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106 7 “I Feel Utterly without Spirit or Courage” One witness to the death of President Abraham Lincoln characterized the grieving twenty-one-year-old Robert at the time as “only a boy, for all his shoulder straps.”1 Whether a correct statement or not, there is no doubt that Robert found himself in a new and overwhelming position once his father died. Robert Lincoln was now, in the Victorian custom, the head of the Lincoln family, and, as such, it was his duty to manage family business and to care for his mother and youngest brother. Robert knew his own limitations and so immediately telegraphed an old family friend and political ally of Abraham Lincoln, David Davis, who was then an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, “Please come at once to Washington and take charge of my father’s affairs.”2 Davis’s wife, Sarah, who was with her husband at the time in Chicago, wrote her children of their father’s errand, adding, “I feel reluctant to have him go, and yet cannot refuse the family of Mr. Lincoln.”3 And Robert certainly needed help. Not only was he dealing with his own grief but also had to assume the father-figure status for twelve-year-old Tad and to continue ministering to his debilitated mother. In a daze after the president’s death, Robert escorted his mother from the Petersen House back to the White House, where they reunited with scared and stricken little Tad, who kept asking, “Where is my pa?” and “Who has killed papa?”4 Who indeed? By early Saturday morning, Robert long would have known that the actor John Wilkes Booth had been the assassin but little more. Booth was still on the run from the army, and no other conspirators had yet been captured. It is unclear how much Robert told Tad or even how much Robert cared, considering the weight now resting on his shoulders. While the newspapers reported all the details of the murder, the manhunt, and the scenes at the Petersen House, Robert was in the White House with his family. chapter seven 107 “Returning to Mrs. Lincoln’s room, I found her in a new paroxysm of grief,” Mary’s seamstress, Elizabeth Keckly, later wrote of the scene that morning in the White House. “Robert was bending over his mother with tender affection, and little Tad was couched at the foot of the bed, with a world of agony in his young face.”5 There, Mary had only Keckly, Elizabeth Dixon, and Mary Jane (Mrs. Gideon) Welles to comfort her.6 The Lincolns received numerous telegrams that morning from family and friends offering sympathy and assistance. Robert received missives from his cousin Emily Todd Helm, his uncle Clark M. Smith, and his close friend Clinton Conkling.7 Elizabeth Edwards, despite a three-year feud with her sister stemming from patronage desires, telegraphed Mary “as a sister and mother” and offered her assistance and her home for the duration of the funeral services in Springfield.8 But it was actually to her cousin Elizabeth Todd Grimsley that Mary reached out that day, asking her to come immediately to Washington.9 As for Robert, “He suffered deeply, as his haggard face indicated, but he was ever manly and collected when in the presence of his mother,” Keckly wrote.10 The nation may have lost its leader, but Robert Lincoln had lost his father. “In all my plans for the future, the chief object I had in view was the approbation of my father,” he wrote two weeks after the assassination, “and now that he is gone and in such a way, I feel utterly without spirit or courage. I know that such a feeling is wrong and that it is my duty to overcome it. I trust that for the sake of my mother and little brother that I will be able to do it.”11 One of Robert’s later friends, Nicholas Murray Butler, suggested that perhaps the greatest effect of the assassination on Robert was the overwhelming guilt it caused him, in that he never forgave himself for his absence at Ford’s Theatre that night. As the youngest member of the presidential party, Robert would have sat at the back of the box, closest to the door. According to Butler, Robert always felt that had he been there, “Booth would have had to deal with him before he could have shot the president.”12...


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