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Lincoln's Rebel Relatives: Trouble with the In-Laws

By Erick Bush

 

It was exciting to have had the opportunity to speak at this year's Lincoln Weekend. With my long-time interest in the Civil War in Alabama, it was important to me to speak about a fascinating intersection between Abraham Lincoln and the Confederate involvement of many of his in-laws.


The Todd family was a wealthy slave holding family from Lexington, Kentucky, and two of Mary Todd Lincoln's half-sisters married prominent men from Selma, Alabama. Martha Todd White and Elodie Todd Dawson were both fierce supporters of secession. The husband of Elodie Todd, Abraham Lincoln's brother-in-law Nathaniel H.R. Dawson, was a prominent member of the Alabama Secession Convention, and later became a Captain of Company C of the 4th Alabama Infantry Regiment. The Todd sisters were also part of a group which made a flag for Selma's "Magnolia Cadets" at the beginning of the Civil War. In fact, the Confederate unit's flag was publicly introduced as being "made by the sisters of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln."

 

Besides the Todd family connections to Alabama, Emilie Todd Helm of Lexington, Kentucky was another Lincoln sister-in-law married to Confederate Brigadier General Benjamin H. Helm (pictured). It must have been an especially significant area of concern for Lincoln to have a Confederate general in the family. General Helm was eventually killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863. After the death of General Helm, Martha Todd White wanted her sister Emilie to stay with her in Alabama. The two sisters were also allowed to pass through Union lines to spend a month in Washington, mourning with Mary Todd Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln never received the two Todd sisters in an official capacity as President, but Confederate family members staying at the White House

caused a sensation in the Northern press.

 

Lincoln also had many other Confederate in-laws in uniform. Lieutenant Alexander Todd, who was killed during the Battle of Batas Rouge, was in the famous Kentucky "Orphan Brigade." He was reported to have been Mary Todd Lincoln's favorite brother. Another brother-in-law was Captain David Todd who was wounded during the Battle of First Manassas. He was later assigned to Libby Prison in Richmond, where there was an allegation of harsh treatment of Union prisoners which served as a source of great embarrassment for the Lincoln family. Colonel George Rogers Clark Todd served as a high ranking doctor for a Kentucky unit in the Confederate Army. Samuel Todd was mortally wounded at the Battle of Shiloh.

 

Along with my talk, the second morning's other discussions on "Lincoln and Shakespeare" and "The Oratory of the Gettysburg" all proved to be excellent companions. Combined with the other discussions of Lincoln's wartime leadership, all the presentations proved how complex and fascinating the Union leader's personality and family interactions were.