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Volume 31, No. 5 – May 2018

The President’s Message:

Thank you to everyone for your generosity at the April meeting. It was greatly appreciated.  There will be some special books at this month’s raffle. Be sure to buy the winning ticket.

If you would be interested in giving a program or need assistance in creating one, please see me at the meeting or contact me by email.

Gerridine LaRovere

May 9, 2018 Program:

On May 9th, 2018, Cynthia Morrison along with David Rafaidus will present interesting facts about Civil War Union officer Col. George Custer and his final battle at Little Big Horn.  Part of this presentation will include an audio play written by Morrison and performed by Rafaidus and his wife Miriam as Custer and wife Elizabeth.

Cynthia Morrison is a writer, artist, stage combat director, and an award winning playwright.  She is a graduate of the Burt Reynolds Institute for Film and Theatre.  Her plays have appeared off Broadway in New York, Washington D.C., and internationally in London, England.  Cynthia’s works tend to lean towards historic content.  Although, she also specializes in works that speak against the suppression of women.  She is co – producer of the Wild West Show of South Georgia presented at the Andersonville Civil War Village.

April 11, 2018 Program:

Emilie ToddThe April program was delivered by two members, Gerridine LaRovere and Janell Bloodworth.  Janell’s topic was Emilie Todd Helm, half-sister to Mary Todd Lincoln.  She was petite, lovely, with long black hair, and beautiful eyes.  Emilie had an excellent education and was cultured in every aspect of what the term implied.  Her father, Robert Smith Todd, was a banker and one of the most prominent citizens of Lexington, KY.  Robert had 15 children, seven by his first wife and eight by his second. 

Mary, a child of  Elizabeth Parker Todd, was born on December 13, 1818.  Thus, the future first lady, was considerable older than Emilie.

Emilie, a child of  Elizabeth Humpreys Todd, was born on November 11, 1836.  In 1846, when she was ten, her half-sister arrived in Lexington with her husband Abraham Lincoln.  He had just been elected to Congress and was on his way to Washington.  When little Emilie first saw Lincoln she was afraid of the towering man in the long coat and black fur hat.  She hid behind her mother’s skirts.  When Lincoln saw her  he swept her up into his arms and said: “so this is little sister.”  From that day on he called her “little sister.”

When Emilie was 20 she married Benjamin Hardin Helm.  Ben was considered a “good catch” for a woman from a good family.  Ben’s father had been a two-term governor of Kentucky.  Ben went to West Point, graduating ninth in a class of 42 cadets in 1851.  He became a brevet second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Dragoons, served at a cavalry school at Carlisle, PA, and at Fort Lincoln, TX.  Helm then studied law at the University of Louisville and Harvard University, graduating in 1853.  He practiced law with his father.  In 1855, he was elected to the House of Representatives of Kentucky from Hardin County.  He was the state's attorney for the 3rd district of Kentucky. 

Ben and Emilie had three children.  The only one who achieved any real prominence was Katherine.  She never married.  She was an author who wrote The True Story of Mary, Wife of Abraham.  She also was a painter.  One of her paintings of Mary Lincoln now hangs in the White House.  When Ben and Emilie visited the Lincolns in the late 1850s, Abe took a liking to young Ben.  When war broke out Kentucky stayed in the Union.  Lincoln offered Ben a commission, but he declined and joined the Confederate Army with the rank of Colonel.  Ben helped recruit the 1st Kentucky Cavalry Regiment, CSA.  In 1862, promoted to Brigadier General, he took part in the expedition to Baton Rouge.  He missed the battle as he suffered injuries after falling from his horse.  

In early 1863 General Helm was given command of the 1st Kentucky Brigade, nicknamed the Orphan Brigade.  The actual origin of the moniker Orphan Brigade remains in dispute.  Although the brigade historian, Ed Porter Thompson, used the term in his 1868 history of the unit, it was probably not in widespread use during the war, but became popular after the war among the veterans.  These Kentucky soldiers could not return to their Union-held home state during the war, which is the most likely reason for the name.  During the battle of Chickamauga a sharpshooter from the 15th Kentucky Union Infantry shot Helm in the chest.  Bleeding profusely, he remained in the saddle a few moments before toppling to the ground.  After being carried off the battlefield, Helm's surgeons told him that his wounds would be fatal.  Helm clung to life for several hours.  Knowing that his health was deteriorating, he asked who had won the battle.  When assured that the Confederates had carried the day, he muttered: "Victory!, Victory!, Victory!".  On September 21, 1863, Gen. Helm succumbed to his wounds.

