Review: The Last Lincolns: The Rise & Fall of a Great American Family

by James Durney on March 18, 2009 · 2 comments

The Last Lincolns: The Rise & Fall of a Great American Family

by Charles Lachman

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Union Square Press (October 7, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1402758901
  • ISBN-13: 978-1402758904

When Lincoln died, he left his widow Mary Todd Lincoln and two sons.  Robert Todd Lincoln was in his early twenties, a Harvard graduate and a Captain on U.S. Grant’s staff.  Tad was still a young spoiled over indulged boy.  In December 1985, the death of Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith ended the Lincoln line.  The book starts with the murder of Abraham Lincoln and follows his family for the next 120 years.  This is the part of the Lincoln story that we do not often read about.  While getting snippets of it from one source or another, until now, we did not have the full story.  This excellent book gives us the story in an intelligent highly readable format.  The author writes about a number of unfortunate events and distasteful people without falling into sensationalism or moralizing.  This is no small accomplishment considering the history and the individuals involved.

Abraham Lincoln saw two sons die as boys.  His son Tad died a few years after the assassination of an unspecified illness.  Robert Todd Lincoln, a very private person, who historians love to hate, was the only son to reach adulthood.  The majority of the book deals with Robert and his mother Mary Todd Lincoln.  This is a difficult contentious relationship made all the worse since his mother and wife disliked each other.  The book tells all.  From protecting Abraham Lincoln’s image, and Robert’s too, Mary Lincoln’s quest for more income, shopping trips, living in Europe and the infamous insanity trail.  Neither party is innocent nor acting from the best motivates.  The author is more sympathetic to Mary but pulls no punches when writing about the problems she caused everyone close to her.  His treatment of Robert is closer to the normal view of a very private man, who seems to have had a difficult time with his father.  He lived in Chicago, worked first as a lawyer, later in government and lastly as head of the Pullman Company.  Robert was present at the first three Presidential assassinations, at his father’s deathbed, standing with Garfield on the railroad platform and planning to meet with McKinney in the afternoon.  This is the type of footnote to history that the book devotes time to, giving the reader a very real feel for these people.

Lincoln’s grandchildren occupy the most of the remainder of the book.  The early death of Abraham Lincoln II is well done.  The oldest daughter Mary, a very normal upper class person, receives less coverage.  The younger daughter receives more coverage for good reasons.  The “wild child”, she causes a series of problems for Robert and her husbands.

The great grandchildren occupy the remainder of the book.  At best, they are a poor lot with little to like about them.  They have inherited all the worst qualities while rejecting the good ones.  The two Beckwith children take over the story.   This is the most difficult part of the book to read.  The great grandchildren are narcissistic, lazy and uninterested, except for the money, in their heritage.  Their actions hearken back to some of the worst things Mary Todd Lincoln did and should make you wonder if insanity was a factor.

This is a fine book!  The author has an excellent writing style that is informative and easy to read.  The story moves, with no dull moments.  The well-selected illustrations provide the needed faces for the word portraits.    This is not a happy book, nor is it fun to read, however, it is informative and very well written.  This book is something every Civil War and Lincoln “scholar” will want to read.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Coly Hope March 18, 2009 at 12:34 pm

To be honest I have never thought of the Lincolns as a “great” American family along with the Kennedys, Roosevelts and Bushs but it does sound like an interesting book. To bad the last Lincoln died out although, I have heard that the step-son of Robert Beckwith was claiming to be Robert Beckwith’s biological son.

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admin March 18, 2009 at 7:15 pm

Coly,

I’m not sure I ever have either. However, if there is one thing I’ve learned in reading a ton of Civil War books (and books in general), it’s that publishers strive to come up with the most outlandish subtitles they can possibly get away with. On more than one occasion I’ve called publishers out for ridiculous subtitles, in fact.

Brett

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