Home Sweet Home

When the Lincolns moved into the White House in 1861--son Robert Todd Lincoln, A.B. 1864, LL.D. '93, was away at Harvard--"the whole place had the air of a run-down, unsuccessful, third-rate hotel," writes David Herbert Donald, Warren professor of American history and American civilization emeritus, in Lincoln at Home: Two Glimpses of Abraham Lincoln's Family Life (Simon & Schuster, $30). No matter the mansion's condition, neither Abe nor Mary had the training to be master and mistress of it comfortably. But sons Willie, 10, and Tad, 8, enjoyed themselves.

The two younger Lincoln boys found endless opportunities for adventure and mischief in the Executive Mansion. Adults saw the soldiers stationed on the south grounds of the White House as an ominous reminder of danger, but to Willie and Tad the members of the "Bucktail" Pennsylvania regiment were playmates who could always be counted on for stories and races. Catching the martial spirit, Willie and Tad took great pleasure in drilling all the neighborhood boys they could round up....they commandeered the roof of the mansion for their fort, and here, with small logs painted to look like cannon, they resolutely fired away at unseen Confederates across the P0tomac. Intensely patriotic, Willie published a poem in the Washington National Republican about the heroic death of a friend at Ball's Bluff. Tad, a little less clear about what was going on, managed to create a sensation when his father was solemnly reviewing Union troops on Pennsylvania Avenue by slipping in behind the president and waving a Confederate flag.

Illustration by Lynne Foy

Children in the White House were something new for Americans, and citizens began showering them with presents. The most valued, and the most lasting, were the pets. Someone presented to Willie a beautiful little pony, to which he was devoted; he rode the animal nearly every day and, being a generous boy, often allowed Tad to ride, even though the younger boy was so small that his legs stuck straight out on the sides. Especially cherished were two small goats, Nanko and Nannie, which frisked on the White House grounds and, when they had an opportunity, wrought destruction in the White House garden. But they were not entirely outside animals; like the public at large, they had the run of the White House. On one occasion Tad harnessed Nanko up to a chair, which served as a sled, and drove triumphantly through the East Room, where a reception was in progress. As dignified matrons held up their hoop skirts, Nanko pulled the yelling boy around the room and out through the door again....

[D]uring his first year in office, Lincoln had all too little time for his sons, for he was busy learning his job. The Department of State sent over a detailed memorandum of the clothing that a president was expected to wear. Obediently, Lincoln followed directions, though, with his ungainly figure and his immense height, his coat always seemed rumpled and his cravat askew. His huge hands, enlarged by years of plowing and splitting rails, were never comfortable in the white kid gloves that the State Department prescribed; once, holding up his hands encased in a new pair of these gloves, he said they looked like canvassed hams.

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