When Lincoln learned of his death he told a member of his cabinet that he felt like David in the Bible when he learned that his son Absalom had been killed.  Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln went into private mourning. It simply could not be known they were grieving over the death of a Confederate officer.

Emilie Todd Helm accepted the offer of Mary and Abraham Lincoln to visit them in Washington in late 1863.  Emilie passed through the Union lines in December, accompanied by her daughter Katherine.  They were brought to the White House under the president's direct orders after Emilie had declined to attest to her loyalty to the Union when she was detained at Fort Monroe, VA.

Emilie noted in her diary:  “Mr. Lincoln and my sister met me with the warmest affection, we were all too grief-stricken at first for speech.  I have lost my husband, they have lost their fine little son Willie.  Mary and I have lost three brothers in the Confederate service.  We could only embrace each other in silence and tears.  Our tears gathered silently and fell unheeded as with choking voices we tried to talk of immaterial things.”

There were lighter moments as well.  Emilie's daughter Katherine and Lincoln's son Tad argued over who was president - Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis.  The Lincolns had a special fondness for Emilie.  While in Washington, though she kept a very low public profile, Emilie was labeled the “Rebel in the White House”.  Her stay caused a furor in the Northern press.

President Lincoln was very solicitous and defended her presence against political attacks.  General Daniel Sickles baited Emilie by stating, "We have whipped the rebels at Chattanooga, and I hear the scoundrels ran liked scared rabbits."  Emily responded, "It was the example you set them at Bull Run and Manassas."

When Sickles, who was recovering from a wound received at Gettysburg five months earlier, protested Emilie's presence at the White House, the President replied, "General Sickles, my wife and I are in the habit of choosing our own guests. We do not need from our friends either advice or assistance in the matter."

The President also had to defend Mary against charges of being  pro-slavery and being a Confederate.  When the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War met to consider charges of treason, Lincoln made a surprise appearance and headed off any further deliberation of the charges.

Emilie soon left Washington.  Using the word Confederate, which he so rarely wrote or spoke, President Lincoln wrote the following pass: "To whom it may concern: It is my wish that Mrs. Emilie T. Helm (widow of the late General B. H. Helm, who fell in the Confederate service), now returning to Kentucky, may have protection of person and property, except as to slaves, of which I say nothing.  A. Lincoln"

Emilie found the city of Lexington, Kentucky, under Federal martial law, and very hostile to those who would not take an oath of loyalty to the Union.  Shortly thereafter, Emilie wrote the President, asking him to send clothing to Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas outside Chicago.  She concluded the letter: "I hope I am not intruding too much upon your kindness and will try not to overstep the limits that I should keep."

Later, when Emilie was seeking permission to travel into the Confederacy to sell some cotton she had acquired, Lincoln declined.  He had already gone out on a limb by giving her an amnesty paper without her taking a loyalty oath.

In August 1864, Lincoln wrote the following order to the Union military commander of Kentucky: "Last December Mrs. Emily T. Helm, half-sister of Mrs. Lincoln, and widow of the rebel General Ben Hardin Helm, stopped here on her way from Georgia to Kentucky, and I gave her a paper, as I remember, to protect her against the mere fact of her being General Helm's widow.

I hear a rumor today that you recently sought to arrest her, but was prevented by her presenting the paper from me.  I do not intend to protect her against the consequences of disloyal words or acts, spoken or done by her since her return to Kentucky, and if the paper given her by me can be construed to give her protection for such words or acts, it is hereby revoked pro tanto.  Deal with her for current conduct just as you would with any other.  A. Lincoln”

Amazing as it may seem, this did not stop Emilie  from again requesting a pass to sell her cotton in November 1864, when she wrote to President Lincoln: "I have been a quiet citizen and request only the right which humanity and justice always gives to widows and orphans.  I also would remind you that your minie bullets have made us what we are."  After this incident, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln would not communicate with her sister, and they never saw each other again.

Emilie Todd Helm never remarried and wore mourning clothes for the remainder of her life.  After the war, she and her children went from Lexington to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and finally to support her family, moved to Madison, Indiana, where she gave piano lessons.

Emilie was active in recording Todd Family history, and in the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which was named for General Helm.  She also took part in many of the military reunions and was named Mother of the Orphan Brigade by the former soldiers of the First Kentucky Regiment.

She became close with her nephew, Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.  In 1881, he helped her obtain an appointment as postmistress of Elizabethtown, Kentucky.  She and her family resided in a house on West Poplar Street while she served in that position from 1883 to 1895.

As a kindness to her nephew, Emilie Todd Helm, along with daughters Katherine and Elodie, unveiled a statue of President Lincoln on the town square in Hodgenville, Kentucky, birthplace of the sixteenth President of the United States.

