Saturday, July 31, 2021

Flashback, July 1871: Death of David H. Todd, Lincoln’s Notorious Confederate In-Law

Less than two weeks after Mary Todd Lincoln mourned the death of her 17-year-old son Tad, the widow of Abraham Lincoln had to deal with the loss of another family member.

But the former First Lady felt far more mixed emotions upon learning of the death from tuberculosis at the end of July 1871 of David Humphreys Todd in Huntsville, AL. It wasn’t just that she was not as close to this half-brother 14 years her junior than she was with the third of her sons to die before reaching adulthood.

No, David would have reminded her of a deeply painful split that mirrored a larger division in all too many American families. Of the 14 offspring of her father, the prominent Kentucky lawyer, soldier and politician Robert Smith Todd, six had sided with the Union while the others supported the Confederacy that President Lincoln had successfully but bloodily suppressed. In this “brothers’ war,” two male Todd siblings died fighting for the South, while two of the Todd daughters (including Mary) lost their husbands during the conflict.

From the age of 14, when David had run away from home to fight in the Mexican War, he had troubled family members with his impulsiveness. Matters would not improve in adulthood, when his actions in the Civil War gave the enemies of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln grist for calumny.

Lack of combat in the Mexican War left David’s appetite for adventure and glory unsatisfied, even as he developed a propensity to drink and gamble. After journeying out to California in 1850 for the gold rush, he went down to Chile the following year to participate in its revolution as “freebooter,” or soldier for hire. The only tangible results of the latter were tattoos he had made. Later in the decade, he worked without making any particular mark for a New Orleans carriage company.

The outbreak of the Civil War put David and his siblings in a quandary. Their plantations and the aristocratic style it supported were unsustainable without slaves.

At the same time, they now had a brother-in-law—previously embraced, through marriage to Mary, as part of the family—who, while willing to permit slavery in states like Kentucky, was committed to halting its expansion into new American territories.

As Stephen Berry noted in his collective biography of the Todds, House of Abraham, these bluegrass bluebloods had, in a sense, become Abraham Lincoln’s surrogate family, filling the void left by an abusive father and a sister who died in childbirth. The fact that he seldom if ever spoke of slaveholders with the blistering rhetoric used by so many abolitionists may have owed something to knowing and cherishing some as in-laws.

That did not mean, however, that he was blind to their faults. One legend had him joking, “God Almighty is perfectly content having one ‘d’ at the end of his name. The Todds insist on having two.” Litigiousness and alcoholism ran as heavily in the family as intelligence and ambition.

As First Lady, Mary was prone to extravagance and outbursts of anger, but her husband’s opponents also engaged in guilt by association in charging her with disloyalty because of some siblings’ support of the Confederacy. The more extreme members of the press even accused her of spying, forcing her husband to appear voluntarily before Congress to deny the rumors.

Negative reports by sensationalistic Northern newspapers—particularly about David, and Mary’s attitude towards him—vexed the Confederate contingent of the family, as seen in this excerpt from a July 1861 letter by Mary’s younger half-sister Elodie:

“I see from today’s paper Mrs. Lincoln is indignant at my Bro. David’s being in the Confederate service and declares ‘that by no word or act of hers should he escape punishment for his treason against her husband’s government should he fall into their hands.’ I do not believe she ever said it and if she did and meant it she is no longer a sister of mine nor deserves to be called a woman of nobleness and truth and God grant my noble and brave-hearted brother will never fall into their hands and have to suffer death twice over, and he could do nothing which could make me prouder of him than he is doing now, fighting for his country. What would she do to me, do you suppose? I have as much to answer for.”

Rushing to the Confederate cause after Fort Sumter, Elodie’s “noble and brave-hearted brother” was assigned to General John H. Winder, commandant of Richmond’s prisons—just as the Confederacy pondered what to do with 1,400 Union prisoners taken at the Battle of Bull Run.

Winder, desiring to move captured Union soldiers away from any campaigns for the Confederate capital, wanted David to transport them to Raleigh, N.C. But before that could happen, these prisoners were ensnared in the propaganda war between North and South.

Separating truth from falsehood was difficult enough while David was alive, but it only grew more so after his death. Records often proved elusive, and the children of family members, recalling events more than half a century later, often compounded the difficulties of historians.

It may very well be that, like Mary, David was more sinner against than sinning. But it is also true that, like her, he was thrust in a situation requiring tact that he didn’t possess.

Before long, David was being accused of cruelty to Northern prisoners at Richmond’s Libby Prison. Although he was not as bad as the notorious Henry Wirz of Andersonville and at least some stories about him appear to have been exaggerated, he angered Union service personnel often: preventing spirits from being brought into the prison, for instance; telling guards in this unventilated, hot converted warehouse to shoot off any part of a body sticking out a window; and, according to Union seaman Lewis Horton, “saber[ing] a poor fellow one day because the prisoner had a small bit of lighted candle in order to see to dress his wound” and executing another for just looking out the window.

By November 1862, David featured prominently in a Harper’s Weekly story on the Confederate ties of Mary’s siblings. The magazine even claimed that Jefferson Davis had fired Mary’s half-brother for inhumane treatment of prisoners after David had been only two months on the job.

If the Confederate President did, in fact, relieve him of this command, David may have felt he was being done a favor. By early 1862, David had had enough, and began to look around to where he could be more useful. 

“Having no duty to perform in this Regt, and nothing to which I can be assigned,” he requested a transfer to New Orleans. He got his wish, at a time when Union forces were pressing hard on the city and the Mississippi, the crucial waterway bringing food, supplies and troops to the Southern cause.

By May he was appearing on the regiment rolls as a lieutenant, and in a few more months he had been promoted to captain in the Siege of Vicksburg. He was gaining a reputation as a fighter, though he would surely not have liked a description of him by a female diarist, Julia Le Grand of New Orleans, as “tall, fat and savage against the Yankees.”

After Vicksburg fell to Ulysses S. Grant in July 1863, Captain Todd was paroled. Any hopes for military glory were fading, as the North consolidated its stranglehold on the deep South and David’s health began to worsen.

It was not true, as some later historians wrote, that David had been “mortally wounded” while defending Vicksburg.

But, in an application for retirement from the army, he explained that he had “been permanently disabled in the service of the Confederate States and in the line of duty, by Phthisis Pulmonulis (i.e. tuberculosis) caused by exposure and from which I have suffered during the past two years with frequent attacks of Hemoptysis (i.e. expectoration of blood). I have been absent from my Command unable to perform duty for the past four months.”

In late 1864, David began to court a young widow, Susie Williamson, in Huntsville, AL. They married April 4, 1865—five days before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, and 10 days before David’s brother-in-law was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater.

David was listed as a merchant in the 1870 Census, but he had very little time to succeed in the profession. He died of tuberculosis the following year. As for his half-sister: Throughout the remaining 17 years of her troubled widowhood, Mary Todd Lincoln never saw any of her surviving siblings again.

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