Mary Todd Lincoln’s Sister Dines at White House

December 20, 1863/2013
Volume 4, Issue 51 (167 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Mary Todd Lincoln’s Half-Sister Dines at the White House in December 1863

In December 1863, three months after the death of her husband, Confederate General Ben Hardin Helm, at the Battle of Chickamauga, Emilie Helm, who was Mrs. Lincoln’s much younger half-sister, was visiting the White House. She wrote in her diary:

Emilie Todd Helm, Mary Todd Lincoln's half-sister, courtesy Mr. Lincoln's White House

Emilie Todd Helm, Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-sister, courtesy Mr. Lincoln’s White House

Mr. Lincoln and my sister met me with the warmest affection, we were all too grief-stricken at first for speech. . . . Sister and I dined intimately, alone. Our tears gathered silently and fell unheeded as with choking voices we tried to talk of immaterial things. . . . Sister has always a cheery word and a smile for Mr. Lincoln, who seems thin and care-worn and seeing her sorrowful would add to his care. . . . Sister Mary’s tenderness for me is very touching. She and Brother Lincoln pet me as if I were a child, and, without words, try to comfort me.

. . . General[ Dan] Sickles. . . . said in a loud, dictatorial voice, slapping the table with his hand, “You should not have that rebel in your house.”

Mr. Lincoln instantly drew himself up and said in a quiet, dignified voice, “Excuse me, General Sickles, my wife and I are in the habit of choosing our own guests. We do not need from our friends either advice or assistance in the matter. Besides,” he added, “the little ‘rebel’ came because I ordered her to come, it was not of her own volition.” . . . Mr. Lincoln, in the intimate talks we had was very much affected over the misfortunes of our family; and of my husband he said, “You know, Little Sister, I tried to have Ben come with me. I hope you do not feel any bitterness or that I am in any way to blame for all this sorrow.” I answered it was “the fortune of war” and that while my husband loved him and had been deeply grateful to him for his generous offer to make him an officer in the Federal Army, he had to follow his conscience and that for weal or woe he felt he must side with his own people. Mr. Lincoln put his arms around me and we both wept.


From Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., et al. Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography, pp. 224-5.

Vermont Town Enjoys its First Christmas Tree and Works to Make Christmas a Happy Time for Children Despite the War

In 1913, St. Johnsbury, Vermont resident Sarah French set down her memories of Christmas 1862, 151 years ago. She wrote:

Fifty years ago people in St. Johnsbury spent little time in merrymaking, or in social functions of any kind, The country was in throes of the Civil War and there were few families where there was not a vacant chair and anxious hearts awaiting news from the battle fields.

The weekly Caledonian of December 19 and December 26 [1862] carried long lists of the Union soldiers from Vermont killed and wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Pink teas, luncheons or seven course dinners formed no part of social life and busy women spent much time making garments, rolling bandages, and scraping lint for wounded soldiers.

Not withstanding all this, it came to the minds of some of the kind people of the South Church that it was not right to shut out the children from the joys that rightly belonged to them. “Let us make the coming Christmas a happy time.” The plan was heartily endorsed and soon took shape. “It shall be a Christmas in the Church.” There were no department stores or art stores from which we might make choice of gifts and so loving fingers wrought and the needles flew merrily in willing hands and the pile of gifts grew apace.

. . .

As the time drew near Mr. Jewett began to fear we might be lacking things to go around. So he made a hurried trip to Boston where he invaded toy shops, and book stores, confectioners and fruit dealers, and when he returned we could see the successful conclusion of our labors.

Two tall fir trees found their places in front of the pulpit, and verily fir trees never bore such fruit before, at least in St. Johnsbury. . . .

Christmas was cold as Christmas should be and the hills were white with snow and Christmas Eve found the South Church full of happy expectant children and equally happy grown folks.

The trees fairly groaned with their burdens and underneath stood a huge basket filled with oranges, a great treat in those days, for Florida and California had not emptied their treasures of fruits into our markets and our oranges came from the Mediterranean or the West Indies.

Our pastor Rev. Lewis O. Brastow, who had recently returned home from nearly a year of service as chaplain of the Twelfth Vermont Regiment, was a bachelor and was a target for many gifts, books for his library, a dressing gown and slippers enough for a centipede. The Superintendent received a gold headed cane such as Superintendent are apt to have. Teachers had books and the children had just those things that children love, toys and games for the winter evenings, story books and boxes of candy.

Bright eyes and shining faces showed their appreciation of the gifts and when the senior class of elderly men led by Mr. [James K.] Colby of blessed memory, with Deacon Arnold Hutchinson, Levi Harlow and Francis Brigham received copies in most effulgent colors of the choicest of the nursery classics, “The Hare and The Tortoise,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and others. Their faces were wreathed in smiles and I do not believe an Encyclopedia or a Webster Unabridged Dictionary would have been more acceptable.

The Candles burned low as we wished one another a Merry Christmas and wended our ways home. And so it was that the South Church in 1863 celebrated the birthday of our lord.


Transcribed by Lynn A. Bonfield and published in the North Star Monthly, December 2010. This entry was submitted by Lynn A. Bonfield.

Editor’s note: This entry was submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council, executive director

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1863

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