March 20

This Day in History

Civil War

Mar 20, 1861:

Willie and Tad Lincoln get the measles

On this day in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln's sons, Willie and Tad, are diagnosed with the measles, adding to the president's many troubles.

Few U.S. presidents worked as hard in office as Abraham Lincoln did during the Civil War. Besides managing his generals and the war effort, Lincoln had to deal with prospective office-seekers, foreign affairs, and the basic functions of government. The president's third and fourth sons, Willie, born in 1850, and Tad, born in 1853, offered Lincoln a welcome respite from the rigors of the executive office. The playful boys caroused in the White House, invaded cabinet meetings, and accompanied their father when he inspected troops in the camps around Washington, D.C. They enjoyed playing with the soldiers that guarded the White House, members of the Pennsylvania Bucktail regiment who entertained Willie and Tad with stories and races. The boys set up a fort on the roof of the executive mansion and armed it with small logs painted to look like cannon. The boys often played with pets given to them by friends, including a pony and two goats that roamed the White House lawn.

The boys recovered from the measles; however, in 1862, Willie contracted typhoid fever. He lay sick for weeks before dying on February 20. His death crushed Lincoln, who cried to his secretary, John Nicolay, "...my boy is gone--he is actually gone." Lincoln and his wife Mary grieved for months and the president never fully recovered from the loss.

Tad Lincoln died from illness at age 18 in 1871. The Lincoln's second son, Eddie, died shortly before his fourth birthday, in 1850. Only the Lincoln's first child, Robert, lived to an advanced age; he passed away at age 82 in 1926. 

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