Tag Archives: Mary Todd Lincoln

Lincoln 2012: Vampire Hunter and (international) Box Office Slayer

By Catherine Clinton

My obsession with action adventure films and my status as a Lincoln scholar, I decided, would make me a perfect candidate to enjoy Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

The fractional truth — a concept Lincoln alludes to in the film’s voiceover — can become a dangerous thing, but it also allows for complex, entertaining eccentricities. Especially in this souped-up digital age, it’s nice to have a nod to the past: like the animated television series Clone High (2002) as the teenaged Lincoln struggles with his rival JFK for the attentions of Cleopatra, and more recently the 2010 Drunk History episode on YouTube with Will Ferrell and Don Cheadle. I had my heart set on loving this new high concept mash-up of the slasher-horror with a true red, white and blue biopic. Yet I was somewhat disappointed, especially as a fan of the book.

I found Seth Graham-Smith’s vampire hunter volume an engaging tongue-in-cheek novel cleverly exploiting Lincoln’s mythic status, revisionist views on race and slavery, not to mention the current craze for vampires. For Lincolnistas the volume presents a parlor game of catching the errors or sorting out the real from fake quotes. The film is even more mind blowing, and for the uninitiated, a fairly unbelievable introduction. But from his law partner William Herndon forward, Lincoln has been a commodity — thus liberties will be taken and outrageous claims made. It would’ve been nicer for Graham-Smith to have been more faithful to his own text with his screenplay adaptation, but as any member of the Screenwriter’s Guild knows, being faithful to the text is a fantasy no producer will buy.

Aficionados of horror films revel in the cheesy comfort of the fantastic directly competing with the familiar which produces hairs rising on the back of the neck. The book and film both raise a series of improbable questions, even if you believe in these fanged creatures of the night.

Like what if Lincoln’s mother died at the hands of some dastardly vampire rather than the milk sickness to which her death has been attributed for a century and a half? What if Abraham Lincoln had used his skills as an axman to kill these monsters in a campaign of just revenge? (But the film seems to miss a trick to not have him whittle some stakes!) What if slaves shipped downriver are being consumed literally, rather than just being worked to death in the fields?

But questions and dialogue aside, this is a dazzling spectacle with epic and operatic features.
The balletic slo-mo special effects of the strapping railsplitter being trained as a vampire hunter attract a special crowd of filmgoers; not just the fans of Tim Burton  (producer) or Timur Bekmametov (director, whose 2008 Wanted, was a critical and box-office hit), but also legions within the newly emerging youth market seeking 3-D action adventure. Viewers get a screen soaked in blood and irony. My favorite cynicism was the vampire leader Adam’s plea that his people be allowed their own nation. Thus paving the way for a sequel: Vampire Nation — back to the “what if the Confederates had won” parlor game of the Civil War centennial era!

An appealing contemporary “what if” is posed with slavery in league with the darkest of horrors, vampirism. Bondage is portrayed with striking imagery; gore and bloodlust dominate in scenes where slavery appears, with the tip of the lash extending itself 3D nearly to the viewer’s own goose-bumped flesh. Most weirdly apt within this sectional fantasia: Jefferson Davis calling on Adam for military assistance from vampire troops!  How the Lincolns plot and prevail to defeat Confederate vampires at Gettysburg forms the movie’s dramatic and sensational climax.
Hats off to the sexy youthful actors who provide viewers with more than just pretty faces. Dominic Cooper’s Henry–a man with a secret, who’s also a man with a mission–provides an interesting foil for the young man from Pigeon Creek. This tension between means, desires and a higher morality has a spiritual dimension which at times lifts the script out of its blood-soaked, grimy depths. But the higher ground is too seldom sought and even more rarely reached.

At times the continuity coordinator seems to have lost the thread – as do some of the viewers – but what the hell was Harrison Ford trying to find/accused of/ running from in The Fugitive? Thus often it’s not about the plot — and in this film, the moralistic streak for Lincoln comes shining through, manufactured by 150 years of scholarly hagiography, iconic cultural motifs, and just plain pop fiction. Babraham– as he has been affectionately labeled–comes off as an “aw shucks” superhuman figure in Bakmametov’s twisted tribute.

The filmmakers demonize racism, championing the heroics of abolitionism, giving Lincoln an African-American ally to fight bloodsucking bats on a train! At least the auteurs have given this central black character (William Johnson) agency, as well as the name of an African-American servant who accompanied the Lincolns from Springfield to Washington.  Anthony Mackie provides a charismatic performance, which detracts from his role in plot absurdity. Harriet Tubman is also provided a cameo–in yet another portrait with 99% inaccuracy (similar to Stephen Douglas & Joshua Speed). Yet Tubman’s genuine one percent also triumphs as a plot device–power to the Underground Railroad and who has the final taste of victory and freedom.

