William Lincoln (1850-62)

Figure 1.--Willie is pictured here about 5 of age, probably about 1856. He wears a simple jacket and white Eton collar with long pants. Note hoe the jacket only has one button and falls away at the bottom.

The Lincoln's third son, William Wallace Lincoln ("Willie"), was born on December 21, 1850, a few month's after Eddie's tragic death. Willie was named in honor of Dr. William Wallace, a minister who had married Mary Todd's sister Frances. Willie soon became his mother and father's favorite. He had a much more playful disposition than his older brother Robert. He probably reminded the grieving parents of Eddie. Willie was soon the apple of his father's eye. By all accounts he was a delightful, but thoughtful boy. When he tragically died in the White House, the President and First Lady were again devastated--Mary never really recovered.


Willie was born a few months after Eddie's tragic death. He was the Lincoln's third son. The baby's happy, cheerful disposition undoubtedly aided his parents in recovering from the tragic loss of Eddie.


Willie was named in honor of Dr. William Wallace, a minister who had married Mary Todd's sister Frances. Willie soon became his mother and father's favorite. He had a much more playful disposition than his older brother Robert. He probably reminded the grieving parents of Eddie. Willie was soon the apple of his father's eye. By all accounts he was a delightful, but thoughtful boy. A teenager close to the family, Julia Taft, described Willie as "the most lovable boy I ever knew, bright, sensible, sweet-tempered and gentle-mannered." His mother after his death described him, "... he was a very beautiful boy, with a most spiritual expression of face. He was a most particularly religious child, with a great amiability & cheerfulness of character." [M. Lincoln letter, December 8, 1865.] Willie was much more thoughtful than his rambunctious younger brother, Tad. Once when Tad had broken a mirror, Willie scolded him. "The mirror does not belong to father," Willie explained, "it belongs to the United States Government." Willie soon became his mother and father's favorite. He was the apple of his father's eye.


The Lincolns were involved, caring parents. Even Mary who was had many detractors, was never accused of being anything but a loving mother. The Lincolns both had very difficult childhoods. Abraham Lincoln grew up in grinding poverty and no real opportunity or comfortable living conditions. Mary was born into a prosperous family and cared for by slaves, but she lost her mother at an early age and came under the care of an unsympathetic step-mother. As a result, both were determined that their children would have very different childhoods. The Lincoln boys were subjected to very little discipline. In fact, Mary was furious when a newspaper article accused her of threatening to whip one of the boys. In a letter she claims that not only did she never disciplined the boys--but they never needed it. [M.L. letter to Mr. Williamson, June 15, 1985.] The first assertion seems to be accurate, the latter is questionable. Mary would even mention in her letters that the "boys prone to be noisy". [M. Lincoln letter to Hannah Shearer, January 1, 1860.] The boys ran wild and climbed all over the furniture at home. Even modern permissive parents would have taken note. Contemporary parents were often shocked at the boys' behavior. Particularly critical was Lincoln's law partner and confident Thomas Henderson. Lincoln would often bring the boys to the office where they would invariably cause a commotion, climb over the desks, and scatter papers everywhere. Both parents delighted in playing with the boys. Mary staged elaborate birthday parties. Their father delighted in them . So did Mary, although she undoubtedly would have loved to have a daughter to dress up and fuss over. [Turner and Turner, pp. 41-42.]

Birthday Party (January 1859)

Willie had his 9th birthday part in Springfield. Neither he or for that matter his parents had any idea how their lives were about to change. Mary through an enormous birthday party (December 21). Mary writes that she had promised him one. The party was attended by 50-60 boys and girls. This is quite startling. It is difficult to imagine the havoc that 50-60 boys and girls would have caused. Willie and Tad alone could create considerable chaos. We wonder just who these 50-60 children were. We wonder if Willie really had that many friends. We suspect that his mother may have made this into a social affair for her social circle. It is also interesting that both boys and girls attended. Often at that age today, birthdays are single gender affairs. Perhaps this convention was not common in the 19th century. Even the Lincoln's used to boyhood exuberance seemed to have been set back by the affair. Mary wrote a friend, "... you may believe I have come to the conclusion, that they are nonsensical affairs". [M. Lincoln letter to Hannah Shearer, January 1, 1860.]


