February 20, 1862 – President and Mrs. Lincoln’s 12-year-old son died of what doctors called “bilious,” or typhoid, fever.
William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln had been critically ill for most of this month, with First Lady Mary Lincoln becoming increasingly hysterical as his condition worsened. Doctors tending to him speculated that the unsanitary conditions in the White House may have caused his illness. Willie finally succumbed at 5 p.m. on the 20th. This was the second of four sons the Lincolns lost; Edward Baker Lincoln had died of “consumption” at age three in 1850.
Mary Lincoln was inconsolable, prompting some to wonder if she had gone insane. For President Lincoln, this tragedy offset the recent military victories in the Western Theater. He visited his secretary, John Nicolay, after Willie’s death and said, “Well, Nicolay, my boy is gone–he is actually gone!” Sobbing, Lincoln went to tend to his eight-year-old son Tad, who was also suffering from Willie’s illness. Tad eventually recovered.
The president conducted no official business for four days, during which time he received a letter of condolence from General-in-Chief George B. McClellan:
“You have been a kind true friend to me in the midst of the great cares and difficulties by which we have been surrounded during the past few months. Your confidence has upheld me when I should otherwise have felt weak. I am pushing to prompt completion the measures of which we have spoken, and I beg that you will not allow military affairs to give you a moment’s trouble.”
Funeral services for Willie took place in the White House at 2 p.m. on the 24th. Congress adjourned for that day so members could attend the services in the midst of one of the worst wind and rainstorms in Washington history. Willie was temporarily interred in Oak Hill Cemetery at Georgetown before he could be permanently buried in Springfield. The president quickly returned to work while he continued grieving.
Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 74; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 122, 131, 133; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7076-87; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 251; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 112; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 418-19; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 167-68, 173-75; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q162