We have all heard the story of Abe Lincoln growing up in a log cabin, but the additional details about his childhood make it all the more amazing that this man grew up to become a great orator and a strong and principled leader of our country who guided our nation through its darkest time.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was born in Kentucky in 1809. He and his sister Sarah (known as Sally) were born to Nancy Hanks and Tom Lincoln. Tom was an uneducated but relatively successful Kentucky farmer but as more people made their way into Kentucky, Lincoln found that the laws did not protect him from people who were out to poach his land. He became angry and frustrated and soon moved his young family to Perry County, Indiana.

The area where they settled was largely unsettled (an average of 3 people per square mile) and the land was terribly overgrown and difficult to farm. Abe Lincoln later described life in this area, known as Little Pigeon Creek, as a fight “with trees and logs and grubs.” While the family worked hard at farming, Tom had to rely on hunting most days in order to feed his family. Tom eventually built a one-room cabin for the family but there was no flooring and little furniture. The family slept on corn husk beds that frequently were inhabited by bugs and visited by rodents.

Their mother, Nancy, was very religious and taught the children about the Bible, and she believed in the importance of education. However, schools were uncommon in these lightly populated areas. When Abe was about seven, a school opened nine miles away, and Nancy insisted to Tom that the children be allowed to attend. (At best, the walk to school would have taken the children 2.5-3 hours each way so it was a major commitment.) The school did not last long, however the importance of education was impressed upon Abe’s mind.

When Abe was nine (1818), Nancy became very ill with “milk sickness.” (This is an illness we don’t hear about anymore but several of their neighbors had already died from it. Today scientists know that if cows ingest a plant known as white snakeroot, it goes through to their milk, and some people become sick and die from it.) Nancy’s death left Sally and Abe in the sole care of their father, who was overwhelmed by the need to hunt daily and still trying to cultivate the land so they could grow food. Historians report that he was a tough man who was known to knock his son down in anger at times; whether he would have been viewed as abusive or whether he was a “man of his day” is debated by experts.

Left Alone
The children were heartbroken at losing their mother, and the house was a mess without Nancy to bring order to it. Tom realized he needed help, so he left nine-year-old Abe and eleven-year-old Sally alone in the cabin while he returned to Kentucky to find a new wife. The children had little to eat other than dried berries that had been stored away by Nancy. A neighbor who stopped by reported that the children were terribly skinny, filthy, and the house was in terrible condition.

Abe and Sally were alone for half of the following year. They must have been certain they had been abandoned. However, six months later, Tom pulled up in a horse-drawn wagon with a new wife and her three children. Abe was said to have run to this new mother whom he had never met and immediately bury his face in her skirts.

Abe’s blind faith in her was well-placed. Sarah Bush Johnston was a loving person whose first order of business was getting her new husband to make household improvements including building a wooden floor and providing them with a wooden door and a real window. She was even-handed in her treatment of Abe and Sally and her own three children.

Though she herself could not read, she heard from Tom about Abe’s efforts to read, and she brought with her six books. Among them were Pilgrim’s Progress, Parson Weem’s Life of Washington (which is now recognized for the myths it told about our first president), and Aesop’s Fables. Though the family had little money for paper, pencils or books, Sarah did what she could to get a few things so Abe could read and write.
Another opportunity for the children to attend school occurred after Sarah arrived, and she, too, saw the importance of it. The school was only a mile away but it lasted for just three months.

Teen Years
Lincoln grew tall and strong, and as was customary in that day, a son under legal age was obligated to give any earnings to his father. Abe worked for neighbors and area business people, and Tom was given all monies Abe earned. Finally at the age of 22, Abe packed his few belongings and moved to New Salem, Illinois.

While Abe clearly loved the women who had raised him, there is no doubt that there was little love for his father. Reporters frequently sought information about his family background, but Lincoln rarely talked about it, not mentioning his father at all. When Tom Lincoln died in 1851, Abe did not attend the funeral.

Death of Willie

The Death of Willie Lincoln

In an elegant White House guest room, the 11-year-old son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln lay ill in a huge carved rosewood bed, now known as the Lincoln Bed. At five p.m. on February 20, 1862, William Wallace Lincoln died. Elizabeth Keckly, the former slave who designed Mrs. Lincoln's beautiful wardrobe, washed and dressed him. When the president gazed at him, he mourned, "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!"

