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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Robert Lincoln at the White House

While Robert Lincoln was often away at Harvard University for many months during the Abraham Lincoln administration, his brief visits to see his family in Washington, D.C., at both the White House and their nearby summer retreat, the Soldiers’ Home, provide insight into the domestic life of the Lincoln family and the coming-of-age of the president’s oldest son, born in 1843.

Known as the “Prince of Rails,” a nickname playing off his father’s “rail-splitter” moniker, President Lincoln’s eldest son was once described by a newspaper correspondent as “a young man of modest and agreeable manners, quiet, and with a very good share of his father’s sagacity and kindness.”1

Shortly after his father was elected president, Robert wrote to his mother Mary Todd on December 2, 1860, noting “I see by the papers that you have been to Chicago. Aint you beginning to get a little tired of this constant uproar?”2 Robert participated in the Lincoln family’s inaugural celebrations. As the rest of the Lincoln family acclimated to life at the White House, Robert returned to school and as one newspaper reported, “kept at his studies, instead of being allowed to spoil at Court.”3

Robert Lincoln

Library of Congress

He was present, however, at notable White House events such as the August 3, 1861 dinner in honor of Prince Napoleon, and came to Washington for a February 5, 1862 White House party.4 One sad episode involved Robert attending the February 1862 funeral services of his brother Willie.

Robert returned home in July 1863 after his mother was injured in a carriage accident. On July 3, the president wrote to his son, “Don’t be uneasy. Your mother very slightly hurt by her fall.” On July 11, however, the president’s messages became more urgent when he sent Robert Lincoln, who was in New York at the time, a message simply stating “Come to Washington.”5

After a brief stay in Washington, however, Robert departed on a trip to Fort Monroe with the family of Secretary of State William Seward.6 Although he was not a constant presence at the Executive Mansion, Robert’s familial position allowed for a unique perspective of his father. After the escape of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Gettysburg, John Hay, President Lincoln’s assistant secretary and friend of Robert Lincoln recalled, “R.T.L. says the President is grieved silently but deeply about the escape of Lee. He said ’If I had gone up there I could have whipped them myself.’ I know he had that idea.”7

In January 1864, President Lincoln warned his son about a growing epidemic before his visit to the capital city, writing: “There is a good deal of small-pox here. Your friends must judge for themselves whether they ought to come or not.”8 Concern for the well-being of his eldest son continued, possibly a consequence of Willie Lincoln’s premature death earlier in the administration. On October 11, with much of Lincoln’s time occupied by the upcoming election, he wrote to Robert, “Your letter makes us a little uneasy about your health. Telegraph us how you are. If you think it would help you make us a visit.”9

Engraving of the Lincoln family with Robert in uniform.

Library of Congress

Artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter spent much time at the White House as he worked on his painting, First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln. In his memoir chronicling the story of his painting, Carpenter recalled Robert Lincoln’s frustration at his father’s lack of discipline regarding his younger brother, Tad.

While at the White House, Robert Lincoln spent much time with John Hay, even eating cheese and drinking whiskey to pass the time.10 After the Battle of Fort Stevens in 1864, Hay and Robert walked about the battlefield and spoke to the soldiers stationed nearby.11 Before the battle, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton recalled the Lincoln family from the Soldiers’ Home to the White House for increased protection during the night of July 10, 1864. John Hay remembered Robert Lincoln arriving at his room shortly after midnight, explaining the situation to him.12

While Robert desired to go into the army, Mary Lincoln fostered great apprehension over this and the potential of losing another son. Nevertheless, in early 1865, she acquiesced to Robert taking a staff position as a captain under General Ulysses Grant. Despite entering the army, he received criticism over his staff assignment with one newspaper exclaiming “It would be more manly in him if he were to go in as a private soldier. That would be good.”13 Despite the criticism, Robert presented himself well while in service, proudly wearing his uniform to his father’s second inaugural reception in 1865.14

The North Front of the White House as it appeared during the Abraham Lincoln administration.

Library of Congress

Robert was present beside the deathbed of his father after his assassination at Ford’s Theatre. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recalled that he “bore himself well, but on two occasions gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, turning his head and leaning on the shoulder of Senator Sumner.”15 In the aftermath of the president’s death, Elizabeth Keckly, dressmaker and confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln, remembered Robert as “very tender to his mother in the days of her sorrow. He suffered deeply, as his haggard face indicated, but he was ever manly and collected when in the presence of his mother.”16

Robert attended the funeral of his father at the White House in April 1865 while his grief-stricken mother remained upstairs. After the death of his father, Robert served as Secretary of War and Minister to Great Britain.17 On May 30, 1922, the 78-year-old son of Abraham Lincoln was present at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. He died in 1926.