William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln (December 21, 1850 – February 20, 1862), the third son of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln. was more like his dad than older brother Robert; he had the same magnetic personality of Abraham Lincoln. A 16-year-old girl, Julia Taft, described Willie as “the most lovable boy I ever knew, bright, sensible, sweet-tempered and gentle-mannered.”
William Wallace Lincoln was born about ten months after his brother Eddie died on February 1, 1850. He was named after Dr. William Wallace, the husband of Mary’s sister Frances, and the physician who nursed Eddie Lincoln in his final days.
Abraham Lincoln was frequently arguing cases on Illinois’ Eighth Judicial Circuit when his oldest son Robert was growing up. The work kept Lincoln away from home, and he never developed a close bond with Robert. By the 1850s, the development of railroads allowed him to stay in Springfield on weekends, and he grew very close to Willie and his younger brother, Tad.
Both parents were fiercely proud of their children: William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, said they would take any chance to “get them to monkey around — talk — dance — speak — quote poetry, etc.” Their father would take the boys on wagon rides through Springfield and help with the babysitting, an unusual practice for men at the time. Abraham Lincoln was especially fond of Willie, who he felt had a mind like his own, and those who knew the boy considered him intelligent, generous, and kind-hearted.
In Springfield, Willie attended a private school operated by Miss Corcoran. Like his parents, Willie loved learning. He developed many interests, including writing poetry and drawing up railroad timetables. He had excellent natural ability in math. Additionally, Mary said Willie was “a most peculiarly religious child.” He was more studious than his younger brother, Tad.
In June of 1859, Willie went to Chicago with his father, who had legal business in there. Willie wrote a letter to his friend, Henry Remann, about his experience. In his letter Willie said, “This town is a very beautiful place. Me and father have a nice little room to ourselves. We have two little pitchers on a washstand. The smallest one for me the largest one for father. We have two little towels on a top of both pitchers. The smallest one for me, the largest one for father. Me and father had gone to two theaters the other night.”
The Lincolns moved into the White House in March of 1861. Willie and Tad had a great time in their new home. Willie was calmer and more conscientious than his younger brother. The boys loved animals, and gifts of dogs, rabbits, goats, and ponies poured into the White House. Because of the times, war-related games were popular with the boys, and they even constructed a fort on the White House roof. Willie and Tad often accompanied their father when he reviewed the troops in their camps. Additionally, they went with their mother when she took fruit, books, papers, and other gifts to the soldiers.
The two did have a mischievous streak: When Lincoln brought them to the office, he would allow them to roam freely, and the children would turn over furniture and papers, to Herndon’s consternation. During Lincoln’s train ride to Washington in February of 1861, Willie and Tad would ask visitors, “Do you want to see Old Abe?” and point to someone else.
The public was not used to having children in the White House and showered the boys with presents. Willie received a pony, to which he was devoted, and both boys loved to imitate the soldiers posted on the south lawn. When he could break away from the pressures of the office, Lincoln would often play with his children. A visitor once found Willie and Tad (and two of their friends) pinning the President of the United States to the floor.
Mrs. Lincoln hired a tutor for the boys. Willie’s mind was amazingly mature for his age. Whereas Tad seems to have disliked the lessons, Willie loved learning.
In February, 1862, both boys became ill, most likely with typhoid fever, possibly from drinking polluted water in the White House. While Tad recovered, Willie gradually declined. Both parents spent much time at his bedside. The young boy died on Thursday, February 20, 1862, at 5:00 P.M. at age 11. Abraham said, “My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!”
His death devastated his parents. Mary Lincoln could not bring herself to attend his funeral and remained bedridden for three weeks; she would not emerge in public for months afterwards. Abraham Lincoln, who had stayed at Willie’s side through his illness, would shut himself in his room after his son’s funeral to weep, and often had dreams of spending time with his son. He never fully recovered from the loss. On the day of his assassination, Lincoln told his wife that they must be more cheerful, as “between the war and the loss of our darling Willie, we have both been very miserable.”
Funerals of William Wallace Lincoln
The funeral took place in the East Room on Monday, February 24. The services were conducted by Reverend Phineas D. Gurley of Washington’s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln’s friend and seamstress, described the scene as follows:
“The funeral was very touching. Of the entertainments in the East Room the boy had been a most life-giving variation…..He was his father’s favorite. They were intimates – often seen hand in hand. And there sat the man, with a burden on the brain at which the world marvels – bent now with the load both at heart and brain – staggering under a blow like the taking from him of his child.”
Willie was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. After the assassination of his father in 1865, Willie’s casket was exhumed and his remains were placed on the Lincoln funeral train which traveled back to Springfield. Willie’s remains were placed in the public receiving vault at Oak Ridge Cemetery along with his father on May 4, 1865. On December 21, 1865, the remains were moved to a temporary tomb. On September 19, 1871, the remains of Abraham, Eddie, and Willie were moved to the permanent tomb.