Sold - Preparing For the Last White House Reception of the Season & Expecting to Join Her Husband For His Speech at the Baltimore Sanitary Fair, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln Arranges Child Care For Tad

The trusted caregiver, later Lincoln’s de facto bodyguard at Ford’s Theater, let John Wilkes Booth into the President’s box, which Mrs. Lincoln considered it a betrayal

Key Facts

  • Unpublished and an extremely rare letter shows life inside the White House for the First Family

Mid-April 1864 was a busy one for the Lincolns. The President was working with his new commander of the Army of the Potomac, Ulysses S. Grant, as they prepared for the commencement of the fateful 1864 campaign, just two weeks away. Lincoln was also planning for his visit and address to the Baltimore Sanitary Fair, which he attended on April 18. The U.S. Sanitary Commission cared for the Union's sick and wounded soldiers and promoted clean and healthy conditions and army camps. It held fairs in certain large cities around the country, mainly in 1863-4, to raise funds for its activities. Lincoln attended when he could, and contributed notes, documents and signatures to be sold or auctioned at the fairs. At this Baltimore fair, the President delivered his famous speech about slavery, in which he told the story of the sheep and the wolf, and how the sheep defined liberty as relief from the wolf, while the wolf defined it as being able to do what he wanted with the sheep. "We behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty; and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf's dictionary has been repudiated."

Mrs. Lincoln was busy also, planning the final White House reception of the 1863-4 season, scheduled for the night of April 19. There would be a huge crowd, she knew, and both she and her husband could expect to be exhausted by the end. On April 11, President Lincoln wrote disappointingly to a friend that Mrs. Lincoln would not attend the fair, as she was sick.  But that changed with a week's time.  She now intended to accompany her husband to Baltimore if she could get away.

Children in the White House have always held a certain fascination with the American people. It shows the President and First Lady at their most personal, their most human. We think of young John Kennedy, Jr. playing in front of the Resolute Desk in the White House or President Theodore Roosevelt and his family life.  Even today, President’s Obama’s children occupy the public attention.  

President Lincoln was one of the first Presidents to have kids in the White House.  He had four, one of whom died before his term and another who died in 1862 during the war.  Robert Todd was born in 1843 and was 21 in 1864.   Thomas “Tad” Lincoln was born in 1853 and was 11.  Some great images are captured or rendered of Lincoln with Tad, perhaps the most famous was of him reading to the child in the White House.

Charles Forbes was a Treasury Department employee who was detailed to the Lincoln White House from time to time, and he quickly became a favorite with both the President and First Lady. Forbes often accompanied Lincoln on trips outside the White House, and he became recognizable as either the President's valet, footman, messenger or attendant, depending on who was asked and when. In addition to serving the President, Forbes also ran errands for Mrs. Lincoln, drove her around town, and was often tasked with looking after son Tad. George Harrington was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and was Forbes' superior. Harrington also handled personal financial matters for the Lincolns, and they had developed a relationship with him.

Mrs. Lincoln not only had the great Baltimore speech to prepare for but also the final White House gala reception of the season.  If she left with the President, she would be gone from around 2pm on the 18th until approximately 11am on the 19th.

Autograph Letter Signed, Washington, April 18, 1864, to Harrington at Treasury. "Hon. Mr. Harrington, We would like to have the services of Charles from today, at 2 P.M. until tomorrow at 11 A.M. Very respectfully, Mrs. Lincoln." The original envelope in Mrs. Lincoln's hand, signed, is also present and included. This is the first letter we have ever carried from a President or First Lady arranging for child care for one of their children. It is also a glimpse into how the President and Mrs. Lincoln managed life outside the publice eye.

On April 18, President Lincoln left his family in Washington some time after 2:00 pm and proceeded by train to Baltimore, arriving at 6:00 pm. He was not accompanied by his wife. He was shown around the fair and spoke about 10:00 pm, after which he had a midnight dinner and retired for the night at a Baltimore mansion. The next morning he returned to Washington, on time to do his day's work and attend the reception that night.

The existence of this letter, previously unpublished, indicates that Mrs. Lincoln likely intended to go with the President to Baltimore as late as the morning of the 18th. Probably, in the end, she was too burdened with preparations for the reception to get away. She ended up attending the fair on April 20, along with Salmon and Kate Chase and other dignitaries.

All did not end well between Charles Forbes and the Lincolns, however. Forbes accompanied the Lincolns to Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865. John Wilkes Booth approached Forbes, who was seated outside of Lincoln's box, and gave him his calling card; Forbes allowed Booth to enter the door to the private box. Then he and guard John Parker went to a nearby bar to have a drink, leaving Lincoln unattended for the assassination. Historian Michael Kauffman wrote that “Abraham Lincoln had no bodyguards in the modern sense. It was the messenger Charles Forbes who had allowed Booth into the box, and consequently Mrs. Lincoln held Forbes responsible for the President’s death. To deflect the blame, Forbes filed a formal complaint against Parker, and charged him with leaving his post outside the president’s box to have a drink. Parker was tried and acquitted.”

As for Harrington, with Mary Lincoln too distraught to deal with her husband's funeral, the arrangements ended up in the capable hands of George Harrington.