Growing Up Lincoln: War and Play in the White House

Tad Lincoln’s toy sword can be seen on display at the Ford’s Theatre Museum. In this month’s Museum Feature, learn more about the Lincoln sons and their childhood in the White House.

The story begins like this: In April 1861, artillery shells bombarded Fort Sumter, South Carolina. A few days later, the fort fell to the Confederacy. The Civil War had officially begun.

Back in Washington, Lincoln’s sons prepared to defend the White House from Baltimore mobs that were sympathetic to the Southern cause. While other Washingtonians fled the city, the brave Lincoln boys remained at their posts on the White House roof. Willie and Tad constructed a “fort,” complete with a cannon (a log) and old rifles. “Let ’em come. Willie and I are ready for ’em,” Tad declared. The young boys were ready for the war to come to Washington.

Several days before the war broke out, Thomas “Tad” Lincoln had turned eight years old. Willie was only two years older. As the children of the president, the war profoundly impacted the Lincoln boys. Much of their play revolved around war from what they witnessed through camp visits and overheard from their father. Tad would run around the White House, disrupting important meetings and dinners with his play. Julia Taft Bayne wrote extensively about playing with Tad and Willie in the White House. In her memoir, Tad Lincoln’s Father, Bayne recalled that Tad once disrupted a cabinet meeting by bombarding it with his toy cannon.

Growing up in the White House, Willie and Tad had access to information that shaped their play. With their father serving as Commander in Chief, the two boys learned about and experienced war from an inside perspective. As Bayne remembered, the boys incorporated war tribunals, presidential pardons and the punishment of spies and prisoners into their play. This is best exhibited through Tad’s Zouave doll, which the Sanitary Commission in New York sent him. Jack, the doll, was court-martialed and found guilty of several crimes. Condemned and sentenced to death by firing squad (as played by Tad’s toy cannon), Jack was buried with full military honors. Soon thereafter, a Major Watt suggested that Tad request a presidential pardon on Jack’s behalf. Tad, intrigued by this idea, interrupted one of his father’s meetings to receive a pardon for his doll. Upon stopping the meeting to listen to Tad’s case, Lincoln granted Jack a presidential pardon.

Willie and Tad’s childhood experiences were not entirely unique. For many children who came of age during the Civil War, the conflict bled into their imaginary worlds of play. As James Marten explains in The Children’s Civil War, their responses to the war were framed in terms of play. Children would mimic what they witnessed in their daily lives in order to comprehend the traumatic and destructive power of war. By adapting these elements of war into their play, children would work through stressful experiences and cope with painful realities.

Civil War-era illustrations show young boys (and sometimes girls) dressed in uniform, donning weapons and playing instruments. School playgrounds were also turned into war zones, with toy cannons, rifles and drums. Most frequently during this period, young boys would create their own military units and play army. Willie and Tad established a company called “Mrs. Lincoln’s Zouaves,” in which they enlisted every boy they could find. Willie served as colonel and Tad as drum major.

For the first year of the war, Julia Taft Bayne and her brothers frequently played with the Lincoln boys in the White House. Willie and Tad would also go to the Taft residence to play. During one of these visits, the boys captured Julia’s cat and a neighbor’s dog as prisoners of war. The two captives were held in the attic until Mrs. Taft ordered their release.

As parents, the Lincolns were often criticized for allowing their children to disrupt meetings and distract the president from his wartime duties with their shenanigans. In response, Mrs. Lincoln would often say, “Let the children have a good time,” encouraging the boys to continue playing as children do. Tad even convinced his parents to get him a working revolver, with which he played until his father had a bad dream about it. Tad also possessed a toy sword, which can be seen on display at the Ford’s Theatre Museum as a representation of war and play in the Lincoln White House.

As the children of a wartime president, Willie and Tad grew up having to share their father with the war-torn nation. Under these circumstances, Mrs. Lincoln wanted the children to have as normal a childhood as possible and “have a good time.” From the stories and artifacts that have been preserved, it is clear that they did. The president often encouraged their fun and games as a welcome break from the dark realities of war. In turn, Willie and Tad brought war to the White House, in a way that only children can.

Elena Popchock former Exhibitions Intern at Ford’s Theatre and graduate of George Washington University.

Suggested Reading:

Bayne, Julia Taft. Tad Lincoln’s Father. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

Marten, James. The Children’s Civil War.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.