On September 17, 1884, the body of Brigadier General Ben Harden Helm was exhumed from its grave in Georgia to be reburied in his native Kentucky soil.  Soldiers from both the Orphan Brigade and the First Kentucky Cavalry accompanied it on the journey.  Helm was re-interred at Helm Place in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where he once lived.  Both Helm and his father, former Kentucky governor John LaRue Helm, are buried there in the family cemetery.

In 1912, Benjamin Hardin Helm Jr., fulfilling a pledge to bring his mother home to Lexington, bought a farm on land that had once been owned by General Levi Todd, Emilie's great grandfather.  There she lived out her days.  Emilie Todd Helm died on February 20, 1930, at the age of 93. She was buried in the Todd plot at the Lexington Cemetery.

Mary LeeGerridine was next up with a presentation on Mary Custis Lee.  Two old steamer trunks were stored in 1917, in the basement of a bank in Alexandria, VA.  On one side of one of these was a name stenciled: M. LEE.  These belonged to Mary Custis Lee, the eldest daughter of General Robert E. Lee.  She had left them there a year before she died.  The trunks sat in a dusty corner for 84 years, unclaimed, until E. Hunt Burke, the bank’s vice chairman, discovered them in 2002.

Burke called his high school classmate, Rob E. L. DeButts Jr., who was Robert E. Lee’s great-great-grandson.  Together, they descended the steps carrying a basket of old keys.  Burke said: “The first one I pulled out was a perfect fit.”  The trunks were stuffed with Lee family papers; a priceless cache of 4,000 letters, photographs, and documents.  DeButts carted them to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.  There he picked over the trove sorting the trash from the treasures.  It turned out that Mary was the family historian and a bit of a pack-rat.  Not only was there artifacts from the Civil War, but family items going back to colonial days.

Among the items was an envelope containing three cloth stars, general’s stars, that Lee cut off his uniform after he surrendered at Appomattox.  Less dramatic, but historically more important was an account book kept by her mother’s step-great-grandfather, George Washington.  One of the letters was one written by Gen. Lee to Mary on Christmas Day 1861.  It contained sweet words and the grief he suffered from the news that their home in Arlington had been occupied by the Union Army.  He writes: “… has been so desecrated that I cannot bear to think of it.”  This letter demonstrates that Lee was not the “marble-man” as he is so often described, but a man of profound warmth. 

On September 23, 1862, after the battle of Antietam, Lee writes that he did not consider it a defeat as he correctly supposes the Union did.  He claims, also correctly, that his army held off greater numbers of enemy forces until he retired when it “suited our convenience.”  Two months later he writes of his grief on the death of daughter Anne from typhoid fever at age 23.

Not all of the letters have been released to the public.  Among these are a batch containing his letters to his fiancée, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, in 1831.  One man who has read these love letters states that these notes “Sparkle with sexuality.”  This from Robert E. Lee!

One of the letters was from Selina Gray, a former slave at Arlington.  It was written to his widow, the woman who once owned her.  It described how Selina had hoped to see Mrs. Lee once again at Arlington, but this was not to be.  She describes how the government, in the person of Montgomery Meigs, had turned the lawn into a cemetery; Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1874, the Lee family filed suit to reclaim its Arlington estate.  In 1882, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in the family's favor, saying, in essence, that the government cannot seize a man's land simply because he has led an army of rebellion against that government.  Of course, the family members did not want to live in a cemetery, so they agreed to accept $150,000 for the land -- a huge sum in those days.

After the settlement, Mary Custis Lee, who never married, was traveling the world, leading a life of luxurious vagabondage.  She spent months in London, Paris and Rome, and a year in Australia.  She took a round-the-world cruise, stopping in Japan, China, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Java.  She traveled to Palestine, Egypt and Sudan, to Mexico, the West Indies, Venezuela.  She met Queen Victoria and Pope Leo XIII and spent one memorable Christmas as the guest of an Indian maharajah.

Included in the trove was a packet of papers related to the events of June 13, 1902, when she was arrested in Alexandria.  "She was sitting in the African American portion of the streetcar and a conductor told her to move and she refused," Shepard says.  "He came back and she refused again.  They took her to the police station, and when they found out who she was, she was released."  "BREAKS COLOR LINE," reads the headline in an unidentified newspaper article found in her trunk.

Lee Shepard, the Virginia Historical Society's senior archivist said of Mary: "My understanding is that Mary Custis Lee was a rather formidable person  She had a stubborn streak.  You didn't want to mess with her." 

Last changed: 04/20/18

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