The Enemy Within: The Confederate Invasion of the White House

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2018-2019, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the October 2018 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

Not surprisingly, whenever Confederate military forces invaded the North, feelings of fear and anxiety were raised among people living in the part of the country where the invaders roamed. This was most likely especially true when the invaders were the seemingly invincible Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, who carried out two invasions of the North. One of these was the invasion of Pennsylvania, which ended at Gettysburg, and the other was the invasion of Maryland, which ended at Antietam. Another major Confederate invasion of the North was the twin invasion of Kentucky by Braxton Bragg with his Army of Mississippi and Edmund Kirby Smith with his Army of Kentucky. This invasion, which caused great anxiety in southern Ohio, ended at Perryville. Even greater anxiety in southern Ohio was caused by the cavalry raid through that region that was led by John Hunt Morgan. The greater anxiety in Ohio was due to the fact that Morgan’s raid actually penetrated into the Buckeye State, in contrast to the invasion by Bragg and Kirby Smith, which never made it north of Kentucky. (As an aside, Morgan and his men were not the first Confederates to invade Ohio. That distinction belongs to Albert Jenkins and his Confederate cavalry, who invaded Ohio nine months before Morgan did. Jenkins’ raid into Ohio is described in the history brief of September 2013.) Another Confederate invasion that caused great anxiety, not so much in Ohio, but in the U.S. capital, was Jubal Early’s 1864 invasion that reached the outskirts of Washington. These and other Confederate invasions of the North were significant, but no Confederate invasion matched the extent of the one that occurred in late 1863. This invasion went farther than any of the other Confederate invasions, and, in contrast to Jubal Early’s invasion, penetrated not only into Washington, but into the White House. Even more astonishing is the fact that this Confederate invasion of the White House was authorized by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.

Emilie Todd Helm

This invasion of the White House was a direct consequence of the Battle of Chickamauga, which occurred in September 1863. During that battle, a young Confederate general named Benjamin Hardin Helm was mortally wounded. Helm, who was the commander of a Kentucky brigade that was known as the Orphan Brigade, was 32 years old at the time of his death. He left behind a widow named Emilie and three young children, Katherine, age six, Elodie, age four, and Benjamin Jr., age one. Helm’s widow’s full name was Emilie Todd Helm, Todd as in Mary Todd Lincoln. Emilie was the half-sister of the wife of Abraham Lincoln. Emilie, who was born in Lexington, Kentucky on November 11, 1836 and was 18 years younger than her half-sister, Mary, was the daughter of the same man who was the father of Mary Todd Lincoln, but by his second wife. Emilie first met Abraham Lincoln in 1847 when she was 11 years old. The future president and his wife visited the Todd family in Lexington, and Emilie was so frightened by the tall, lanky man in the long, black coat that she tried to hide behind her mother’s large dress. After Lincoln exchanged pleasantries with the adults, he saw Emilie behind her mother, swept her up in his arms, and said, “So this is little sister.” From that day on, Lincoln always referred to Emilie as Little Sister, and he grew very fond of her.

Emilie married Benjamin Helm in 1856. Helm had graduated from West Point in 1851, although at the time of his marriage to Emilie, he was no longer in the army. Prior to the Civil War, the Lincolns and the Helms spent time together and came to enjoy the company of each other. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Helm’s brother-in-law, who was then the president of the United States, offered Helm a commission in the Union army. However, Helm declined the offer and instead served in the Confederate army. When Lincoln learned of the death of Benjamin Helm, he told a visitor at the White House, “I feel as David of old did when he was told of the death of Absalom.” After Helm’s death at Chickamauga, Emilie, who was in Atlanta, Georgia at the time to attend the funeral of her husband, wanted to be with her family in Kentucky, but Kentucky was in Union control. Lincoln issued a pass to Emilie to allow her to join her family in Kentucky, but during her journey there, Emilie was stopped at Fort Monroe by Union troops and was told that she had to take an oath of allegiance in order to travel to Kentucky. Emilie refused to do this, which led to an impasse, and Emilie feared that she would be forced to return south. Finally, one of the Union officers sent a telegram to Lincoln about the situation, and after a few very anxious hours, the officer received a reply from Lincoln. Lincoln’s telegram stated simply, “Send her to me.”

Thus it was that the wife of a dead Confederate general took up residence in the White House in December 1863. Lincoln was severely criticized by the newspapers for allowing the widow of a Confederate general to live in the White House while so many wives of Union soldiers were becoming widows. But the newspapers were not alone in hurling criticism at the president for his decision to allow this. Lincoln also received criticism directly, such as when Union General Daniel Sickles visited the White House and told Lincoln, reputedly in a loud voice, “You should not have that rebel in your house!” Lincoln calmly responded to Sickles’ agitated demand, “Excuse me, General Sickles, my wife and I are in the habit of choosing our own guests. We do not need from our friends either advice or assistance in the matter.” Lincoln further rebuked Sickles by informing him, “Besides, the little ‘rebel’ came because I ordered her to come.” In spite of the widespread criticism, Emilie recorded in her diary that the Lincolns were very caring and compassionate toward her, which is understandable since the Lincolns had lost their son, Willie, 22 months earlier, and Mary was still suffering greatly from that loss. In fact, Emilie recorded that when she arrived at the White House, “Mr. Lincoln and my sister met me with the warmest affection, we were all too grief-stricken at first for speech. I have lost my husband, they have lost their fine little son Willie…We could only embrace each other in silence and tears.” Emilie also wrote, “Sister Mary’s tenderness for me is very touching. She and Brother Lincoln pet me as if I were a child, and, without words, try to comfort me.”

