150 years today, on February 24, 1862 Abraham Lincoln’s 11 year old son, Willie, was buried. Willie had become ill with typhoid fever, along with his brother, Tad. Typhoid was a common illness at the time in Washington, D.C.
The child lay in the White House guest room, where he died on February 20th.
On seeing his deceased son, the president was quoted as saying, “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!”
Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave, washed the dressed the boy. She marveled that Lincoln was so moved “his tall frame convulsed with emotion.”
Lincoln startled his secretary with the news: “Well, Nicholay, my boy is gone—he is actually gone!”
Mary Lincoln was in anguish over Willie’s death as well as having Tad, her youngest son, suffering the same illness. Willie was born the same year the Lincoln’s second son died, while they still lived in Illinois. Their eldest son Robert, was a student at Harvard College. He was the only son who would outlive his parents.
A government official’s wife was quoted: “The White House is sad and still, for its joy and light have fled with little Willie. He was a very bright child, remarkably precocious for his age, and had endeared himself to every one who knew him.”
The Green Room was where Willie’s body was left until burial. The embalming was handled by Drs. Brown and Alexander. They performed this procedure three years later for the president after his assassination.
On February 24, friends arrived to pay respects. Before the service, the family gathered around the coffin to say a private farewell. The arrangements were supervised by Benjamin French, who wrote: “While they were thus engaged there came one of the heaviest storms of rain & wind that has visited this city for years, and the terrible storm without seemed almost in unison with the storm of grief within, for Mrs. Lincoln, I am told, was terribly affected by her loss and almost refused to be comforted.” Mary Lincoln did not attend the funeral or burial, instead remaining sequestered in her room.
The funeral was underway by 2 p.m. The gilt mirrors of the East Room had been draped in mourning, black fabric covered frames, white covered over the glass. Dr. Phineas D. Gurley led the service. He was pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.
In attendance were the president, his son, Robert, and members of Cabinet. The mourners sat in a circle. A crowd surrounded them, including representatives of Congress and foreign countries. The service was described as ‘very touching’. General McClellan, as well as “…senators, and ambassadors, and soldiers, all struggling with their tears—great hearts sorrowing with the president as a stricken man and a brother.”
Following the service at the White House, mourners followed the body to Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. “Two white horses drew the hearse, while two black horses pulled President Lincoln’s carriage down Washington’s upaved streets and up the hill to the cemetery.”
Willie’s body was set in the small chapel for a brief service, then transferred to the Carroll family vault across the cemetery. William Carroll, a clerk of the Supreme Court, had offered the space temporarily to the Lincolns until they could return Willie to Illinois where he would be permanently buried.
The death of their son left deep scars on the Lincolns. Elizabeth Keckly described Mary as “…an altered woman…she never crossed the threshold of the Guest’s Room in which he died, or the Green Room in which he was embalmed.”
Artist Alban Jasper said about Lincoln following his son’s death: “ever after there was a new quality in his demeanor—something approaching awe.”
A White House secretary, John Hay wrote that the president “was profoundly moved by his death, though he gave no outward sign of his trouble, but kept about his work the same as ever. His bereaved heart seemed afterwards to pour out its fullness on his youngest child.”
For more on Willie Lincoln’s funeral, visit these sites: