Emilie Todd Helm (1836 – 1930), the half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln and the wife of Confederate General Benjamin Hardin Helm, had a front-row view of history during the Civil War era. Emilie was 18 years younger than her sister Mary, who married Abraham Lincoln in 1842. In 1856, Emilie married Benjamin Helm, a West Point graduate who had become a lawyer in Elizabethtown, Ky.
The Helms and the Lincolns became close. Despite their different political views – Helm was a Southern Democrat, Lincoln a Republican – the new brothers-in-law were fast friends. In April 1861, with war imminent, Lincoln offered Helm the position of paymaster of the Union Army with the rank of major. Helm rejected the offer, instead accepting appointment as a Confederate colonel.
Emilie Helm followed her husband south as he rose to the rank of brigadier general in command of the First Kentucky Brigade (the famed Orphan Brigade). She was in Alabama in September 1863 when she got word of his death at Chickamauga. Lincoln arranged safe passage for her to Washington. She and Mary, who was mourning the death of her son Willie, comforted each other. But the presence of a southern loyalist in the White House aroused protests, and Helm soon departed for Kentucky. After the war she settled in her husband’s hometown, Elizabethtown.
In the 1880s and ‘90s, she became a working woman, appointed as Elizabethtown’s postmistress by three different presidents. Helm attended many Confederate reunions, where she was hailed at the mother of the Orphan Brigade.
Betsy B. Smith of Cynthiana portrays Helm for Kentucky Chautauqua. Smith is a summa cum laude graduate of Georgetown College. In 2007 she joined her husband, Ed, and son, Ethan, in the Chautauqua program. She currently co-directs the Kentucky Educational Speech and Drama Association, and does freelance writing for an IT company in California.
In conjunction with “Rebel in the White House,” the exhibit “A House Divided” is on display at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, Tenn.
Abraham Lincoln invoked the phrase “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The phrase referred to his belief that the nation could not survive without a solution to the question of slavery. Yet the Kentucky-born Lincoln might just as well have been talking about his in-laws. His wife Mary Todd was born into a slaveholding household in Lexington, Ky. Of her 13 siblings, eight of them were Confederate sympathizers. The “A House Divided” exhibit explores how her family’s statements and actions affected the Lincolns throughout the Civil War.
Kentucky Chautauqua is an exclusive presentation of the Kentucky Humanities Council, Inc. with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from: The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, People’s Bank & Trust Company of Hazard, the Brown-Forman Corporation, Union College, Scripps Howard Foundation, Morehead State University, Murray State University, Northern Kentucky University, Western Kentucky University, PNC Bank in Lexington, and Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America, Inc.
The Kentucky Humanities Council is a non-profit Kentucky corporation affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is not a state agency, but is a proud partner of Kentucky’s Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. For information, visit www.kyhumanities.org or call (859) 257-5932.
The panel exhibit is on loan from the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington, Ky. It was created in partnership with the Lexington Public Library and funded in part by the Kentucky Humanities Council, Inc. with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Kentucky Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission (www.kylincoln.org).
For additional information on Cumberland Gap National Historical Park’s programs, please call 606-248-2817, extension 1075 or visit www.nps.gov/cuga.