Mary Todd Lincoln

Emilie stayed at the White House for a week. During her brief visit, Emilie had many heartfelt conversations with her half-sister and with Lincoln, which Emilie recorded in her diary. By the time of her White House visit, Emilie had lost not only her husband in the war, but also two brothers (who were Mary’s half-brothers), and Emilie wrote about one evening when she and Mary spent time together by themselves. “Sister and I dined intimately, alone. Our tears gathered silently and fell unheeded as with choking voices we tried to talk of immaterial things. We talked of old friends in Springfield and in Kentucky. Allusion to the present is like tearing open a fresh and bleeding wound and the pain is too great for self-control. And the future, alas, the future seems empty, of everything but despair.” Emilie also wrote about her half-sister’s constant attempts to alleviate Emilie’s grief and to put on a cheerful face for her husband. “Sister is doing everything to distract my mind and her own from our terrible grief, but at times it overwhelms us; we can’t get away from it, try as we will to be cheerful and accept fate. Sister has always a cheerful word and a smile for Mr. Lincoln, who seems thin and care-worn and seeing her sorrowful would add to his care.”

In spite of Mary’s attempts to conceal her sadness from her husband, Lincoln was not unaware, and even asked Emilie to help ease Mary’s grief by visiting again. Emilie recorded the conversation in her diary. ” ‘Little Sister, I hope you can come up and spend the summer with us at the Soldiers’ Home, you and Mary love each other—it is good for her to have you with her—I feel worried about Mary, her nerves have gone to pieces; she cannot hide from me that the strain she has been under has been too much for her mental as well as her physical health. What do you think?’ he asked me anxiously. I answered him as I knew he wished me to do, candidly. ‘She seems very nervous and excitable and once or twice when I have come into the room suddenly the frightened look in her eyes has appalled me. She seems to fear that other sorrows may be added to those we already have to bear.’ ” Then Emilie added in a sadly prescient statement, ” ‘I believe if anything should happen to you or Robert or Tad it would kill her.’ ” Only 16 months after Emilie said this to Lincoln, he was taken away from Mary. And six years after that, Mary lost her son, Tad.

One especially telling moment came one morning when, as Emilie related, “Sister Mary was sitting in a drooping despondent attitude as I came across the room to kiss her good morning; the newspaper she had been reading dropped to the floor as she held her arms out to me and said, ‘Kiss me, Emilie, and tell me that you love me! I seem to be the scape-goat for both North and South!’ ” On one occasion, Emilie and Mary were talking about Emilie’s mother and the loss of Emilie’s two brothers. During this conversation, Mary made a comment about the grief that Emilie’s mother was surely feeling at the deaths of two of her sons. Regarding the sorrow that befalls a mother at the loss of a child, Mary noted that “a wound in a mother’s heart can never heal.” Mary’s somber words expressed a forlorn reality that she knew firsthand after recently suffering the loss of her young son, Willie, and earlier losing her son, Eddie.

One topic that never entered their conversations was the war. Emilie noted in her diary, “Sister Mary and I avoid any reference to the war or to any of my experiences in the South for fear of hurting each other. Her fine tact and delicacy fill me with admiration.” Emilie also wrote, “They were, both Sister Mary and Mr. Lincoln, careful not to allude to politics or to the South, or in any way to hurt me or make it difficult for me.” Emilie recorded that this put some constraints on their verbal interactions, but that they still found ways to express their feelings to each other. “Sister and I cannot open our hearts to each other as freely as we would like. This frightful war comes between us like a barrier of granite closing our lips but not our hearts, for though our tongues are tied, we weep over our dead together and express through our clasped hands the sympathy we feel for each other in our mutual grief.” On the one occasion that Lincoln had a conversation with Emilie that referenced the war, it was intended to console Emilie over the loss of her husband. “Mr. Lincoln in the intimate talks we had was very much affected over the misfortunes of our family; and of my husband he said, ‘You know, Little Sister, I tried to have Ben come with me. I hope you do not feel any bitterness or that I am in any way to blame for all this sorrow.’ I answered it was ‘the fortune of war’ and that while my husband loved him and had been deeply grateful to him for his generous offer to make him an officer in the Federal Army, he had to follow his conscience and that for weal or woe he felt he must side with his own people. Mr. Lincoln put his arms around me and we both wept.”

