Tuesday, January 8, 2008

House of Abraham

House of Abraham:Lincoln and the Todds, A Family Divided by War
By Stephen Berry

Behind every name printed in a history book there is an underlying story that is only very rarely ever told. For even kings and queens, presidents and generals, politicians and other noted historical figures who shaped the times during which they lived, all have fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters and of course whose family would not be complete without an in-law or two. In short, we all know the stories of the historical figures we like to read about, but what we may not know is the stories of the members of their families. History is not made by one person alone. For every general who goes off to war, there is a father, a mother, brothers and sisters, a wife and children who are left behind, to fret, to worry, to love, to pray and to mourn. Often times I have found myself reading a biography and come across a glancing reference to this family member or that, only to be frustrated to learn nothing more of said family member. I stop my reading for a moment and wonder to myself "I wonder what their story is?" Stephen Berry's "House of Abraham: Lincoln & The Todds, A Family Divided By War," is book that answers that question.

There most certainly is no shortage of books written about Abraham and Mary (Todd) Lincoln. The Lincoln's were very complex persons whose biographies rightly take up many thousands of linear feet of shelf space in libraries all around the world. But even the best biographies of Abraham and Mary only give fleeting glimpses of the lives or their family members or the Lincoln's relationships with them. Happily this is not a problem that plagues Mr. Berry's book.

Mary Lincoln's father, Robert Smith Todd was married twice, and had fourteen children who survived into adulthood. Abraham, not close to his own family, in many ways was closer with the Todd family than his own. In large part, Lincoln's life was shaped by his relationship with the Todd's.

Upon Lincoln's election as President of the United States the country found itself ripping into two halves, as did the Todd family. Of Robert Todd's children six sided with the Union and eight sided with the Confederacy. Berry states "of necessity and by design" his book "focuses on the fates and movements of the handful of Todds about whom the most is known and with whom Lincoln had the closest association." Representing the Northern wing of the family are Elizabeth Todd & husband Ninian W. Edwards, and of course Abraham & Mary (Todd) Lincoln. The Southern wing of the family, states Berry, has never been studied, and is represented by sisters Emilie and Elodie Todd and one brother, David Todd. Though the remaining siblings do appear in the book they are often cast as secondary characters in Berry's narrative.

Todd family narrative is nearly panoramic, as members of the family seem to have been everywhere during the war. Berry places them at the very beginnings of the Civil War at the inaugurations of both Abraham Lincoln and Confederate president, Jefferson Davis; follows them to battlefields Vicksburg, Gettysburg and Chickamauga; to the prisons and hospitals of the Confederacy, and finally ends with George Todd catching up with the fleeing Confederate government after the fall of Richmond.

Berry's the narrative of the Todd family deftly draws parallels to that of the larger "American Family." As the Todd family was torn apart by the war, so was the nation. As the Todd family suffered wounds and casualties so did the nation. After the war, the Northern and Southern wings of the family struggled with issues of reunion as they tried to put their past behind them as did the nation. The narrative of the Todd family, during and after the war, is in fact, the narrative of the United States.

My only complaint with the book is its lack of scope as far as the members of the Todd family are concerned. Berry notes "This book is not a complete biography of the Todds." He goes on to say that "following fourteen principal characters - and their spouses, and their children - over the course of a lifetime would be unwieldy." For a book whose text is a brief 192 pages, that is a weak argument, but still, the book adequately fills a void that has been too long over looked.

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