Thursday, January 13, 2011

Two Tragic Families: Lincoln and Davis

       Not long ago, someone asked me what Lincoln and Davis had in common while serving as our Civil War presidents. I replied that they both lost sons during the war. Someone standing nearby asked in which battles did they die. I had to explain that neither died in combat because neither child was old enough to fight.
       Besides the tragic loss of a son during the war, both families understood the tragedy of losing children. Only one of Lincoln’s sons lived beyond the age of eighteen. Davis had only one child to live to see her fifties. 
       Davis lost his first wife after only three months of marriage to malaria. Sarah Knox Taylor was only twenty-one when she died. Lincoln was in love with a girl named Ann Rutledge in 1831 and there is evidence the two planned to marry. In 1835, Ann contracted typhoid fever and died. During thunderstorms, Lincoln would be seen collapsing upon her grave and people began to worry for his sanity.

Robert Todd Lincoln

       Lincoln’s oldest son was named Robert Todd Lincoln. He lived to the age of 82. He wasn’t very close to his mother or father and unlike his brothers, he’s not buried with the rest of the family in Springfield, Illinois. He rests today in Arlington Cemetery. 

Edward Baker Lincoln

       The Lincoln’s second son was named Edward Baker “Eddie” Lincoln. He died in 1850 at the age of four. His death was listed as consumption, but many today believe he died of thyroid cancer. 

William Wallace Lincoln

       They’re third child was named William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln. Willie was Lincoln’s favorite, although many considered him a mama’s boy. Willie was intelligent and likable. During the Civil War, drinking water was taken straight from the Potomac River to the White House. Ironically, the Potomac River also served as the city’s septic tank. Willie and his younger brother Tad both caught typhoid fever from drinking feces contaminated water. Tad would survive the disease. Willie lingered a few weeks before succumbing. Lincoln was devastated. Twice, Lincoln had Willie disinterred so he could view his little boys body. Mary Lincoln probably suffered a nervous breakdown from the boys death. 

Thomas Lincoln

       Thomas Lincoln was three years younger than Willie. Lincoln nicknamed him “Tad” because he was born with such a large head. Tad was closer to his father due to the fact he had a learning disability and had a severe speech impediment. Some have suggested the boy may have been mildly retarded as he didn’t learn to read or dress himself until he was twelve years old. Tad would only outlive his father by six years, dying at the age of eighteen from tuberculosis.
       Life wasn’t very kind to the Davis household either. Samuel Emory Davis, the first born of Jefferson and Varina would die in 1854 at the age of two from measles. 

Margaret Howell Davis

       Margaret Howell Davis was born next and she lived to be 53 years old. She was the longest living child of Jefferson Davis. The cause of her death has never been established.

Jeff Davis, Jr.

       The third child, Jefferson Davis, Jr., was born in 1857. The boy was care free and entertaining. Davis and his wife had a difficult time with the boy. Jeff, Sr., had him taken out of the Virginia Military Institute because he fully expected him to be expelled. Margaret’s husband managed to get him a job as a bank clerk in Memphis, Tennessee. He would die there in a yellow fever epidemic at the age of twenty-one.
       The fourth child was Joseph Evan Davis was born in 1857 and this was the child that the Davis family lost during the war. He was only four years old when playing on the east portico of the White House of the Confederacy, he slipped and fell fifteen feet onto the concrete below. His skull was fractured near the forehead and he died a few moments later. Varina and Jefferson were heartbroken. Joseph was Jefferson’s favorite because he was very intelligent. Rumors abounded that Jeff, Jr., had pushed him, but nothing was ever proven. The children of Richmond raised forty dollars to buy a headstone to Joseph. Davis had the portico removed.

William Howell Davis

       They’re fifth child was named William Howell Davis, born in 1861. He would die of diphtheria at only ten years old. They’re last child was named Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis. She would live to adulthood, dying at age 34 of malaria having never married. She is famously known as the “Daughter of the Confederacy”. 

Varina Anne Davis

       It would be difficult to imagine losing a child, but these two families tragically outlived most of their children. It must have been horrible for both of them.

Marker for Joseph Davis, paid for by the children of Richmond


  1. tragic stoey, thanks for letting us know about it, good blog