Some may not realize that Abraham Lincoln had a beloved Confederate sister-in-law who paid cordial visits to the White House amidst the fury and bitterness of the Civil War. At the Tea at Trianon Forum, we have been discussing the moving story of Emilie Todd Helm (1836-1930), half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln and wife and later widow of Confederate general Benjamin Hardin Helm of Kentucky. Beautiful, vivacious, spirited, young enough to be the President's daughter, Emilie was the perfect Southern belle. She also left vivid diaries offering a rare glimpse of the intimate sphere of the Lincoln family.
The Lincolns had long had a special fondness for her. Mary found in her sister someone in whom she could confide her torments. "She and Brother Lincoln pet me as if I were a child, and without words, try to comfort me," Emilie wrote. "Kiss me, Emilie, and tell me that you love me," Mrs. Lincoln told her half-sister one morning. "I seem to be the scape-goat for both North and South." At that point, President Lincoln entered the room and said: "I hope you two are planning some mischief.' Mr. Lincoln told Emilie later that day: "Little Sister, I hope you can come up and spend the summer with us at the Soldiers' Home; you and Mary love each other - it is good for her to have you with her - I feel worried about Mary, her nerves have gone to pieces; she cannot hide from me that the strain she had been under has been too much for her mental as well as her physical health." Both Lincolns expressed separate concerns to Emilie about the other's mental and physical health.
President Lincoln was very solicitous of Emilie and defended her presence at the White House against political attacks. Emilie later recalled: "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."In the winter of 1863, while Emilie was visiting the White House, Mrs. Lincoln requested that she meet some visitors. Emilie later wrote:
I went most reluctantly. It is painful to see friends and I do not feel like meeting strangers. I cannot bear their inquiring look at my deep crepe. It was General [Daniel] Sickles again, calling with Senator Harris. General Sickles said, "I told Senator Harris that you were at the White House, just from the South and could probably give him some news of his old friend General John C. Breckinridge." I told Senator Harris that as I had not seen General Breckinridge for some time I could give him no news of the general's health. He then asked me several pointed questions about the South and as politely as I could I gave him non-committal answers. Senator Harris said to me in a voice of triumph, "Well, we have whipped the rebels at Chattanooga and I hear, madam, that the scoundrels ran like scared rabbits." "It was the example, senator Harris, that you set then at Bull Run and Manassas," I answered with a choking throat. I was very nervous and I could see that Sister Mary was annoyed. She tactfully tried to change the subject, whereupon Senator Harris turned to her abruptly and with an unsmiling face asked sternly: "Why isn't Robert in the Army? He is old enough to serve his country. He should have gone to the front some time ago."
Sister Mary's face turned white as death and I saw that she was making a desperate effort at self-control. She bit her lip, but answered quietly, 'Robert is making his preparations now to enter the Army, Senator Harris; he is not a shirker as you seem to imply, for he had been anxious to go for a long time. If fault there be, it is mine. I have insisted that he should stay in college a little longer as I think an educated man can serve his country with more intelligent purpose than an ignoramus." General [sic] Harris rose and said harshly and pointedly to Sister, "I have only one son and he is fighting for his country." Turning to me and making a low bow, "and, Madam, if I had twenty sons they should all be fighting the rebels." "And if I had twenty sons, General Harris," I replied, "they should all be opposing yours." I forgot where I was, I forgot that I was a guest of the President and Mrs. Lincoln at the White House. I was cold and trembling. I stumbled out of the room somehow, for I was blinded by tears and my heart was beating to suffocation. Before I reached the privacy of my room where unobserved I could give way to my grief, Sister Mary overtook me and put her arms around me. I felt somehow comforted to weep on her shoulder — her own tears were falling but she said no word of the occurrence and I understood that she was powerless to protect a guest at the White House from cruel rudeness.Emilie never remarried and dressed in mourning for the rest of her life. Although the strain of the war eventually took its toll and she became estranged from Abraham and Mary, she later developed a close and loving relationship with their eldest son Robert. A leading member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, she also worked for reconciliation between North and South.