Visitors to the White House sometimes were not considerate about excluding the war as a topic of conversation. For instance, when a senator from New York named Ira Harris visited Lincoln, Harris tried to goad Emilie by asking her “several pointed questions about the South.” Emily refused to take the bait and instead, “as politely as I could I gave him non-committal answers.” Failing to provoke Emilie in this way, Harris then proclaimed, “Well, we have whipped the rebels at Chattanooga, and I hear, madam, that the scoundrels ran like scared rabbits,” to which Emilie defiantly responded, “It was the example, Senator Harris, that you set them at Bull Run and Manassas.” Emilie recorded in her diary that Lincoln was not present when this exchange took place, and Emilie also recorded that when Lincoln was later told what Emilie said, he gleefully retorted, “The child has a tongue like the rest of the Todds.”

Emilie Todd Helm, later in life

After her brief stay in the White House, Emilie completed her journey to Lexington to be with her family, and she spent most of the rest of the war in Kentucky. She lived there for a short time after the war, but found life under military rule too difficult. She then moved to Madison, Indiana, a small city on the Ohio River, where she worked as an organist in a church. After several years there, when life in Kentucky returned to normal, Emilie moved to Louisville and taught music. After living in Louisville for a few years, Emilie moved to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where she was appointed postmistress and served in that capacity for 12 years. When her time as postmistress ended, Emilie moved to a plantation near Lexington that her son, Benjamin Jr., purchased, and she lived there until her death on February 20, 1930 at the age of 93. Emilie’s father had seven children by his first wife, including Mary Todd Lincoln, and nine children by his second wife, including Emilie Todd Helm. Emilie was the last surviving child among these siblings and half-siblings. Befitting her family’s dual loyalties to the North and the South, Emilie, in her later years, was the Todd family representative at several events that honored Abraham Lincoln and was also active in the United Daughters of the Confederacy. She also attended a number of reunions of the Orphan Brigade, the Kentucky brigade that her husband commanded until his death at Chickamauga. The post-war members of that brigade gave Emilie the title “Mother of the Brigade.”

Emilie in later life (seated left) with her daughters, Elodie (seated right) and
Katherine (standing)

Emilie’s daughter, Katherine, who, at the age of six, accompanied her mother when Emilie stayed at the White House after her husband’s death, wrote a biography of Mary Todd Lincoln titled The True Story of Mary, Wife of Lincoln. This biography, which was published in 1928, concludes with Katherine speculating about what Mary would have said had Mary been able to convey a message to those who attended her funeral. Katherine surmised that Mary would have told everyone, “At last I am content—happy.” Mary’s husband recognized that one source of happiness for Mary during her earthly life was sharing time with her half-sister, Emilie. Lincoln put this into words during Emilie’s White House visit when he implored Emilie, “Stay with her as long as you can.”

The Southern invasions of the North that were led by Robert E. Lee, Braxton Bragg, Edmund Kirby Smith, John Hunt Morgan, and Jubal Early all had one thing in common, specifically, all of them were unsuccessful, because they all failed to achieve their objective. In contrast, Emilie Todd Helm’s invasion of the White House was successful, because it attained its objective of bringing comfort to Emilie after the loss of her husband, and it had the further benefit of bringing comfort to Emilie’s half-sister, Mary Todd Lincoln, who was still grieving over the loss of her son, Willie. Nevertheless, Emilie’s invasion and occupation of the White House caused great controversy for Abraham Lincoln, because he did not simply approve this, but, as he, himself, said, he ordered it. However, from our perspective of looking back in history, one consequence of Emilie’s White House invasion was to add to Abraham Lincoln’s standing as a genuinely and universally compassionate leader at the time of our nation’s greatest crisis. Unlike many of that period, such as Dan Sickles and Ira Harris, who harbored only feelings of hostility toward those who stood in opposition to them, Lincoln was able to access the better angels of his nature and feel sympathy toward the wayward part of the country.

Lincoln’s public attitude toward those who opposed him set an example for all U.S. presidents who serve during a time when our country is beset by bitter strife and fierce division. For that matter, Lincoln set an example not just for all U.S. presidents, but for all Americans. Even though those who opposed Lincoln had taken up arms against the country, Lincoln did not publicly denigrate or demonize them. Lincoln was never sympathetic toward the Confederate cause. But Lincoln did feel sympathy for the suffering of those who embraced that cause. These qualities, which would have served the country well during Reconstruction had Lincoln not been taken away by a bullet from John Wilkes Booth’s derringer, were clearly displayed after a disputatious exchange between Lincoln’s ten-year-old son, Tad, and Emilie’s six-year-old daughter, Katherine, who was with Emilie when she lived at the White House. As Emilie told of the incident, Tad showed Katherine a photograph of his father and said to Katherine, “This is the President,” to which Katherine “shook her head and said very emphatically, ‘No, that is not the President, Mr. Davis is President.’ ” Tad then shouted, “Hurrah for Abe Lincoln,” and Katherine shouted back, “Hurrah for Jeff Davis.” Finally, Tad appealed to his father to resolve the argument, and Lincoln said, “Well, Tad, you know who is your President, and I am your little cousin’s Uncle Lincoln.” When Lincoln said this to his son, and when he allowed a grieving widow of a Confederate general to stay in the White House, he was living the words that he had spoken to the country when in 1861 he admonished his fellow citizens, North and South, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Those words applied in 1861, and they still apply today.