Lincoln’s life and legendary status makes him a perfect star–to promote his own destiny, as he clearly does in this offbeat film epic. Benjamin Walker (so effective on Broadway in the role of Andrew Jackson in the musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” that he may want to specialize in playing Presidents!) is relatively unknown to film audiences– which gives him an advantage. Who is this, if not our man Lincoln?

The general public’s ignorance about Mary Lincoln– played by the fetching Mary Elizabeth Winstead, allows viewers to shoehorn the Lincoln-Todd romance into a formulaic cliché about boy meeting girl. The writer and director throw in enough authentic emotive touches to create chemistry on screen. But I recognize that only Mary Lincoln biographers will be satisfied by this saccharine rendition of Lincoln’s romance and marriage. And even I wouldn’t try to sell an audience on such an heroic Mrs. Lincoln…who leans toward anti-slavery and braves the open road at night with a black woman. The audience is roused nearly to applause when Mary avenges her child’s death, and puts an end to the phantasmagoric creature played by Erin Wasson–a female vampire with such slither and style that she conjures up Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain crossed with Catwoman. Although most cinematic vampires have been men–and the sexualized undertones are far from subtle in these portraits–perhaps the most effective vampire within this saga is the enigmatic Vadoma–who struts and connives until she meets her match (no spoilers). Her voracious demonization of womanhood harks back to Philip Burne- Jones’ painting of a female leaning over a supine man, which scandalized London when exhibited in the 1890s. In a film dominated by male fantasy, women do not fare as poorly as your average Hollywood vehicle.

When Mary, in a witch-like fury, pummels her husband’s chest angrily after the death of their son, Willie, Graham-Smith may or may not be aware of the historical debate surrounding Abe’s marriage. One prominent Lincoln historian has labeled him an “abused spouse,” claiming Abraham was a victim of Mary’s domestic violence. In any case, intellectual malapropos abound and overshadow the earnestness with which these filmmakers pursue their political message about Lincoln’s “magical properties.” But this nevertheless may work magic globally, as Lincoln the Vampire Hunter topped the charts during its opening summer weekend in the U.K.

And by the film’s end the weight of the evils of vampires, not to mention his secret life as a vampire hunter, mark Lincoln’s face and seal his fate. Anything that awakens curiosity about the Civil War during this sesquicentennial era must be applauded, even if we wince through fiction and pop projects. My only reservation is if the Vampire Hunter image spawns other less intentional horror depictions; with the announcement of a documentary adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln, I shudder. But clearly, Americans hunger for Lincoln, and filmmakers will slake this thirst for a new generation, as well as that of their parents and grandparents. Lincoln’s star power goes 3D, vampires and all!


Catherine Clinton holds a chair in U.S. history at Queen’s University Belfast and
is the author of Mrs. Lincoln: A Life (2009) and Harriet Tubman: The Road to
(2004). She serves as a member of President Lincoln’s Cottage Scholarly Advisor Group.


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Lincoln’s Own Flag Day

By Zachary Klitzman

Let’s face it: Flag Day — which commemorates the official adoption of the Stars and Stripes by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777 — is not the most widely celebrated holiday in America. An informal survey of the staff calendars at President Lincoln’s Cottage revealed that only 50% of the calendars listed the “holiday” (Father’s Day, Hallmark would be happy to know, appeared on all six calendars). In fact, in a 1998 survey, only 27 percent of Americans who participated said they knew when Flag Day is and what it means, whereas 18 percent were unaware of both the meaning and timing of the holiday. (The majority of those polled could name either the date or the meaning of the celebration, but not both.)

The holiday first came to national prominence when 19-year old Wisconsin school teacher Bernard J. Cigrand had his kids celebrate the “flag’s birthday” on June 14, 1885 by writing essays on what the flag meant to them. In subsequent years he traveled around the country promoting a June 14th Flag Day.  On May 30, 1916, Cigrand’s dream became officially recognized, as President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation calling for a nationwide observance of Flag Day June 14th. Subsequently, in 1949 President Truman signed an Act of Congress designating the 14th day of June every year as National Flag Day. (Despite the legislation, Flag Day is not an officially observed U.S. Federal Holiday, and only one state, Pennsylvania, celebrates it as an official State Holiday.)

Though the holiday commemorates an event that took place during the War of Independence, the Civil War played a role in the history of the Flag. Nearly 30 years before Cigrand celebrated the flag’s birthday, Hartford, Connecticut observed Flag Day on June 14, 1861, using the commemoration to pray for the Union army and its goal of saving the country. However, the holiday did not catch on elsewhere in the country nor was it celebrated again in Hartford in subsequent years.

