No genealogist–or non-genealogist, for that matter–could possibly miss the fact that our nation is in the midst of a five-year long anniversary of the American Civil War. It’s a sesquicentennial that remembers and honors the people, events, and sacrifices made on both sides of that conflict which ultimately preserved the Union and freed a people from bondage.
Bookstores, museums, publications, societies, and organizations—genealogy related and otherwise—have been featuring presentations, exhibits, speakers, Civil War re-enactments and other events since 2011. It will likely continue through 2015 as we continue to commemorate this watershed moment in American History.
A major part of those remembrances, of course, have to do with then-President Abraham Lincoln, who led the nation through that crisis.
Many also reference his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, a major player behind the scenes (and often, even publicly), as evidenced in “Lincoln” the recent award winning Hollywood biopic directed by Steven Spielberg.
I first took serious interest in Lincoln lore two years ago when visiting Springfield, IL, for the first time as a conference attendee at FGS (Federation of Genealogical Societies). There, between conference sessions my husband and I squeezed in visits to Lincoln’s home, law office and burial place; a visit to Lincoln’s presidential library and museum; and a visit to nearby New Salem, IL, the village where Lincoln first planted roots after leaving Kentucky and Indiana.
A month later, we even had the opportunity in Washington, DC, to visit the Old Soldier’s Home (Lincoln’s version of Camp David where he could retreat from the pressures of Washington for a bit); Ford Theatre where he was assassinated; and the room across the street from that theater where he eventually succumbed to his assassin’s bullet.
Those opportunities for a Lincoln education, combined with learning I had two great-grandfathers who served in the Civil War gave me a new desire to learn all I could about this period of American history.
In the course of this self-paced learning experience I repeatedly came across bookstores and gift shops plying everything from cheap Abe Lincoln bobblehead dolls, to one-of-a-kind signed collectibles from the Civil War era. What repeatedly caught my attention though, was a book entitled “Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave.”
Written by Jennifer Fleischner, this 300+ page, well footnoted, historical volume offers a dual biography of the woman who was to become First Lady during the Civil War and the mulatto woman who bought her way out of slavery to serve as that First Lady’s dressmaker.
Alternating chapters of Fleishner’s book recount each woman’s childhood: Mary Todd, the daughter of a wealthy Kentucky slave owner; and Elizabeth Keckly, the mulatto daughter of a black slave woman and her white master.
Family life in the Lincoln White House, historical minutiae about the Civil War years, and plenty of namedropping of key military figures who entered and left their lives during those years, are generously sprinkled throughout the author’s work. But it’s the intense personalities of the two women which are the real focus of this dual biography as it documents its subjects’ strengths and weaknesses through their intertwined lives during an unprecedented period of racial discord.
In time, it’s clear how their very separate upbringings affected the women they each became, suggesting that even though they were strikingly different in many ways, they were similar in so many more. Ambition, drive and persistence enabled each of them to achieve their goals while still respecting and supporting each other. Eventually we learn that this unlikely pair develops a genuine friendship that continued beyond the White House years.
Keckly herself, wrote a first person account of her relationship with Mrs. Lincoln entitled “Behind the Scenes in the Lincoln White House: Memoirs of an African American Seamstress.” This 126-page book, which came out last spring, offers a step back in time as Keckly, the family dressmaker, provides an eyewitness account of the Lincoln household in times both happy and sad.
If you like your history wrapped in fiction, you might want to pick up Jennifer Chiaverinni’s book entitled “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” which hit store shelves a few months ago. Chiaverrini is a New York Times best selling author whose forte is historical fiction.
There are even a couple of children’s books that focus on the Lincoln-Keckley relationship. Both are geared toward kids age 10 and up. The first is “An Unlikely Friendship: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley” by Ann Rinaldi, a prolific children’s author of historical fiction. The other is “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: The Unlikely Friendship of Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Todd Lincoln” by Lydia Jones. Both of these well-illustrated, easy-to-read children’s novels use the Lincoln-Keckley story to bring history alive to the young.
So whether your preference is fact or fiction, memoir, history or children’s literature, consider choosing one of the above to round out your understanding of Civil War history through biographies which feature two icons in women’s history whose friendship—while perhaps unlikely—was nonetheless, quite true.
Copyright © 2013 Patricia Desmond Biallas