Confederate General Ben Hardin Helm
Benjamin Hardin Helm, called Ben, was born in Kentucky in 1831. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1851, finishing ninth out of forty-two cadets. His high class ranking managed to obtain him a commission in the cavalry. After six months of service he was forced to resign his commission because of poor health and returned to Kentucky where he became an attorney. He eventually was elected to the Kentucky State Legislature.
In 1856, Helm married Emilie Todd, the half-sister of Mary Todd, who became Mary Todd, wife of Abraham Lincoln. Emilie was eighteen years younger than Mary Todd Lincoln and was just a child when the two married. For the rest of his life, Abraham Lincoln referred to Emilie as “Little Sister”.
Helm was an officer in the Kentucky militia when the Civil War began. He was commissioned colonel of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry Regiment after refusing an offer to be made a major in the United States Army by his brother-in-law Abraham Lincoln.
Ben Helm was promoted to brigadier general just before the Battle of Shiloh, although he missed that engagement. At the Battle of Baton Rouge he was severely wounded when his horse reared and fell backward onto him, shattering his left leg. His wife’s brother Aleck was killed in the same action. The entire affair occurred because of troops blundering around in the darkness, nervous and too ready to open fire, expecting the enemy to be everywhere.
Wartime photo of Benjamin Helm
He spent the next three months recovering from his wound. After Roger Hanson was killed at Murfreesboro, Helm received command of the “Orphan Brigade” of Kentucky infantry. Helm believed in drill, but was a more approachable man than Hanson had been. Thus, his men loved him and no other commander of the brigade was ever loved as much as Ben Helm.
At the Battle of Chickamauga he lead the brigade in a disjointed attack. Three separate charges were made and during the last charge Helm was hit in the left side by rifle fire. His brigade had lost 500 of the 1400 men engaged and were forced to fall back. He was carried to the rear and the wound was inspected by a surgeon. Helm asked the doctor, “Is there any hope?”
The surgeon replied, “My dear General, there is no hope!”
Monument marking the site where Helm received his fatal wound
He lay there for several hours waiting for the inevitable. After dark, he heard cheering coming from the front. When he asked what it meant, he was told the Confederate Army had carried the day. Helm repeated to himself over and over again, “Victory!” They were his last words.
Benjamin Helm, Lincoln's favorite brother-in-law
Benjamin Hardin Helm was buried in Atlanta, Georgia, but twenty years after the war was over his remains were removed to Kentucky. He rests today in the Helm Family Cemetery, Elizabethtown, Kentucky.
Military marker with Helm's last words
Helm's original marker
After Lincoln heard of Helm’s death, Illinois Senator David Davis wrote: “I never saw Lincoln more moved than when he learned of the death of his young brother-in-law Ben Hardin Helm, only thirty-two years old, at Chickamauga. I called to see him…finding him in the greatest grief so I closed the door and left him alone.”
Lincoln invited Helm’s widow Emilie to the White House to spend the winter. The trip was very peaceful, there was no fighting or blaming the other over the sides each had taken. Emilie’s daughter Katie and Mary’s son Tad often argued over who was president. Tad insisted that his father was the president and Katie insisted it was Jefferson Davis.
On another occasion New York Senator Ira Harris was visiting the White House and entered a room with Emilie and Mary sitting together. Harris stared at Emilie and said, “Well, we have whipped the rebels at Chattanooga and I hear, madam, that the scoundrels ran like scared rabbits.”
Emilie immediately replied, “It was the example, Senator Harris, that you set them at Bull Run and Manassas.”
The senator realized that he had met his match, so he turned on Mary Lincoln, asking, “Why isn’t Robert (the Lincoln’s oldest son) in the army? He is old enough and strong enough to serve his country. He should have gone to the front some time ago.”
Mary turned the tables on him at once, saying, “It is my fault. He is desperate to join up, but I told him an educated man can serve his country with more intelligent purpose than an ignoramus.”
She was basically calling Harris an ignoramus and this infuriated him even more.
“I have only one son and he is fighting for his country,” Harris then turned to Emilie and said, “and Madam, if I had twenty sons they should all be fighting the rebels.”
“And if I had twenty sons, Senator Harris, they should all be opposing yours,” Emilie replied.
Senator Harris realized when he had been bested and immediately left the room. General Sickles, a fellow citizen of New York and friend of the senator witnessed the entire scene. He went straight to President Lincoln and told him to get that rebel out of the White House. Lincoln told Sickles that he and his wife would choose their guests without any input from others.
Abraham Lincoln pardoned Emilie and allowed her to return to Kentucky. She then sent a request to send clothing to freezing Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas Prison in Chicago. Lincoln thought this was a disloyal act and ordered that she be arrested if she was indeed aiding the Confederacy. She would never speak to her brother-in-law or sister Mary again.
Emilie Todd would survive her husband by sixty-six years, dying at the age of 93 in 1930 of a heart attack. Just before her death, her daughter found her burning her diary and asked why she would do such a thing. Emilie replied, “There is just too much bitterness in it.”
Emilie in old age
She rests today in Lexington Cemetery, Lexington, Kentucky with other members of the Todd family. One wonders why she wasn’t buried beside her husband who she loved so dearly.
Grave of Emilie Todd Helm