ONE bright windy day in March 1861, my two brothers and I were sent to play with the Lincoln boys. At my mother’s first meeting with Mrs. Lincoln it came out that my two brothers were about the ages of Willie and Tad Lincoln. ‘Send them around to-morrow, please, Mrs. Taft,’ said Mrs. Lincoln; ‘Willie and Tad are so lonely, and everything is so strange.’ But instead of going to the front door and asking for Mrs. Lincoln, as our mother had directed, we went in by the little gate near the Treasury. Assuring ourselves that things were outwardly unchanged under the new administration, we entered the office of Mr. Watt the head gardener, our good friend, who called up the stairs: ‘Here, Willie, Tad—is somebody to play with you.’ No answer; but we went up into the conservatory and there stood the boys by the water-lily tank, watching the goldfish. Such nice quiet shy boys, I thought. In five minutes the four boys had disappeared and I saw them no more. My brothers came home at dark looking, as our yellow girl Larney said, ‘like dey done bin huntin’ coons in de bresh,’ but they had ‘had the best time; been all over the White House; Mrs. Lincoln said we must come every day and bring Julia; and Mr. Lincoln, I mean the President, — she called him Mr. Lincoln, anyway, — jounced us on his lap and told us stories.’
Early next morning Willie and Tad appeared, guided by one of the gardeners, and spent the day exploring our house and premises and the neighbors’ — including the back alley where the servants lived. Thus began an intimacy which continued until Willie’s death. My brother Horatio Nelson Taft, Jr. — never called anything but ‘ Bud ‘ — was twelve, a year older than Willie Lincoln. Both were light-haired, pleasant, rather quiet boys. Thomas Lincoln — ‘Tad ‘ — and my brother Halsey Cook Taft — ‘Hally’—were dark-eyed, lively, mischievous lads of eight. The resemblance of the two pairs of boys was often remarked. Willie Lincoln was the most lovable boy I ever knew, bright, sensible, sweet-tempered and gentle-mannered. Tad had a quick fiery temper, very affectionate when he chose but implacable in his dislikes. A slight impediment in his speech made it difficult for strangers to understand him. They were two healthy rollicking western boys, never accustomed to any restraint, and the notice which their father’s exalted station brought upon them was very distasteful. Willie would complain: ‘I wish they would n’t stare at us so. Was n’t there ever a president who had children?’
A few days after this first visit I went with my brothers to the White House and was kindly received by Mrs. Lincoln, who placed me by her on the sofa, and I was showing her my new hat when the President came in.
‘Well, who’s this, Mary?’ he said.
‘This is Julia Taft, Bud’s sister,’ Mrs. Lincoln answered.
‘So this is Bud’s sister.’ He came up and put his hands under my elbows and lifted me toward him, and I was so afraid he was going to kiss me! He looked so big and dark and different from the men I was accustomed to see. He perceived I was a bit frightened, and put me back by Mrs. Lincoln with a few friendly pats.
After we were better acquainted I was not afraid of his kisses. He always called me ‘July’ — not the French ‘Julie,’ but ‘Jeu-ly.’ He named me a ‘flibbertigibbet.’ I have never been clear in my mind as to what kind of creature this was, but I fancy it resembled a girl very small and slight for her age, with long curls, a ruffled white frock, and blue sash, who flew from one place to another instead of walking.
One day the President came in the sitting-room with a handful of photographs— ‘cartes de visite’ they called them then. He held them above my head, saying, ‘Do you want my picture, July?’
‘Oh yes, sir, please,’ I said, dancing on my tiptoes.
‘Give me a kiss and you can have it.’
I was shy about kissing anybody, but I reached up and he leaned over and I gave him a peck on the cheek, when he swept me to him, saying, ‘Now we will pick out a good one,’which we did, rejecting several.
As a regiment with a band was passing the White House, we all climbed on to the window seats and leaned over to see. The President saw us and pulled us in — his two sons and my two brothers with little ceremony; but he lifted me down and said, ‘Do you want to break your neck, honey?’
Sometimes when he met me he would put his hand on top of my head and rotate it rapidly, causing my curls to stand out in all directions. This seemed to please him better than it did me. Several times he stepped over me as I sat on the family staircase reading, dropped a kiss on my head, and told me to go to the sitting-room to read. I was not allowed to read, and if Tad saw me he would tell my mother: ‘July was reading nobbils books at our house.’
On one occasion we were in the attic and Tad demanded his doll, Jack, which was sent to him from the Sanitary Commission Fair in New York. I volunteered to find the doll. I went downstairs and, opening a door, before me was the President lying stretched out in a large chair, his head laid back, but with such an utterly weary sad look—his eyes were closed — that I softly shut the door, and went up and told Tad: ‘Your father’s just going to sleep and he is dreadfully tired and Jack is under his chair.'
‘Huh! ‘ said Tad. ‘ Come on, Hally — we’ll go down just as still, and give our Indian war-whoop; that’ll wake him up!’ They went down stairs as still as a load of bricks, and we heard their wild whoops below.
Every little while this doll, Jack, was solemnly court-martialed by the boys, found guilty of ‘sleeping on post’ or ‘desertion,’ and sentenced to be shot. The firing squad was Tad and his cannon. Then they had a grand military funeral, quite ignoring the fact that condemned soldiers are not accorded military honors. The grave was dug among the choice roses on the south side of the house.
Mrs. Lincoln one day said, ‘Why are the boys making that dreadful noise, Julia?’ I replied, ‘That is the Dead March; they’re burying Jack.’ ‘Oh yes,’ she said; ‘and Mr. Watt says they dug holes among the new roses. Go and tell them they must not, Julia.’ I went, though I knew they had been told several times before. Mr. Watt was there scolding and showed me several places where Jack had been buried and later disinterred.
‘Look here, Tad,’ said the head gardener, ‘why don’t you have Jack pardoned ? ‘ The suggestion was enough; the four boys clattered up the stairs to the President’s private office and demanded a pardon for Jack. Mr. Lincoln heard them gravely, took a sheet of his official note-paper and wrote: —
The doll Jack is ‘pardoned.
By order of the President
Tad brought this to me, saying in his peculiar speech, ‘Here July, you keep this; no more buryin’s in de groun.’ But not more than a week passed before poor Jack in his handsome Zouave uniform was hanging by the neck from a bush in our garden. Tad said, ‘Jack was a traitor and a spy.’
I think it was in May, 1861, that Mrs. Lincoln went to New York to select some carpets and curtains for the White House. She wrote a note to my mother, asking that Bud and Hally might live at the White House the week she was to be gone. My mother consented, with some misgivings, and Willie and Tad arrived on the heels of the messenger in a pouring rain, under a large dilapidated umbrella, which Tad said they had borrowed from the cook. The four boys departed joyfully, Tad calling over his shoulder, ‘You bet we’re going to have a good time!’
A relative was brought from camp sick, and my mother was busy with him. After a few days she wished to send some fresh blouses to the boys, so I went, with Larney carrying the parcel. As we approached the White House I was conscious of a smile on the faces of sentries, messengers, orderlies, and doorkeeper. I followed that smile to the attic, where Tad rushed at me with a bottle that looked like shoeblacking in his hand, calling excitedly: ‘July, come quick! We’re having a circus and I have got to be blacked up and Bud’s bonnet’s stuck and Willie can’t get his dress on.’ Willie was struggling with the train and flounces of a lilac silk of Mrs. Lincoln’s, while Bud had a ruffled white negligee pinned round him in billowy folds and a hat of Mrs. Lincoln’s stuck firmly sidewise on his head. I said, ‘Does the President know about this?’
‘Yep,’ said Tad, ‘Pa knows and he don’t care neither; he’s coming up when those generals go ‘way.’
They had two sheets pinned together for a curtain, beyond which was a motley assemblage — soldiers, sailors, orderlies, negroes, everyone who had five cents might go up the back stairs and see the show.
I took the bottle of blacking away from Tad and made him up with some burnt cork, — to the detriment of my white dress, — then I pinned Willie into the lilac silk. Mrs. Lincoln wore the Victorian decollete: she had a beautiful neck and shoulders. Willie handed me a bottle of ‘ Bloom of Youth,’ saying ‘Put some of this on Bud and me.’ I swabbed them both with the beautifier. Tad was singing at the top of his voice:—
Came out of the wilderness.
I had had quite enough and made my escape. In the lower hall I met the President, who took my hand and said, ‘Here is July come to the circus; having a great time up there!’
‘Yes, sir,’ I said: ‘they are making a dreadful noise, and they have Mrs. Lincoln’s things on, and they look horrid.’
He threw back his head and laughed heartily, ‘Come, July, we will go up and see them.’ But I said, ‘Oh, please — I don’t want to,’ and eluding his hand, I ran down, while he continued on his way to the attic, still laughing.
The boys formed a military company called ‘Mrs. Lincoln’s Zouaves.’ She gave them a flag and they were reviewed by the President. The Secretary of War promised to furnish light — condemned — rifles, but I do not remember whether it was ever armed or not, for the company dwindled until it was like Artemus Ward’s—‘all officers.’ Willie was colonel, Bud major, and Hally captain, while Tad refused every rank but drum major. The officers had old-fashioned swords, given them, I think, by General McClellan.
Mrs. Lincoln was always kind, anxious to ‘let the children have a good time.’ She was especially good to me. She would ask me to play my ‘pieces’ to her and stand by to the last note. I never practised if I could help it, but she offered me a beautiful copy of Colonel Ellsworth’s Funeral March, — which the elder Sousa dedicated to her,
— if I would learn it, and with the aid of my music-teacher, my mother, and Mrs. Lincoln I did learn it to the last dum, dum, dum. She said once, ‘I wish I had a little girl like you.’ She told me about the boy they lost, between Robert and Willie. She almost always told me to go down to the conservatory and tell the bouquet-man to make me a nice bouquet for my mother when I went home.
My brother Bud adored Lincoln and was always happy to serve him. He often carried messages between Mrs. Lincoln and the President. One day Lincoln said, ‘Bud, go out and get me a pair of rubbers.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Bud, ‘what size?’
Mr. Lincoln looked down at his feet with a doubtful smile. ‘ Never mind the size, Bud; just get me the biggest pair you can find.’
Bud looked around the stores for some time before he found a pair of suitable dimensions, not mentioning the fact that they were for the President. When he paid for them, the man said: ‘Your father must have the biggest pair of feet in Washington, son.’
Once Willie asked Bud, ‘Why do you call pa “Mr. President”? You don’t call ma “Mrs. President.”’
‘Oh,’ said Bud, ‘it is n’t proper to call presidents by their names. Your mama is just Mrs. Lincoln, only the servants call her “the Madam.”’
Once Willie asked my mother, ‘Mrs. Taft, ought Tad to sing that song?’ Tad was caroling a campaign song about
And that’s the way he’ll split the Confederacy.
‘I don’t care,’ said Tad. ‘Everybody in the world knows pa used to split rails.’
‘ But is n’t that song disrespectful to pa?’ persisted Willie.
Mama explained why it was in bad taste, and Tad, who was kicking the chair, as he did when reproved, said, ‘Well, I s’pose I can sing John Brown’s Body, can’t I?’
Early in the spring, when for some days and nights Washington lay undefended, with rails torn up and wires down, the provost guard brought six loaded muskets to our house, 448 L Street, and stacked them in the bathroom. There was fear of a mob or a raid by the Baltimore ‘Plug-uglies.’ My father, Judge H. N. Taft, was Chief Examiner of the Steam Department of the U. S. Patent Office. A New Yorker, a Democrat, appointed by Buchanan, he was from the first a strong Union man. My father’s life was several times threatened, hence — I suppose — the muskets, which remained in our bathroom till early fall, when Tad and Hally succeeded in firing one out of the window. It chipped a piece off the corner of the house — next door — of our neighbor, Mr. Bartle, of the State Department. His old black mammy looked up and said, ‘ ‘pears like dese yere boys ‘ll kill somebody’s nigga yit.’
The President and Mrs. Lincoln attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, and we went to the Fourth Presbyterian — Doctor J. C. Smith’s.
The boys usually went with us.
One day the President asked me, ‘Why do our boys like to go to your church, July?’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Lincoln, ‘They won’t go to Doctor Gurley’s at all unless Bud and Hally go too.’
‘Why,’ I said, ‘I reckon our church is livelier.’
‘Do you think it is livelier, Willie? ‘ asked Mrs. Lincoln.
‘Oh, yes,’ answered Willie. ‘A lot of those folks are secesh, and when Doctor Smith prays for the President of the United States they get up and go out and bang the pew doors and slam the church door after them.’
‘Yes,’ said Bud, ‘but last Sunday the provost guard came, and the Lieutenant said that anyone disturbing the service, or leaving before the service was ended, would be put in the guardhouse, so maybe they wont do it any more.’
