The Death of Willie Lincoln

William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln was the 12-year-old son of President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. He had been critically ill for most of February with what doctors called “bilious,” or typhoid, fever. Doctors tending to him speculated that the unsanitary conditions in the White House may have caused his illness. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln became increasingly hysterical as Willie’s condition worsened. The boy finally succumbed at 5 p.m. on February 20.

This was the second of four sons the Lincolns lost; Edward Baker Lincoln had died of “consumption” at age three in 1850. Mrs. 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 the same illness that Willie had. 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. The president was accompanied by his adult son Robert and the two senators from Illinois. Willie was temporarily interred in Oak Hill Cemetery at Georgetown before he could be permanently buried in Springfield. Mrs. Lincoln, still hysterical with grief, could not attend.

Willie Lincoln | Image Credit:

According to painter Francis Bicknell Carpenter, this was “the most crushing affliction Mr. Lincoln had ever been called upon to pass through.” Although he quickly returned to work, the president kept to himself every Thursday “for the indulgence of his grief” over the next several weeks.


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