A compelling collective biography of the Kentucky in-laws of Abraham Lincoln.
Berry (History/Univ. of Georgia; All That Makes a Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South, 2003, etc.) brings to vibrant life Lexington aristocrats never before studied in depth by Lincoln biographers—all the more remarkable given that before the war, the rising politico was closer to them than to his own family, and that in the conflict their divisions caused him no end of heartbreak and scandal. Mary Todd Lincoln and her 13 siblings symbolized the war’s divisive toll on families—six sided with the Union, eight with the Confederacy. Four either became casualties themselves or had husbands who were—most notably Lincoln. With swift strokes, Berry sketches the broad characteristics of the clan (intelligence, quick tempers, alcoholism, litigiousness, ambition), as well as the individual traits that led them to nearly every major event and theater of the conflict. The children or their spouses included a Confederate brigadier general killed at Chickamauga; a Richmond prison commandant accused of mistreating Union soldiers; a talented rebel surgeon also charged with prison abuse; a brother-in-law who tried to blackmail Lincoln so he could retain an appointive Illinois post; and another sister who not only showed up in Mississippi at Jefferson Davis’s inauguration as Confederate president but likely committed treason. Berry is especially shrewd in analyzing the Lincolns’s marriage, showing how Abraham’s pity for Mary’s blind rages often fed her desire to punish him for this feeling. Berry also sensitively examines how the president’s anguish over his in-laws led him to transform the shopworn metaphor of family into transcendent rhetoric that united the nation in a new “House of Abraham” built on freedom and forgiveness.
A riveting account of the bluegrass bluebloods who embodied Lincoln’s prewar notion of a “house divided” more than he ever expected.