‘Yes, pa,’ said Tad, ‘and July said, “See the Lieutenant, how still he sits”; and I said, “I bet he would n’t sit so still if a bee stung him”; and she said, “Yes, he would.” Do you think he would sit so still, pa, if a bee was stinging him?’
‘Yes,’ said the President, ‘I think he would, Tad.’ But he did not laugh with the rest of us, and he went off gravely to his office.
On one occasion, when the flags were all out for a victory, a scandalized neighbor came in to ask if we knew that a ‘rebel flag’ was hanging on our piazza. It was the flag that Colonel Ellsworth was pulling down when he was shot, in Alexandria: it was stained with his blood. It had been sent to Mrs. Lincoln, who put it in a bureau drawer upstairs; but Tad delighted to display it. Mother had already sent him home with it twice. Some time later he sneaked up behind his father while the President was reviewing some troops from the White House portico, and to the horror of some of the spectators and amusement of others, waved it, till his father pinioned both his naughty son and the rebel flag together in his strong arm.
One afternoon I was curled up in a window of the family sitting-room, looking at a large book, when the President came in. I jumped to my feet — we were strictly enjoined to rise when the President came in. He said, ‘How is July to-day? Sit down, child.’ I was glad to do so, for the book I was clasping to me was heavy. He took it from me, turned over the leaves, then gave it back, saying, ‘Such a big book for little July.’ Resting one hand on my shoulder, he placed the other on the window above my head, and looked long and earnestly over the Long Bridge into Virginia, and sighed heavily. Then he walked up and down, up and down the room, his head bent and his hands behind him, sighing now and again. He seemed so sad and lonely I wanted to cry, and I slipped out and left him in the darkening twilight, and ran home, telling my father that the President was worrying about the War.
In the fall of 1861 Mrs. Lincoln had a schoolroom fixed up in the White House, and my brothers studied with Willie and Tad under a tutor, my father insisting on paying half the salary. The boys were doing well — though the younger pair were a little unruly — when my father suddenly lost his office. It was found that some of his original backers were in the Confederacy. I think my father had not considered this contingency, he was so busy looking after the soldiers. All his time out of office-hours he spent in the hospitals or in carrying baskets of apples or onions to the camps. My parents kept open house for soldiers. We had two convalescents with us at this time. My father had an offer from New York for a higher salary, but the President and Mrs. Lincoln did not wish the family to leave Washington. Mrs. Lincoln told my mother, ‘You must not go. We can’t let you go.’ The President wrote a strong letter asking for the reinstatement of Judge Taft as a personal favor, and Mrs. Lincoln wrote several, which she sent with large bouquets. They tried in vain for some time; but at last my father received another office and we remained. It might have been at this time that Lincoln said he ‘had very little influence with this Administration.’
In February 1862 came the dreadful blow of Willie Lincoln’s death. He called for Bud and he was with him most of the time. The President would come in and stand awhile at the bedside, then turn and go out without speaking. Once he laid his arm across Bud’s shoulder, and leaning over, stroked Willie’s hair. It was late and he said, ‘Better go to bed, Bud.’ Bud said, ‘If I go he will call for me,’ One of the servants afterward told my mother that the President, coming in later, picked up Bud who had fallen asleep and carried him tenderly to bed. About noon of the twentieth of February my mother brought word from the White House that Willie had held Bud’s hand and seemed better. He died at five o’clock. Mrs. Lincoln wrote my mother, ‘Please keep the boys home the day of the funeral; it makes me feel worse to see them.’ The President, however, sent for Bud to see Willie before he was put in the casket. Bud had to be carried from the room and was ill for some days afterward.
My mother naturally waited for some word from Mrs. Lincoln before allowing the boys to go to the White House, and very soon she took us North to put us in school.
I was in Washington during the winter of 1864-5 and accompanied my sister-in-law to Mrs. Lincoln’s Saturday afternoon reception. Mrs. Lincoln greeted me affectionately, but when Tad saw me he threw himself on the floor in the midst of the ladies, and screamed and kicked till he was carried out by the servants. Mrs. Lincoln said:
‘You must excuse him — you know what he remembers,’ but it was a most distressing scene. I was glad to get away, and I never saw Mrs. Lincoln or Tad again.
These are my girlhood memories of Lincoln. Slight and trifling they seem, but these ‘little truthful stories, simply told,’ may cast a ray of human softness over the sad stern face of that strong angel of the Lord who was among us unrecognized: lonely, sad, uncomforted, save as seeing Him who is invisible.