Lincoln himself never celebrated the holiday. Yet he made a very important decision in the Flag’s history as President. As he journeyed to Washington, D.C. for his 1861 inauguration, Lincoln spoke at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on February 22. Inside the historical building, Lincoln talked about how he was determined to uphold the legacy of the Founders and the Declaration, saying “all the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn … from the sentiments which originated, and were given to the world from this hall in which we stand.” He even went so far as to say that if he could not save the Union while adhering to the principles of the Declaration, “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender” the document.

Abraham Lincoln raising a flag at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, in honor of the admission of Kansas to the Union on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1861. Library of Congress

After giving his patriotic speech, Lincoln participated in a flag-raising ceremony outside the building to honor Kansas’ recent admission to the Union on January 29, 1861. Giving brief remarks before raising the new 34-starred flag (see image), Lincoln started by mentioning that though the flag the Founders originally raised at Independence Hall “had but 13 stars,” “each additional star added to that flag has given additional prosperity and happiness to this country.” Therefore, “cultivating the spirit that animated our fathers, who gave renown and celebrity to this Hall, cherishing that fraternal feeling which has so long characterized us as a nation … I think we may promise ourselves that not only the new star placed upon that flag shall be permitted to remain there to our permanent prosperity for years to come, but additional ones shall from time to time be placed there.” In these few words, Lincoln stated his policy that despite Southern states succeeding from the Union, their symbolic representation on the Flag of the United States would not be removed. Instead, they would continue to adorn the national symbol of unity.

Mr. Klitzman is Executive Assistant at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

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The Lincolns’ First Move to the Cottage

Detail of Mary Lincoln’s letter to a friend in May 1862.

President Lincoln and his family moved to the cottage at the Soldiers’ Home for the first time 150 years ago this week. The family decided to move for a number of reasons – to mourn the loss of their second son, Willie, to escape the unhealthy conditions of downtown Washington, DC , and to try to find some solitude from the chaos of the city.

Mary Lincoln wrote a letter to a friend, Julia Ann Sprigg, on May 29, 1862 about their expected move in the coming weeks – “The 1st of July, we go out to the ‘Soldiers’ Home,’ a very charming place 2 ½ miles from the city, several hundred feet, above, our present situation, to pass the summer.” The family would move before July, however, based on two separate accounts that indicate the family moved at some point between June 8 and 13, 1862.

The article, “A Very Charming Place,” written by Cottage staff member Zachary Klitzman for our latest edition of the Cottage Courier, discusses the Lincolns’ move to the Cottage. You can read the entire article here – http://lincolncottage.org/news/Newsletter-Spring2012-article.pdf

To learn more about President Lincoln’s Cottage, visit our website: www.lincolncottage.org

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Girl Scouts at President Lincoln’s Cottage

President Lincoln’s Cottage would like to give a special welcome to all of the Girl Scouts from around the country that have traveled to Washington, D.C. for Rock The Mall starting June 1. There are so many fun and engaging places to visit in this city and President Lincoln’s Cottage is one of them! When scouts visit the Cottage with their families, they learn about President Lincoln’s leadership during one of the most tumultuous times in American History – the Civil War. The Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home served as a great place of solitude from downtown Washington for Lincoln and was where he developed the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Cottage offers a special admission price just for Girl Scouts! Included with the Girl Scout Ticket scouts receive a President Lincoln’s Cottage patch and an activity sheet that help scouts earn one of the following badges: Listening to the Past, Communication, Folk Arts or Building Art.

CLICK HERE to purchase your ticket. Advanced ticket purchase is strongly recommended, we cannot guarantee a spot on a tour without a reservation.

For more information about President Lincoln’s Cottage, visit our website at www.lincolncottage.org. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest!

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Latest Happenings and Upcoming Events

spring newsletter 2012The latest edition of the Cottage Courier is now available on our website! Stay up-to-date with all that is happening at President Lincoln’s Cottage by subscribing to receive our quarterly e-newsletter.

The next Cottage Conversation will take place Monday, May 21, with Harold Holzer at 6:30pm and you don’t want to miss the Memorial Day festivities on May 28. Find out more here. The 1863/2013 Sesquicentennial Ornament is now available for purchase. Click here to buy and be sure to collect the entire series!

Readers also do not want to miss the article A Very Charming Place by Zachary Klitzman, which discusses a letter Mary Lincoln wrote referencing her family’s planned move to the Soldiers’ Home.

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Mourning a Son in the Midst of War

By Beth Roberts

On Thursday, February 20, 1862, Abraham and Mary Lincoln were reeling from the death of their second-oldest surviving son, Willie. He had died from what was likely typhoid fever.

Willie had gotten sick in January. The Lincolns had gone ahead with a February 5th reception they’d planned long before Willie came down with typhoid. They were worried and throughout that evening both Mary and Lincoln left the party to check on him. When he showed improvement, the Lincolns were able to rejoice in Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson in Kentucky on February 16th.  However, Willie went downhill rapidly after that and on Thursday, Feb. 20th, at 5:00 p.m., he died.

