December 14

This Day in History

Civil War

Dec 14, 1863:

President Lincoln pardons his sister-in-law

On this day in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln announces a grant of amnesty for Emilie Todd Helm, his wife Mary Lincoln's half sister and the widow of a Confederate general. The pardon was one of the first under Lincoln's Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, which he had announced less than a week before. The plan was the president's blueprint for the reintegration of the South into the Union. Part of the plan allowed for former Confederates to be granted amnesty if they took an oath to the United States. The option was open to all but the highest officials of the Confederacy.

Emilie Todd Helm was the wife of Benjamin Helm, who, like the Lincolns, was a Kentucky native. The president was said to be an admirer of Helm, a West Point and Harvard graduate. Lincoln had offered Helm a position in the U.S. Army, but Helm opted to join the Confederates instead. Helm led a group of Kentuckians known as the Orphan Brigade, since they could not return to their Union-held native state during the war. Helm was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863.

After her husband's death, Helm made her way through Union lines to Washington, D.C. She stayed in the White House and the Lincolns tried to keep her visit a secret. General Daniel Sickles, who had been wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, five months prior, told Lincoln that he should not have a Rebel in his house. Lincoln 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." After Lincoln granted her pardon, Emilie Helm returned to Kentucky.

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