Mrs. Lincoln was too grief-stricken immediately to vacate the White house after her husband’s death. Unlike her son Robert, she did not take the train to Springfield, Illinois for President Lincoln’s burial. She was coherent enough, however, to veto internment of President Lincoln’s body at a site in the center of Springfield preferred by the city’s leaders. She remained in Washington for several weeks, dealing with her grief and packing up her family’s possessions. Among the things she gave away was a walking stick, which she presented to abolitionist Frederick Douglass. White House seamstress Elizabeth Keckley lived through not only the packing up, but also the process of trying to sell some of Mrs. Lincoln’s clothes in subsequent months:
In packing, Mrs. Lincoln gave away everything intimately connected with the President, as she said that she could not bear to be reminded of the past. The articles were given to those who were regarded as the warmest of Mr. Lincoln’s admirers. All of the presents passed through my hands. The dress that Mrs. Lincoln wore on the night of the assassination was given to Mrs. Slade, the wife of an old and faithful messenger. The cloak, stained with the President’s blood, was given to me, as also was the bonnet worn on the same memorable night. Afterwards I received the comb and brush that Mr. Lincoln used during his residence at the White House. With this same comb and brush I had often combed his head. When almost ready to go down to a reception, he would turn to me with a quizzical look: ‘Well, Madam Elizabeth, will you brush my bristles down to-night?’
‘Yes, Mr. Lincoln.’
Then he would take his seat in an easy-chair, and sit quietly while I arranged his hair. As may well be imagined, I was only too glad to accept this comb and brush from the hands of Mrs. Lincoln. The cloak, bonnet, comb, and brush, the glove worn at the first reception after the second inaugural, and Mr. Lincoln’s over-shoes, also given to me, I have since donated for the benefit of Wilberforce University, a colored college near Xenia, Ohio, destroyed by fire on the night that the president was murdered.
There was much surmise, when Mrs. Lincoln left the White House, what her fifty or sixty boxes, not to count her score of trunks, could contain. Had the government not been so liberal in furnishing the boxes, it is possible that there would have been less demand for so much transportation. The boxes were loosely packed, and many of them with articles not worthy carrying away. Mrs. Lincoln had a passion for hoarding old things, believing, with Toodles, that they were ‘handy to have about the house.’
The bonnets that she brought with her from Springfield, in addition to every one purchased during her residence in Washington, were packed in the boxes, and transported to Chicago. She remarked that she might find use for the material some day, and it was prudent to look to the future. I am sorry to say that Mrs. Lincoln’s foresight in regard to the future was only confined to cast-off clothing, as she owed, at the time of the President’s death, different store bills amounting to seventy thousand dollars. Mr. Lincoln knew nothing of these bills, and the only happy feature of his assassination was that he died in ignorance of them. Had he known to what extent his wife was involved, the fact would have embittered the only pleasant moments of his life. I disclose this secret in regard to Mrs. Lincoln’s debts, in order to explain why she should subsequently have labored under pecuniary embarrassment. The children, as well as herself, had received a vast number of presents during Mr. Lincoln’s administration, and these present constituted a large item in the contents of the boxes. The only article of furniture, so far as I know, taken away from the White House by Mrs. Lincoln, was a little dressing-stand used by the President. I recollect hearing him say one day:
‘Mother, this little stand is so handy, and suits me so well, that I do not know how I shall get along without it when we move away from here.’ He was standing before a mirror, brushing his hair, when he made the remark.
‘Well, father,’ Mrs. Lincoln replied, ‘if you like the stand so well, we will take it with us when we go away.’
‘Not for the world,’ he exclaimed; but she interrupted him:
‘I should like to know what difference it makes if we put a better one in its place.’
‘That alters the question. If you will put a stand its place worth twice as much as this one, and the Commissioners consents, then I have no objection.’
Mrs. Lincoln remembered these words, and with the consent of the Commissioners, took the stand to Chicago with her for the benefit of little Tad. Another stand, I must not forget to add, was put in its place.