She watched him bury his head in his hands, "his tall frame convulsed with emotion." At the foot of the bed she stood "in silent, awe-stricken wonder," marveling that so rugged a man could be so moved. "I shall never forget those solemn moments -- genius and greatness weeping over love's idol lost." President Lincoln then walked down the hall to his secretary's office. He startled the half-dozing secretary with the news: "Well, Nicolay, my boy is gone -- he is actually gone!" John Nicolay recalled seeing his boss burst into tears before entering his own office.

Mary Lincoln was inconsolable in the loss of her favorite son. To add to the anguish, Tad, her youngest son, lay seriously ill in another room. Both children apparently suffered from typhoid fever, a common illness in disease-ridden Washington, D.C. Willie was the third son born to the Lincolns in Illinois, arriving on December 21, 1850, the same year their second son died. Now with Willie's death, the family circle grew smaller yet. Robert, a student at Harvard College, was the eldest son, the only one who would outlive his parents.

In the words of a government official's wife, "The White House is sad and still, for its joy and light have fled with little Willie. He was a very bright child, remarkably precocious for his age, and had endeared himself to every one who knew him." Mary Lincoln's cousin said he was "noble, beautiful ... a counterpart of his father, save that he was handsome." Mary herself called him the "idolized child, of the household."

Willie's body was taken downstairs to the Green Room where it remained until burial. Drs. Brown and Alexander handled the embalming, a procedure they would perform three years later after the president's assassination. Willie lay in a flower-covered metallic coffin designed to resemble rosewood, with his name and date of birth and death inscribed on a silver plate. Friends came to pay their respects on February 24, the morning of the funeral.

Just before the service the Lincoln family gathered around the coffin for a private farewell. Benjamin French, who supervised the arrangements, wrote, "While they were thus engaged there came one of the heaviest storms of rain & wind that has visited this city for years, and the terrible storm without seemed almost in unison with the storm of grief within, for Mrs. Lincoln, I am told, was terribly affected by her loss and almost refused to be comforted." Mary Lincoln grieved in her bedroom upstairs during the funeral and burial.

The funeral began at 2 p.m. in the East Room, where the huge gilt mirrors were draped in mourning, with black fabric covering the frames and white covering the glass. Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, pastor of the nearby New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, conducted the service. The Lincoln family attended Dr. Gurley's church, where Willie recently told his Sunday School teacher he wanted to become a teacher or preacher of the gospel.

President Lincoln, his son Robert, and members of the Cabinet sat in a circle, surrounded by a crowd which included representatives from Congress and foreign countries. The writer Nathaniel Parker Willis recalled the service as "very touching." He saw "[General] McClellan, with a moist eye when he bowed in prayer ... and senators, and ambassadors, and soldiers, all struggling with their tears -- great hearts sorrowing with the president as a stricken man and a brother."

Following Dr. Gurley's sermon, Dr. John C. Smith of the Fourth Presbyterian Church concluded the service in prayer. Most of the mourners accompanied the body to Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, creating a long procession. Two white horses drew the hearse, while two black horses pulled President Lincoln's carriage down Washington's unpaved streets and up the hill to the cemetery.

Oak Hill Cemetery Chapel
© Abraham Lincoln Online

When the procession arrived at the cemetery, Willie's body was placed in the small chapel for a brief service of Scripture and prayer. He later was transferred to the Carroll family vault on the cemetery's northwest end (Lot 292). This vault, purchased by William and Sallie Carroll in 1857, contained the bodies of their three sons. Orville H. Browning, a political friend of the Lincolns from Illinois, inspected the vault the day before the funeral with William Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court. Carroll offered this space temporarily to the Lincoln family until they returned to Illinois. After President Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, Willie's coffin was removed and placed on the funeral train. Both father and son are permanently buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.

Willie's death left deep marks on the Lincoln family. Elizabeth Keckly said Mary "was an altered woman .... she never crossed the threshhold of the Guest's Room in which he died, or the Green Room in which he was embalmed."

The artist Alban Jasper Conant noticed something different about Lincoln following Willie's death, saying, "ever after there was a new quality in his demeanor -- something approaching awe. I sat in the fifth pew behind him every Sunday in Dr. Gurley's church, and I saw him on many occasions, marking the change in him."

John Hay, another White House secretary, wrote that the president "was profoundly moved by his death, though he gave no outward sign of his trouble, but kept about his work the same as ever. His bereaved heart seemed afterwards to pour out its fulness on his youngest child." On the day President Lincoln was assassinated, he told Mary, "We must both be more cheerful in the future. Between the war and the loss of our darling Willie we have been very miserable."