Wednesday, September 19, 2007

New : Family Feud or All in the Family? Lincoln and His Inlaws

House of Abraham: Lincoln, The Todds, And A Family Divided By War, Stephen Berry, Houghton Mifflin Company, 288 pages, 8 pp. of b/w photographs, $28.00, November, 2007.

Two Lincoln scholars think:
"Stephen Berry's House of Abraham is a couldn't-put-it-down good read." --Allen C. Guelzo, author of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation

"Thoroughly researched, smoothly written . . . a poignant microcosm of the wrenching familial strains that tore the nation apart." --Michael Burlingame, author of The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln and Sadowski Professor of History Emeritus, Connecticut College

The Kirkus Review thinks:
"Divided families make the stuff of drama. When the divided family is Abraham Lincoln's, its divisions are metaphors for the nation's own collapse. With a skilled and pleasing pen, Berry tells the tangled story of the sad and often painful element of Lincoln's life that deepened his understanding of the nation's travails. Lincoln was closer to his wife's large clan—she had 13 siblings—than to his own. Originally from Kentucky, the Todds had members in both the North and South and backed both the Union and the Confederacy. Four of them, including Lincoln, died as a result of the conflict. Some were honorable and others scoundrels, some were easygoing and others problematic. Berry, an assistant professor of history at the University of Georgia, calls many of them miserable, and their family a wreck. He manages to tell the story of each Todd with full sympathy yet critical distance, and adds another level of understanding to the president who would bind the nation's wounds. Finally, he rescues the Southern Todds from their obscurity. The result is a fast-paced, sobering story, never better told, of the pains of a clan and their significance for American history."

The publisher's pitch:
"Whenever historians and trivia buffs get around to the “brother-against-brother” aspects of the Civil War, inevitably they cite the Lincolns and the Todds. It probably is not true that Abraham Lincoln once said of his wife’s Kentucky family that one “d” was good enough for God, but the Todds required two. However, it certainly is true that the Todd family, thanks to its lone connection to Lincoln, became an object case in how the sectional struggle tore families apart.
The basic facts are well-enough known. Abraham Lincoln married Mary Todd of Lexington, Kentucky. Hers was an old Southern slave-holding family, one of the aristocratic names of the Bluegrass, and not surprisingly when secession came, most of her family followed its ancient sympathies into the Confederacy. That would have been difficult enough for a Southern Kentucky woman married to a Kentucky man who sided with the North. But when that man was President of the United States, the problem magnified itself ten-fold. That President Lincoln had in-laws sympathetic to the Confederacy was embarrassing enough; the position of some of them made it all the worse. Mary’s half-sister Emilie was married to Ben Hardin Helm, a general in the Confederate army. Her brother George was a Confederate army surgeon. Another brother, David, served on the staff of Confederate general—and distant Todd relation—John C. Breckinridge, and his brother Alexander Todd was killed acting as an aide to Helm.
Of Mary Lincoln’s thirteen full and half-siblings, four of her brothers served in the Confederate army, one brother-in-law carried his Southern sympathies to the point of committing treason, Mary’s sister Martha was actually a Confederate spy, and after Helm’s death in 1863, Emilie Helm came to stay as a guest at the White House in Washington. This is all the province of Stephen Berry’s excellent book House of Abraham: Lincoln & the Todds, A Family Divided by War. Besides being the first work to explore fully the trauma endured by this one Bluegrass family, House of Abraham also delves into his in-laws’ influence on Lincoln as President, on his rhetoric toward Southern civilians, and how his own relations forced Lincoln to come to grips with Confederate civilians as people, not just as enemies. Along the way we can see the sad portrait of a family with great strengths and great weaknesses, all heated to the boil in the cauldron of civil war."

CWL thinks: The History Channel's Valentine Day programming

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