It is charged that a great deal of furniture was lost from the White House during Mr. Lincoln’s occupation of it. Very true, and it can be accounted for in this way: In some respects, to put the case very plainly, Mrs. Lincoln was ‘penny wise and pound foolish.’ When she moved into the White House, she discharged the Steward, whose business it was to look after the affairs of the household. When the Steward was dismissed, there was no one to superintend affairs, and the servants carried away many pieces of furniture. In this manner the furniture rapidly disappeared.
Robert was frequently in the room where the boxes were being packed, and he tried without avail to influence his mother to set fire to her vast stores of old goods. ‘What are you going to do with that old dress, mother? he would ask.
‘Never mind, Robert, I will find use for it. You do not understand this business.’
‘And what is more, I hope I never may understand it. I wish to heaven the car would take fire in which you place these boxes for transportation to Chicago, and burn all of your old plunder up;’ and then, with an impatient gesture, he would turn on his heel and leave the room.
‘Robert is so impetuous,’ his mother would say to me, after the closing of the door. ‘He never thinks about the future. Well, I hope that he will get over his boyish notions in time.’
Many of the articles that Mrs. Lincoln took away from the White House were given, after he arrival in Chicago, for the benefit of charity fairs.
At last everything was packed, and the day for departure for the West came. I can never forget that day; it was so unlike the day when the body of the President was borne from the hall in grand and solemn state. Then thousands gathered to bow the head in reverence as the plumed hearse drove down the line. There was all the pomp of military display–drooping flags, battalions with reversed arms, and bands playing dirge-like airs. Now, the wife of the President was leaving the White House, and there was scarcely a friend to tell her good-by. She passed down the public stairway, entered her carriage, and quietly drove to the depot where we took the cars. The silence was almost painful.1
Journalist Noah Brooks, who was close to Mrs. Lincoln, reported in mid-May that “nearly all of the preparations for departure have been made. No President ever received so many tokens of good will from the people as did our late lamented Lincoln; and these gifts, packed for transportation, comprise more than two car loads of bulky boxes – a single set of dining ware being large enough to require three hogs heads in packing. This was a gift from a gentleman in Philadelphia, who had the war made to order, the Lincoln initials being beautifully emblazoned thereon in a monogram. Beside this were gifts of paintings, photographs, statuary and others works of art and virtue – some of them very beautiful, and so numerous that Mrs. Lincoln intends to have a sort of museum attached to her future residence, so that all persons may see these gifts, under proper restrictions and regulations.”2
Benjamin Brown French, the federal commissioner of public buildings, wrote in his May 24, 1864 diary: “Mrs. Mary Lincoln left the City Monday evening at 6 o’clock, with her sons Robert & Tad (Thomas). I went up and bade her good-by, and felt really very sad, although she has given me a world of trouble. I think the sudden and awful death of the President somewhat unhinged her mind, for at times she has exhibited all the symptoms of madness. She is a most singular woman, and it is well for the nation that she is no longer in the White House.”3
French was called to the Capitol in mid-January, 1866 to testify about the disappearance of Washington furnishings. He recorded in his diary on January 14: “At the Capitol all day yesterday – before the Committee on appropriations of the House for two hours….No evidence was elicited that Mrs. Lincoln carried away anything in the 75 to 100 boxes that she packed and took with her to Illinois. I think the Committee have abandoned further investigation. Thank God I knew nothing as to what she took. All I know is what was left when the house came into President Johnson’s possession, and, so far as beds and bedding and table linen & the necessary housekeeping utensils are concerned[,] there was absolutely nothing left. I had to purchase an entire new ‘set out.’ But where the things went I do not pretend to know. Rumors say that a great many were sold by Mrs. L.[,] but no evidence of the fact, at all reliable, has ever come to me.”4
- Keckley, Behind the Scenes, pp. 205-208
- Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 197 (May 17, 1865.)
- Donald B. Cole and John J. McDonough, editors, Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, 1828-1870, p. 479.
- Cole and McDonough, Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, 1828-1870, p. 498.