Executive Mansion, Washington, December 23, 1862.
It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer, and holier sort than you have known before. Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.
Miss. Fanny McCullough.
Your sincere friend
Abraham Lincoln’s letter to twenty-one-year-old Fanny McCullough stands as one of the great writings of consolation. Though less famous than the 1864 letter to Lydia Bixby, the mother of several sons thought to have been lost in the service, the McCullough missive holds special interest. Firstly, the original letter exists today, which is not the case with Bixby. Secondly, Lincoln’s words were written as encouragement to a young person whose life had been devastated by the war.
The death of William McCullough
Bloomington resident William McCullough joined the 4th Illinois Cavalry in the summer of 1861 and was commissioned lieutenant colonel. The disabled fifty-year-old (he had lost his right arm to a threshing machine) left behind his wife, two daughters, and two sons. Judging by surviving correspondence Mrs. McCullough and all of the children suffered from some form of bad health or behavioral issue. Friends at home worried for the McCulloughs.
William had developed a wide circle of friends in the legal profession while serving McLean County as sheriff and later as circuit clerk. Among them were Abraham Lincoln, who had practiced regularly in McLean County, and local Republican party leaders including David Davis and Leonard Swett. At the time of William’s death in 1862 those friends were president of the United States, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the recent Republican nominee for U. S. Congress.
McCullough died on December 5, 1862, in a skirmish near Coffeeville, Mississippi. His unit had been surrounded in the late afternoon dusk. Refusing to surrender, he was killed by musketry. The body was recovered under a flag of truce to be returned to Bloomington for burial.
The sad news
News of McCullough’s death reached Leonard Swett in Bloomington on December 8. During the Civil War information about soldier death moved through informal channels rather than by government telegrams or visits of army officials such as that portrayed in “Saving Private Ryan.” Swett described how he broke the news to the colonel’s family:
“‘Col McCullough killed in battle—buried by the enemy, flag of truce gone for the body’
The first shock of this terrible news over, the question was how I should bear the news to this already afflicted family I did not know in just what condition Mrs M was; so taking the advice only of my wife, I concluded first to see Mrs Orme [McCullough’s elder daughter].
The announcement of course affected her considerably, but, it was solid grief for her ‘poor Father’…. She soon composed herself, for I told [her] if she were the only one I could leave her to grieve, but her Mother & Fanny were so weak, I had to come to [her] for help to strengthen them. It was but very few moments until she rallied from it & at her request I went with her to Mrs McCullough’s
We found Mrs M. sitting up apparently quite comfortable. Mrs. Orme had advised telling the both of them together so Fanny was sent for and I began what to me I would rather have avoided than a battle. I told that I was the messenger of evil that would shock & wound, that they were both unable to bear it, that before I told them they must bear themselves up & summon all their fortitude, that I was afraid of its consequences Mrs. M. sat quietly & told me to go She could bear it…. She seemed like one taught in the school of affliction. Fanny manifested impatience to hear it quick but her face looked as though she would dodge the blow There [was] a shrinking and fear in it.
….Is it Father said Fanny? It is, it is I replied I was sorry to say that was true Mrs McC. as she sat in her chair quietly dropped her head in her hand & wept Fanny dropt her head on her Mother’s shoulder A moment of silence when Fanny began to show signs of nervous excitement She rung her hands crying Father’s dead! Father’s dead! poor Father! Is it so? Why don’t you tell me, why don’t you tell me. The anxiety of all for her, knowing her nervous condition led us all to forget everything else The doctor was sent for She became gradually more quiet & soon sat in her chair composed A few people came & she shortly went to her room—locked herself in A lady friend stood at the door & finally got in”
Friends fear for Fanny McCullough
Fanny’s behavior continued to worry friends even as her mother showed what seemed to be resignation toward her husband’s death. Swett’s wife Laura wrote to David Davis, now serving on the U. S. Supreme Court, that Fanny appeared “afflicted—crushed, and I fear, broken-hearted…. She has neither ate or slept since the tidings of her father’s death, but shuts herself in her room, in solitude, where she passes her time in pacing the floor in violent grief, or sitting in lethargic silence.”
Davis was himself heartbroken at the death of his old friend, and especially concerned about Fanny. To Laura Swett he commented on Fanny’s suffering in words that said much about his own:
“Would that I was in Bloomington. I could do much to sooth, my poor friend, Fanny McCullough I love her as I would a child, & believe, that if I was at home, that I could do a great deal to lift her out of her great grief- She has had trials & griefs such as few girls of her age ever had. She is a guileless, truthful, warm hearted, noble girl. The good hearted people of Bloomington shd not let her sink under this affliction Her father was my devoted friend, for many long years- In his friendships he was as true as the needle to the pole- Where he loved he gave his whole heart.- He had his faults- who of us does not. Let them be buried with him in the silence of the grave- One by one, my old friends drop off- A feeling of intense sadness has been on me all weeks- Poor Fanny, loved her father, with all his faults, as devotedly as ever child loved a parent- She should not be suffered to grieve over much- I know that Mr Swett & yourself will do all that is in your power, to comfort her- I know exactly how she feels, and how dark the world is to her”
“…. a very good effect in soothing her troubled mind”
It may be that David Davis informed President Lincoln of William McCullough’s death. He wrote on December 16 that “Mr Lincoln had a warm attachment to McCullough & feels his loss keenly.” Probably prompted by Davis himself, the president promised that “He will write to Fanny.”
Business intruded, however. The president was dealing with the fallout of the Federal defeat on December 13 in the disastrous battle at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Conflict between the secretary of state and the secretary of the treasury threatened to tear apart Lincoln’s cabinet. Davis told his wife that he continued to write to Fanny “frequently” and that “I will see Mr Lincoln again, & prompt him to write her- He promised the other day that he would- The cares of this Government are very heavy on him now, & unless prompted, the matter may pass out of his mind.”
Lincoln composed his letter on December 23. Five days later David Davis happily informed Laura Swett in Bloomington that “Mr Lincoln has written to Fanny.” On the evening of January 1, 1863, the president’s letter was delivered to the young woman. William Orme wrote to Justice Davis in Washington that “Fanny is still in much distress of mind- But your letter to her was so full of good kind love for her that it did much to relieve her. Last night she received a letter from Mr Lincoln which was beautifully written and had a very good effect in soothing her troubled mind.”
Interested in learning more?
An image of the letter of President Lincoln to Fanny McCullough can be found at http://myloc.gov/Exhibitions/lincoln/presidency/CommanderInChief/BattlingIncompetence/ExhibitObjects/ExperienceEnoughtoKnow.aspx.. Much correspondence among William McCullough’s friends discussing his death and Fanny’s reaction to it are in the David Davis Family Papers at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, and in the William W. Orme Papers located in the Illinois History Collection at the library of the University of Illinois-Urbana