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Gilbert: Willie's Story

02/20/12 7:55AM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) Today is both President's Day and the anniversary of an event that caused great sadness in the Lincoln White House.  Commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert has the story - not of a President, but a President's child.

(Gilbert) Eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln had had a fever for a week when his eight-year-old brother, Tad, became sick, too. Doctors assured President and Mrs. Lincoln that there was no cause for alarm, but the parents couldn't help but remember the death of their second child, three-year-old "Eddie," twelve years earlier. The President spent hours at the boys' bedsides, stroking their hair and comforting them.

The doctors said it was a bilious fever, probably typhoid, a byproduct of poor sanitation and contaminated water in Washington. Tad had been sick for a week and Willie for two weeks when, on February 20, 1862, a hundred and fifty years ago today, Willie lapsed into a coma and died.

Lincoln said to one of his private secretaries, John Nicolay, "Well, Nicolay, my boy is gone - he is actually gone." Then he broke down in tears. "He was too good for this earth."

"I know that he is much better off in heaven, " Lincoln said, " but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die."

Mary Todd Lincoln was so devastated that Lincoln worried for her health. She took to her bed for three weeks, and for months the mere mention of Willie's name was enough to bring on tumultuous weeping. She brought Spiritualists to the White House in an effort to communicate with her dead son.

People close to Lincoln wondered if he would be able to carry on. The fifteen months since his election - including almost a year as President - had been trying in the extreme. But on February 24, the New York Evening Post reported, accurately or not, that "Mr. Lincoln... is again at his ordinary duties, spending, not infrequently, eighteen out of the twenty-four hours upon the affairs of the nation."

The Lincolns had four sons. Robert Todd Lincoln, born in 1843, was the only one to live to adulthood. Edward Baker Lincoln or "Eddie," was born three years later and named after Lincoln 's close friend Senator Edward Baker, who died in combat just four months before Willie's death. Willie was the third son. And finally, there was Thomas or "Tad" Lincoln. Although he survived the bout with typhoid that killed Willie, he died of heart failure in 1871 at the age of eighteen. It was the eldest son, Robert, who eventually made his home in Vermont. It was he who built Hildene, a Georgian Revival mansion, now open to the public in Manchester. Robert died there in 1926, at the age of 82.

Five presidents have lost a child while in office. In addition to Lincoln, John Adams lost a thirty-one-year-old son, and Thomas Jefferson a twenty-five year-old daughter. Sixteen-year-old Calvin Coolidge, Jr. died in 1924 of blood poisoning from an infected blister on his foot; and two-day-old Patrick Bouvier Kennedy died in August 1963, just three months before his father.

Personal losses like these remind us that Presidents are people, too.

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