Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review: Lincoln's Confederate "Little Sister:"Emily Todd Helm by Stuart Sanders.

Stuart Sanders, the author of three books  (Perryville Under Fire; The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky; and Maney's Confederate Brigade at Perryville) has produced another high-quality work, a long-form essay entitled Lincoln's Confederate "Little Sister," Emily Todd Helm. It came out about a year ago and I finally found the time to read it and am glad for it. It is available at 

The basic story of this essay - the challenges facing a woman who was a sister of Mary Todd, sister-in-law of President Lincoln and wife and brother of Confederate soldiers - should be well-known to most who study the Civil War, but this essay goes beyond the basics and recounts her life story on a deeper level, providing details that may be less familiar. 

The essay starts with a scene of Emily in her later years, before the story goes back in time, even before her birth, to explore the Todd family background and influence in Kentucky. It describes Emily and Mary's father Robert Todd and how he raised two families after the unfortunate death of his first wife. 

Sanders discusses Emily's childhood and the development of her close relationship with her older half-sister Mary and brother-in-law Abraham Lincoln. He then discusses her marriage to Benjamin Hardin Helm, who also had influential family ties to the state and its government. Their affection for each other was very strong.

This sets up the story of the split and misfortunes that the Civil War created for her family. Eight members of the Todds supported the Confederacy while six remained loyal to the United States. During the war, Emily lost her husband and two brothers and took each loss very hard.

The biggest and most famous controversy of her life, first mentioned at the start of the essay, was her trip to Washington .D.C. in late 1863. This essay does an outstanding job of describing her visit from its origins with Emily's refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States to a less-than-friendly encounter with a Senator and to the President's attempt to offer her assistance as she returned to Kentucky. The discussion of her strong bond with Mary and how both had endured personal tragedy (Emily losing a husband, Mary a son) during the war is especially poignant and makes it more understandable how the widow of a Confederate general was allowed to visit the White House during the war. Biologically, they were half-sisters, but in real life they were much closer.

The ending of the relationship between Emily and the Lincolns is another powerful piece of this tale. 

The essay then describes her long, sometimes contradictory, life in the years after the war. She was a beloved widow of a former Orphan Brigade leader, yet also a family representative at events commemorating the life of President Lincoln; she was proud of her Confederate ties, refused to take the oath of allegiance, yet accepted a Government appointment to help support herself and her family and adopted a spirit of reconciliation.

This is an informative and well-written essay, with a writing style that is easy to read. Having it in this format also makes for a quick read. Despite its relative brevity, however, it tells an intriguing story of this woman and how the war affected so many of her closest relationships. Her enjoyment of genealogy and wish to protect her family legacy were noteworthy and perhaps even ironic given the sadness to which her family ties contributed so much.

Though her name and much of her story may be familiar to Civil War students, Stuart Sanders' work provides a more detailed account of her life's story, making this a very worthwhile read. I highly recommend adding it to any e-library or reading list. 

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