Willie began his education in Springfield. The public school system was only beginning to develop in the 1850s. (There father was to play a major role in the development of education with the Homestead Act (1863) which provided for education on the frontier. Willie was enrolled in a private school run by a Miss Corcoran. He appears to have been a naturally gifted student and unlike his younger brother Tad enjoyed school and proved to be an excellent student. He took after his father in his interest in learning. His father of course never had the opportunity to attend school. He was especially adept at math. He was fascinated by trains and drew up railroad time tables. He developed a range of other boyhood interests. He was fascinated by poetry and liked to write poems. Mary was impressed by his interest in religion.

Chicago Trip (June 1859)

One of the high points of Willie's boyhood was a trip to Chicago. Springfield was a still a relatively small town. Chicago on the other hand was already developing into a major city. Lincoln brought Willie along when he had to travel to Chicago on business. The two stayed in the Tremont House. This was the first time Willie had stayed in a hotel and he was fascinated. Willie wrote a a friend about the Chicago and the hotel. "This town is a very beautiful place. Me and father have a nice little room to ourselves. We have two little pitchers on a washstand. The smallest one for me the largest one for father. We have two little towels on a top of both pitchers. The smallest one for me, the largest one for father. Me and father had gone to two theaters the other night."

The Convention (May 1860)

The Republican convention in Chicago nominated Abraham Lincoln as their presidential candidate. I'm not sure where Willie and his brothers were. Id know that they were caught up in the excitement, especially the flag waving and parades. Mark Delahay, a Kansas Republican who supported Lincoln, stopped in Springfield with two flags from the convention. Apparently one of the boys laid claimed to one of the flags. Mary later wrote to Delahay asking that he send one of the flags back. [M. Lincoln letter to Mark Delahay, May 25, 1860]

The White House (1861-62)

Lincoln brought the family with him to Washington (March 1861). The boys were fascinated by the White House which was an enormous palace compared to the modest Springfield House in which they had grown up. They immediately set out to have the time of their lives. Here there parents made little real effort to restrain them. Robert who was older did not live in the white House with them as he had begun college.

Games and activities

Willie and Tad with Robbert away at school had the White House to themselves and they thoroughly enjoyed romping through the halls and dreaming up adventures. Willie was more even tempered and dutiful than Tad. Unlike Tad who had difficulty focusing his attention, especially on schoolwork, Willie was quite capable of getting down to the business at hand. The boys, despite their differences were very close and shared many interests. In particular they adored animals of all kinds. Americans loved to read about the boys in their newspapers. When their interest in animals was reported, American deluged the white House with animals of all kinds. To the boys' delight there were dogs, rabbits, goats, and ponies. Because the President had no desire to discipline the boys, they did rather much what ever they wanted. The boys as in Springfield had the run of the White House. Lincoln called them, "my splendid fellows". Observers wondered why the boys were not disciplined and kept under better control. Often it was Tad who was behind the more outrageous episodes such as opening fire on the President's cabinet with a toy cannon, but both boys had their share of fun. Normally Tad gave up with the most impressive pranks such sending up a toll gate with his toy cannon to see his father or setting off the bell system in the white house. Much of this appeared in the press and editors pushed reporters for more details. Willie being the more thoughtful of the two, was somewhat irritated by constantly being watched. He complained, "I wish they wouldn't stare at us so. Hasn't there ever been a boy in the White House before." But he and Tad had a great time. And what an exciting time it must have been for both boys. The White House was full of soldiers. They allowed the boys to examine and even fire their guns. Because of the times, war-related games were popular with the boys, and they even constructed a fort on the White House roof. The war meant that there were many formal events with the President reviewing the troops. Such ceremonies were real favorites for Willie and Tad. When ever they could get permission they accompanied the President when he reviewed the troops at the many army camps ringing Washington. There mother also had an active schedule visiting the troops and wounded soldiers to distribute fruit, books, papers, and other items. The boys also went with her.