Their youngest son, Tad, had come down with the disease in February, too, and Mary had been caring for both boys.  Once Willie died, Mary was inconsolable. Several cabinet members’ wives cared for Tad until Lincoln was able to hire a nurse, Rebecca Pomroy, who came  highly recommended by Dorothea Dix. Mary withdrew from anyone or anything that reminded her of Willie. She got rid of his things. She wouldn’t go into the room in which Willie died. She asked that Willie’s young playmates, Bud and Holly Taft, not come to the funeral; they reminded her of Willie and she couldn’t bear seeing them. As it turned out, she didn’t attend the service itself. She only went to the private gathering in the Green Room before the public service and then returned to her bedroom.

Most illuminations in the city to celebrate Grant’s western victory and George Washington’s birthday were cancelled.  People noted Willie’s death in their journals, and the White House was draped in black.  Lincoln invited Bud Taft, who had sat with Willie during his illness, to come “see Willie before he was put in the casket” (Team of Rivals, p. 420) without Mary’s knowledge.

On February 24, Phineas Gurley, the pastor at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, conducted both the private service for the family at noon and the public service in the East Room at 2:00. He conveyed a message of comfort and spoke about the mystery of the providence of God to the attendees, which included Vice-president Hannibal Hamlin,  cabinet members, senators and congressmen, diplomats, soldiers and friends. At the conclusion of the service, Lincoln rode with son Robert, Orville Browning and Lyman Trumbull, Illinois friends and senators, to Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown.

Mary remained in bed for three weeks. Lincoln grew more and more concerned about her. She blamed herself for Willie’s death and felt God was punishing her for her vanity. As Tad continued his recovery, Lincoln spent as much time with him as possible; what work he could do in Tad’s room, he did there. And as Tad got stronger, LIncoln and Tad became closer. Tad needed the comfort of his father and the assurance that he was nearby. Lincoln continued his work as president (in particular, he was struggling with General McClellan’s inaction), but he grieved for his lost son. For several Thursdays following Willie’s death, Lincoln went into the Green Room to mourn. He, unlike Mary, wanted physical reminders of Willie … a picture, a scrapbook … near him.

As I look out my window today, I’m reminded by the evidence of nature, as the Lincolns most surely were, that life continues, but I can’t help feel how very difficult those weeks following Willie’s death must have been for them.  I’m also awed by Lincoln’s strength of character to continue his duties in spite of on-going and painful trauma.

 Ms. Roberts is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005, pp. 415-423.

Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes in The Lincoln White House: Memoirs of an African-American Mistress. New York: Dover Publications, 2006, pp. 42-46.

White, Ronald C., Jr.  A. Lincoln. New York: Random House, 2009, pp. 474-480.

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Spreading Holiday Cheer—Lincoln Style

By Rebecca Downes

What is your favorite part of the holiday season? Is it your brightly decorated Christmas tree or the glowing candles of your menorah? Perhaps it is the thrill of ripping open your holiday gifts and feasting on decorated gingerbread men. For me, the best part of the holiday season are the traditions that have been passed down through my family from year to year, and getting to spend quality time with the people I love.

civil war soldiers

Engineers of the 8th N.Y. State Militia, 1861. No. Ill-B-499, Courtesy of the National Archives

Now, imagine not being able to have any of those things:

No tree or presents

No holiday feast

No time with your loved ones

It seems pretty disheartening to think of the holidays in those terms. Sadly, that is exactly how thousands of soldiers celebrated Christmas during the Civil War. President Lincoln, his wife Mary and their young son Tad were confronted with the gloominess and low morale of soldiers when they visited them in Washington hospitals. Consider how difficult it must have been for these men to spend their holiday away from home in an overcrowded hospital filled with the sick, wounded and dying.

Tad Lincoln may have been just a child, but the sweet little boy’s heart went out to the soldiers that he saw. After visiting wounded soldiers, Tad requested that his father send Christmas gifts to the men. Items such as clothing and reading materials were delivered to soldiers under the signature, “Tad Lincoln”. President Lincoln and his wife also donated money and sent items to soldiers in need[i].

Take a page from Tad Lincoln’s book this holiday season. Instead of spending money on expensive things that you do not really need, consider others who are less fortunate. It doesn’t take much—skip a week’s worth of trips to Starbucks and use the money to buy a toy for children in need. Donate canned goods to your local food bank. Even those of us on a budget can spare our pocket change for Salvation Army collection buckets.  Helping others is the quickest way to get in the Christmas spirit.

After all, isn’t giving more rewarding than receiving?  The Lincolns’ sure thought so.

Ms. Downes is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

[i] Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum: Christmas at the White House, “Abraham and Mary Lincoln” http://www.hoover.archives.gov/exhibits/WHChristmas/lincoln/index.html

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