1895, after an initial denial from the government, Harriet received the pension of her second husband, Nelson Charles Davis, and then in 1898, she petitioned Congress for her own service in the Civil War. Finally, a year later, she received a pension of twenty dollars per month for her service as a nurse.

Because of mounting debts, in 1903, she donated her Auburn property to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church under the condition they convert it to a home for aged and indigent people of color. The plan finally came to fruition five years later.

In 1911, Harriet’s body started to give out on her and she retired to the rest home she’d helped establish. At the time, a New York reporter described her  as “ill and penniless.”

She died in 1913, of pneumonia, surrounded by friends and family members.

Harriet Tubman did not receive the recognition she deserved while she lived, but history remembers her as an empowered woman of grit and integrity, who helped change the lives of her contemporaries, and the mindset of those who came after her.

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Interesting Facts About Harriet Tubman (Part 1)

Historians cannot agree on her birthdate.

Harriet Tubman’s birthdate seems to be a mystery, even (as records show) to her. Birth records of slaves were not often kept. The earliest date noted for Harriet’s birth, which appears on her death certificate, is 1815. A midwifery statement, and later a “slave runaway” advertisement states it as 1820. Her gravestone lists 1820. In her Civil War widow’s pension records, Tubman herself claims the date of her birth to be 1820, 1822, and 1825.

Growing up friends and family called her “Minty.”

Born Araminta Harriet Ross, her parents, Harriet “Rit” Green and Ben Ross called her Minty. She later changed her name to Harriet. Some records indicate she took the name Harriet when she married, and others state it happened when she escaped slavery.

She learned about resistance from her mother.

Harriet’s family, like many other slave families, suffered lifelong separation. Three of her sisters were sold to other families. When a slave trader from Georgia approached her family’s owner, Mr. Edward Brodess, about buying Minty’s younger brother, Rit, Minty’s mother, would not relent. With the help of other slaves and former slaves, she hid the boy away for a month. The trader came back, and when Brodess brought him to the slave quarters to take the child, Rit threatened to “split his head open.” Brodess relented and agreed not to sell the child.

She had visions which she claimed were revelations from God.

Harriet TubmanHarriet had a deep devotion to God. Never having learned to read or write, Harriet grew up hearing Bible stories from her mother. She liked the stories of deliverance in the Old Testament.

Early in her life, Minty’s owner often hired her out to other families. On one such occasion, when she ran an errand to the dry-goods store for supplies, she witnessed a skirmish between the store owner and a slave who had left the fields without permission. While trying to restrain the slave, the owner demanded that Minty help. She refused. As the other slave ran away, the owner threw a two-pound weight at him, but missed, hitting Minty in the head, splitting her skull. The injury resulted in seizures, visions, and vivid dreams which she felt were messages from God.

She escaped from slavery twice.

Harriet married for the first time around the year 1844 to John Tubman, a free African American man. There is no record of them having children together. Harriet’s head injury caused health problems for her for the rest of her life. She was often sick, and this made her not as valuable as a slave. When her owner died, his wife set out to sell many of her slaves, and because she had health problems, Harriet knew she would be one of the first to go. She figured escape made better sense, but her husband tried to talk her out of it, stating he refused to accompany her.

In the Fall of 1849, Harriett and her brothers, all hired out to the same farm, devised a plan for escape. Two weeks after their escape, Harriet’s owner, Eliza Brodess, posted a runaway notice in the Cambridge Democrat, offering a reward for each slave. Fearful of the repercussions if they continued, her brothers turned back. Harriet had no choice but to return with them.

Determined to have her freedom, she escaped again—this time alone. She utilized the Underground Network, a freedom network ran by enslaved and free African Americans, and white abolitionists—most prominently, the Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers. She made the 90-mile journey by night, traveling for several weeks, and finally made it to Pennsylvania and into freedom. This set her on a path that would change her life and the lives of so many others.

(Come back next week for more Interesting Facts About Harriet Tubman!)