Neither Mary or the President was as close to Robert as to the other boys. Willie seems closest to his mother. He referred to himself as "Mama's boy". Actually in many ways he took after his father more. [Baker, p. 210.] He did not have Tad's acquisitive edge which was similar to his mother. It was usually Tad who came up with the most outrageous pranks. Willie normally went along with them, but at times he wanted to disengage from Tad's frenetic activity and secluded himself in Mary's room with books, pens, and paper. [Turner and Turner, p. 120.] Willie was the favorite of both parents. Mary said that Willie would be the salvation of her old age. Of all his sons, Willie was the one most like his father in temperament. He enjoyed taking the boy on his lap and reading together. The boys, especially Willie, were a tremendous support to his father during that first year of Civil War. When the President wanted a brief respite from the burden of office, the boys were always available. Willie and the President enjoyed each other's humor. Once when Willie had a cold his parents looked in on him before a party. Mrs. Lincoln had a satin gown with a long train. Willie commented, "Whew! Our cat has a long tail tonight!. Mrs. Lincoln did not reply. The President did softly reply, "Mother, it is my opinion, if some of that tail was nearer the head, it would be in better style.," referring to the bare arms and low-cut neckline of the dress. [Sandburg, ML, p. 93.]


The Lincolns had brought a nurse from Springfield to help care for the boys. By all accounts she had her hands full. As a cost cutting measure, however, Mary decided the boys were too old to have a nurse, sent her back to Springfield. At the time, Tad was 8-years old and had not yet begun to dress himself. [Baker, p. 190.] Mary was not known for economy measures. It is interesting that this step was associated with the boys and not here interest in decorating and fashion.


To help replace the nurse, the Lincolns decided to employ a tutor. The boys continued their education in the White House. The Lincoln's decided that attending a formal school might be disruptive. They were no doubt concerned about how Tad would do in school. As a result, they decided to have the boys tutored in the White House. It was Mrs. Lincoln who selected the tutor, Alexander Williamson. The tutor was also part of her financial machinations. His salary was largely covered by a position in the Treasury Department. [Baker, pp. 190-191.] Williamson set up a blackboard in the state dining room. The tutor soon found two very different pupils. Willie was an extremely clever boy with an inquiring mind. Willie enjoyed the daily lessons. Tad found them tedious and a constant irritation because they detracted from the great fun which could be had around the White House. John Hay who was the President's private secretary and thus intimately aware of happenings at the White House, explained that Tad "... had a very bad opinion of books and no opinion of discipline." There parents did not insist that the boys seriously pursue their studies. Williamson stayed on to tutor Tad after Willie died. He remained at the White House as tutor until the President was assassinated.

French royalty

Europeans royals came to America as a kind of diversion to observe the War. One of these was a nephew of Napoleon III--Prince Napoleon. When he called on the President at the White House, he found that no even a doorman was present. He found it amazing that even during a time of war, one could walk right into the White House. He encountered Willie who greeted him. Willie not at all flustered bowed politely to the French dignitary. [Baker, p. 199.] The Prince was probably lucky to have run into Willie. Tad's reception could not have been predicted, he may have even brought out his cannon!


Toddler clothes

I am not sure how Willie was dressed as a really young boy. Presumably he wore dresses as was the fashion of the day. I have never seen photographs, however, of Willie as a younger boy in dresses. Nor is any information available on his breeching.


HBC has only one image of Willie with a hat. It has a modest brim with a felt crown.


Willie often wore shirts or blouses with distinctive white collars. They were not the enormous collars of the late 19th century, but especially as a younger boy they were prominent. I only note pointed collars in the available images, but he may have worn rounded collars as well.


Boys in the 1860s did not wear large bows like the ones popular in the 1880s. Willie with his Eton collar wears no bow at all. In most of his photographs he wears a simple stock, similar to the one worn by his father. One indistinct photograph shows him wearing what may be a large bow, but this was not common.


Willie by about 5 or 6 he is wearing juvenile jackets with Eton collars with long pants. He wore a jacket which was popular in the 1850s and 1860s with a jacket wore open or partially closed. He does not wear a bow with his Eton collar. Willie's jacket has one button holding it closed in the middle. Other boys at the time wore a similar jacket with a closing button only at the collar and the two sides completely separate at the bottom.

