November 4, 2022 3:02 am
On this episode of Our American Stories, The History Guy remembers the 16th President’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln. Because of his father, Abraham Lincoln, Robert Todd's life has been largely forgotten—but it deserves to be remembered.
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Go to Hillsdale.edu to sign up for their terrific and free online courses. And our next story comes to us from a man who's simply known as the History Guy. His videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages over on YouTube. The History Guy is also heard here at Our American Stories. In this next story, the History Guy remembers the 16th president's son, Robert Todd Lincoln. Because of his father, Abraham Lincoln, Robert Todd's life has been largely forgotten.
Here's the History Guy. On April 9th, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant following the defeat of the Confederate Army at the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse. The surrender documents were actually signed in the parlor of a home owned by a man named William McLean and they were witnessed by both Grant and Lee's staff. The last survivor among those witnesses lived all the way until 1926 and by coincidence was a very famous person, one of the most important statesmen of his day. Robert Todd Lincoln was Abraham Lincoln's firstborn son and the only one of Abraham Lincoln's children to survive to adulthood.
His younger brother Edward died of a fever at just the age of three. Robert grew up at a time when his father was practicing law on a circuit and thus was traveling, gone most of the time, and so their relationship was distant, not very close. Robert once noted that his most vivid memories of his father growing up was Abraham packing his saddle bags. By the time that Robert's father was elected president, Robert was attending Harvard University.
He described his father as being so busy that they scarcely had 10 minutes quiet time together during his entire presidency. Robert graduated Harvard in 1864 and briefly attended law school there, but he felt compelled to join the Union Army and share the risk that everybody else was taking. At first his mother resisted.
His little brother Willie had died in the White House of a fever in 1862 and his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, feared that she could not withstand another loss. But Robert eventually prevailed and his father asked General Grant if Robert could be assigned to his staff. Robert was made an assistant adjutant and given the rank of captain and that is why he was present to witness Lee's surrender. Robert had traveled to Washington to visit his parents on April 15th and his parents invited him to go to the theater with him, but he declined.
He had been traveling on horseback all day and needed a rest and so Robert narrowly missed his father's assassination. Robert moved with his mother and his younger brother, Tad, to Chicago and he continued his law studies. He was admitted to the bar in 1867. In 1868 he married the daughter of a United States senator.
They had three children. In 1876 Robert was elected town supervisor of the town of South Chicago, a town that was eventually absorbed into the city of Chicago. That was his only elected office of his career. In 1877 he was offered the position of assistant secretary of state by President Rutherford B. Hayes, but he declined, although he remained active in Republican politics. And then in 1881 he accepted a cabinet appointment as secretary of war in the new cabinet of President James Garfield. He was with Garfield in the train station in July of 1881 and witnessed and witnessed Garfield's assassination. Robert continued to serve as secretary of war in the cabinet of President Chester A. Arthur where he was involved in many military reforms. He left the position in 1885. And then in 1889 he was appointed to the important position of minister to the United Kingdom under President Benjamin Harrison where he served for four years. When he returned to the United States he became general counsel of the Pullman Palace Car Company, the world famous maker of railway cars. And when the founder George Pullman died in 1897 Robert was made president of the Pullman Car Company.
He served in that position until 1911 when he left due to ill health, but he stayed on as chairman of the board clear until 1922. Despite his very accomplished life Robert Todd Lincoln is often remembered for three things. The first was a coincidence. Somewhere in 1863 or 1864 Robert Todd Lincoln was riding a train from New York City to Washington DC and while in Jersey City, New Jersey he was bumped off a train platform landing in the dangerous spot between the platform and the train. A stranger reached down and pulled him out and when Robert looked up he realized that his savior was the most famous actor of the day, a man named Edwin Booth. Only later did Edwin Booth find out that the young man that he had saved was President Lincoln's son and that is said to have offered Edwin Booth some solace as he was personally devastated when his younger brother John Wilkes Booth murdered President Lincoln. Second in 1875 Robert had his mother Mary Todd Lincoln committed to an asylum. He was concerned about erratic behavior after the death of his younger brother Tad at the age of 18.
Mary was able to get some letters out to her attorney who was able to convince Robert to let her leave the asylum and live with her sister but it included some public embarrassment for Robert and he and his mother never fully reconciled. And finally Robert Todd Lincoln is sometimes described as being somewhat unlucky because of his proximity to three presidential assassinations. He just missed his father's assassination. He was there when James A. Garfield was assassinated and he was just getting off a train going to visit President William McKinley when McKinley was shot in 1901. He was there for three presidential assassinations because he was proximate to power during a tumultuous time. But Robert Todd Lincoln lived an extraordinary life. He was born poor and yet found great success and died very wealthy. He was an elder statesman. He was a leader in his party who was suggested as a candidate for president or vice president many times but always declined. He was the president of one of the largest corporations in the country. He was frankly one of the most accomplished men of his era. His last public appearance was May 30th of 1922 when he appeared with President Warren G. Harding and former President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Howard Taft at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial. He passed away in 1926 just a few days shy of his 83rd birthday and darn it he deserves to be remembered as more than just his father's son. And those words are true and spoken beautifully by the history guy. This is Robert Todd Lincoln's story here on Our American Stories. Folks if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past know that all of our stories about American history from war to innovation culture and faith are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life.
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