History and Soldiers See First Lady Differently
By John Lockwood (Washington Times, 7/1/06)
Mary Lincoln's place in history is seldom assessed favorably. Whether fairly or not, she usually has been depicted as a shrew, more a burden than a support to a husband whose wartime anguish already was almost beyond bearing.
There is one chapter of her story that is uplifting, however, although it was mostly overlooked even in her own day. In June 1862, the president's wife began visiting the soldiers in the hospitals around Washington, sometimes almost daily.
Her visits weren't grand media productions of the type so familiar today. Aside from an occasional snippet in the newspapers, most people didn't even know about them. Also, she didn't just sweep through the wards, spending most of her time with the higher-ups, having more of a coronation than a visit. The few surviving references clearly show that she visited the men one by one.
The first lady risked some danger in doing this because many soldiers were suffering from contagious illnesses such as typhoid fever and tuberculosis. Also, the medical profession back then had yet to accept the idea of antiseptics, and antibiotics would not appear until the mid-1900s.
During her visits, Mrs. Lincoln gave away flowers grown in the White House garden as well as what the Washington Post on Nov. 25, 1928, called “dainties prepared in the White House kitchen under her care.” Although White House staff may have helped fill her carriage and carry the goodies into the hospitals, she would give them out herself.
On one occasion, someone sent a basket of wine to the Lincolns. Like all such gifts, it went straight to the hospitals. On another occasion, on Aug. 21, 1862, the Washington Evening Star reported how an unnamed Boston merchant had donated $1,000 for the visits, “believing that in no other way would the money be better or more judiciously appropriated.”
President Lincoln helped at this point by writing to a local supplier, “Mrs. L. has $1,000.00 for the benefit of the hospitals; and she will be obliged, and send the pay, if you will be so good as to select and send here two hundred dollars worth of good lemmons [sic] [and] one hundred dollars worth of good oranges.”
Perhaps most important of all, the soldiers found comfort in having a motherly figure to talk with, rather like Eleanor Roosevelt's hospital visits during another war some 80 years later. As the June 20, 1862 Chicago Tribune phrased it, “Kind words, beautiful flowers and creature comforts she dispenses with liberality and many a poor soldier has returned her kindness with heartfelt blessings.”
The visits helped Mrs. Lincoln, too, after the loss of young Willy Lincoln, who had died on Feb. 20, 1862. She admitted she found some solace in visiting the soldiers.
There was one occasion when the gift giving went awry, though no lasting harm was done.
On Feb. 12, 1940, The Post ran an interview with a 94-year-old veteran, one Jonathan Leavitt. The young soldier had been at he Carver Hospital, near the Old Soldiers Home, recuperating from typhoid fever. The first lady gave Leavitt a few peach slices, which for some reason caused a six-month relapse.
“When she learned about it, Mrs. Lincoln came back to see me nearly every day,” Leavitt told The Post.
“The boys all loved her,” he added.
John Lockwood is a Washington writer.