Friday, March 22, 2019

Where Lincoln's brother-in-law was mortally wounded

A cannonball pyramid marks where Confederate general Benjamin Helm was mortally wounded 
at the Battle of Chickamauga. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
The monument is in a clearing in the woods, east of Alexander Bridge Road.
Benjamin Helm died on Sept. 21, 1863, the day after he was wounded at Chickamauga.
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It was a war of brother vs. brother. Brother-in-law vs. brother-in-law, too.

On the morning of Sept. 20, 1863, Confederate Brigadier General Benjamin Hardin Helm, commander of the "Orphan Brigade," was mortally wounded by a sharpshooter while astride his horse during the Battle of Chickamauga (Ga.). The 32-year-old Kentucky native died the next day.

The news of Helm's death reverberated in Washington. Helm was married to Emilie Todd, the younger half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln. Benjamin, who in 1861 declined Abraham Lincoln's offer of a commission in the Union Army, was the president's brother-in-law. Mary Todd Lincoln also was a Kentucky native.

Benjamin Hardin Helm, mortally wounded
at Chickamauga, was buried 

in Elizabethtown, Ky.
"I never saw Mr. Lincoln more moved," said Senator David Davis of Illinois, "than when he heard of the death of his young brother-in-law Ben Hardin Helm, only thirty-two years old, at Chickamauga. I called to see him about four o'clock on the 22nd of September; I found him in the greatest grief."

In December 1863, Emilie was granted passage through Union lines to visit the White House, where she was treated with exceptional kindness by the Lincolns during her six-day visit.

"Mr. Lincoln and my sister met me with the warmest affection, [but] we were all too grief-stricken at first for speech," the 26-year-old widow wrote in her diary.

Added Emilie: "Sister Mary's tenderness for me is very touching. She and brother Lincoln pet me as if I were child, and, without words, try to comfort me."

In February 1862, the Lincolns had been rocked by their own tragedy when their 11-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever. Later that year, Mary lost two half-brothers, Aleck and Samuel, who served in the Confederate Army. (They were Emilie's brothers.)

Lincoln was worried Emilie might blame him for her husband's death, In her diary, she recorded an account of the conversation with the president:
"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."
Mary Lincoln and her half-sister, Emilie. She died in 1930 at 93
(Emilie image: University of Kentucky digital collection)
Then Lincoln hugged her, and they both wept.

After Emilie retired to her room in the White House one night, she heard a knock on her door. It was Mary, who was smiling through tears. "I want to tell you Emilie," she said, "that one may not be wholly without comfort when our loved ones leave us." Then the president's wife talked of how she had "fallen into a deep pit of gloom and despair without a ray of light anywhere" after the death of her "noble little Willie."

"He comes to me every night, and stands at the foot of my bed with the same sweet, adorable smile he has always had," Mrs. Lincoln said, according to her sister, "He does not always come alone; little Eddie* is sometimes with him and twice he has come with our brother Alec."

"Mary's eyes were wide and shining," Emilie recalled, "and I had a feeling of awe as if  I were in the presence of the supernatural."

ABOVE AND BELOW: A colorful remembrance wreath and an image of Helm near the site of his death.  

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


* Reference to "little Eddie" is the Lincolns' son Edward, who died in 1850, a month before his fourth birthday.

Helm, Katherine, The True Story of Mary, Wife of Lincoln, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1928.


  1. A great story and an important reminder of how strongly divided the country was at that time. Let’s pray this never happens again.

  2. Must have been a helluva shot to hit Helm. The wounding marker is far behind the confederate line, in a low area in the woods well out of sight of the union line. I always thought it was just a fluke as opposed to giving credit to a sharpshooter. Do we know for sure?

  3. Who is 'little Eddie' mentioned in the text?

  4. The second son of the Lincolns, he died at only 3.