Thursday, June 19, 2014 12:01 am
Lincoln’s extended family
Keeping track of 18 nieces and nephews was a big part of life in Springfield
Ask someone how many nieces and nephews Lincoln had – never mind what any of their names were – and all but the most obsessive Lincoln devotees will draw a blank. These nieces and nephews get short shrift in the Lincoln story. Their births and marriages and deaths contributed to the hills and valleys of Lincoln’s emotional life; their presence helped make up its basic fabric. Today they are mere footnotes.
Of Mary Lincoln’s 13 siblings, three sisters lived in Springfield, and each of those sisters had six children, giving Lincoln a total of 18 Springfield nieces and nephews. (This does not take into account any of the children produced by Mary’s 10 siblings who remained in Kentucky.)
Mary’s eldest sister was Elizabeth Edwards, wife of aristocratic lawyer, merchant and politician Ninian W. Edwards. Ninian and Elizabeth’s first child, Julia, died in 1836 while Elizabeth was on a visit to her native Lexington, Kentucky. The Edwardses went on to have another daughter in 1837, whom they also named Julia. Son Albert, born in 1839, would be the caretaker of the Lincoln home from 1897 to his death in 1915. When she hosted the Lincolns’ wedding in November, 1842, Elizabeth Edwards was seven months pregnant with her third child, Elizabeth, who would be born the following January. Charles would follow in 1846, and Ninian Jr. was born in 1852. Ninian Jr., died at age 18 months in September of 1853. One wonders if Mary and Abraham Lincoln attended the funeral with 10-year-old Robert, two-year-old Willie, and five-month-old Tad in tow.
Mary’s next oldest sister, Frances, married Dr. William Wallace at Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards’s house on May 21, 1839. Lincoln became close to Frances and William Wallace long before he became their brother-in-law. Frances later recalled that “Mr Lincoln before he was married used to Come to our house – was attached to my eldest girl – very much so.” That little girl, Elizabeth Edwards Wallace, was born in May of 1840. A young Mary Todd refers to her in a letter of that year, saying that Fanny’s “little urchin, is almost a young lady in size.”
Little Elizabeth died on Feb. 28, 1841. Interestingly, her death came right on the tail of Lincoln’s infamous mental breakdown of 1841, scarcely a month after he informed John T. Stuart that he was “now the most miserable man living.” Lincoln and Mary were reportedly estranged during this time – how did they handle the death of a mutually beloved baby girl? Did they both attend the funeral? Did they console each other’s grief?
The Wallaces went on to have four more children: Mary in 1842, William in 1845, Frances in 1848, Edward in 1853 and Charles in 1858. Mary Lincoln seems to have had a troubled relationship with her niece Mary Wallace. After Willie’s death in 1862, Elizabeth Edwards wrote home to Springfield requesting that Mary Wallace come to Washington to spell her in taking care of the bereaved Lincolns. She had to offer numerous assurances that Mary Lincoln would treat her niece well, suggesting that this may not have been the case in the past.
Mary Lincoln’s younger sister Ann married dry goods merchant Clark Moulton Smith on Oct. 25, 1846. By the time Lincoln was elected to the presidency, four children were born to the Smith family: Clark Jr. in 1850, Edgar in 1853, Lincoln’s namesake Lincoln in 1855, and Clara in 1858. On June 12, 1860, the Smiths were devastated by the death of 10-year-old Clark Moulton Jr. from typhoid. The next day Mary Lincoln wrote a friend, “I trust never to witness such suffering ever again. He is to be buried this afternoon. The family are almost inconsolable; and for the last week I have spent the greater portion of my time, with them.” Four months later, the late Clark’s famous uncle would be elected President of the United States. The Smiths would go on to have two more children – Allen in 1863 and Minnie in 1868 – whom their famous uncle would never meet.
Erika Holst is curator of collections at the Springfield Art Association and the author of several articles on Lincoln-era Springfield.