Willie by 8 or 9 wears increasingly adult looking, rather nondescript suits. Subsequently he wears more mature-looking suits.


The new fashion of knee pants for boys appeared in the 1860s, but as far as I know, Willie and his brothers all wore long trousers after they were breeched. This was not uncommon in the early 1860s, but some boys, especially boys from fashionable families, were beginning to wear knee pants. Willie never did.

Hair Styles

Willie appears to have worn his hair in a variety of nondescript ways. Some images show him wearing his hair over his ears. In others you can see his ears. I have noted no images showing him with long hair. An image of Tad shows him in short hair even while still wearing dresses. Apparently Mary cut the boys' hair even before breeching.

Mother's Fashion Sense

Mary Todd Lincoln was an extremely fashion conscious woman. She was raised in a wealthy family and followed the fashions of the day. She was also quite an extravagant wife. In many ways it was her way of dealing with the tragedies of her life. She spent large amounts on clothes and home furnishings, often without her husband's permission. Interestingly, despite her interest in finery, she does seem to have taken great interest in dressing her sons in particularly fashionable clothes. HBC has not noted Willie wearing any fancy outfits. One wonders if Mary had no interest in dressing Willie and Tad in Fancy clothes or if she thought the boys would object.

Willie's Opinions

HBC has no information what Willie thought his clothes. Boys at the time wore what their mothers bought for them. But the Lincoln children were not strictly disciplined, in fact they were not disciplined at all. One wonders if they didn't express definite ideas about their clothes.



Willie turned 11 in December 1862. His parents doted on him. A bright boy from a now prominent family, the world was his oyster. Both Willie and Tadd got sick in February. Apparently the boys drank some tainted water. At first the incident was not considered serious. Tad improved, but Willie did not and became seriously ill. Willie's condition fluctuated from day to day. Most likely the illness was typhoid fever. Gradually Willie weakened. His father spent much time at his bedside. Mary never left his side. The Lincolns were compelled to hold a long-planned state party in the White House as Willie's condition worsened. [Tiurner and Turner, p. 121.]

Tragic death

Finally, on Thursday, February 20, 1862, at 5:00 P.M. the young boy passed away. It was a terrible time for Mary. She had just thrown the most glittering party in her term as First Lady--a party she only attended briefly because she wanted to be at Willie's side. Mary was prostrate. Willie's death was another in the long series of tragedies which the poor woman experienced. The President was distraught, but he could not allow himself to collapse. Abraham said, "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!" From Willie' death, the President found his relationship with Mary just one more of the trials he had to bear as he labored to save the Union. Rather than a support, which she had been, Mary became an increasing distraction to the embattled President. Willie lay in state in the White House Green Room. He lay with hands crossed over his chest and holding a flower bouquet. The funeral services on February 24 were held by Reverend Phineas D. Gurley of Washington's New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. His mother wailed in the White House for days. The President tried to console here, but the pain was too great. Every Thursday for more than a year, his father would shut himself up in Willie's room and grieve. Willie's toys were given away. Even the flowers he liked were banned from the White House.


Willie was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. Mary could not bring herself to attend. For months after Willie died, Mary simply could not function. [Turner and Tuner, p. 121.] The President often visited his son's grave. After the assassination of Lincoln in 1865, Willie's casket was exhumed, and his remains placed on the Lincoln funeral train which traveled back to Springfield. Willie was buried in the Lincoln Tomb along with his father on May 4, 1865.


Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (Norton, New York, 1987), 429p.

Kunhard, Dorothy Meserve and Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Twenty Days.

Norton, Roger. Willie Lincoln.

Ostendorf, Lloyd. Lincoln's Photographs A Complete Album.

Randall, Ruth Painter. Lincoln's Sons.

Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prarie Years Vol. I (Charles Scribner's Sons: New York, 1940), 480p.

Sandburg, Carl. Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow (Harcourt, Brace, World: New York, 1960), 357p.

Turner, Justin G. and Linda Levitt Turner. Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1972), 744p.

Weaver, John D. Tad Lincoln: Mischief Maker in the White House.


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Created: June 25, 1999
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