If you’ve ever held a penny, memorized the Gettysburg Address in school, or visited that big marble memorial in Washington, you’ve heard of Abraham Lincoln.
But you’ve probably never heard of Abraham Lincoln II. Since we honor our presidents in February, it’s the perfect time to discover the grandson Abe Lincoln never met.
The story begins with Lincoln’s end. On the morning of April 14, 1865 young Robert Lincoln was at the White House, fresh from serving with Grant’s army. Robert E. Lee had surrendered five days earlier and, with the Civil War in its final days, the president was ready to unwind. He invited his eldest son to accompany him to a play that evening.
I’m tired, Robert said. You and mom go.
We all know what happened at Ford’s Theater that night. Robert spent the next 60 years in anguish, believing that if he’d been with his father Lincoln would have lived.
Robert married three years later, moved to Chicago, and began his career. The family had two daughters and a boy named Abraham Lincoln II.
He was called Jack from the cradle. He would have to earn the right, he was told, to be called by his martyred grandfather’s name.
By all accounts, Jack Lincoln was a nice kid. Intelligent and a good student, liked by other children, adventurous and athletic.
He was playing with friends one day when a baseball shattered a window in a nearby house. All the boys ran off except Jack. The homeowner, a crotchety old man, stormed out and grabbed Jack’s arm. “What’s your name?” he barked.
“Abraham Lincoln, sir,” Jack said with innocent sincerity.
The old man was dumbstruck, then quietly retreated inside.
Jack spent hours on the floor at home with history books open and Civil War battle maps spread out, carefully studying each movement in the bloody conflict his namesake had commanded.
He kept interesting rocks in a box labeled, “Collection Illustrating Rounded Pebbles and Sharp Stones. A. Lincoln.”
The signature is telling. That was exactly how President Lincoln signed his name. Jack was fascinated by his grandfather’s handwriting and spent so much time copying it that his penmanship eventually became identical to the first Abraham’s.
Robert’s career took off. He became Secretary of War (forerunner of today’s Secretary of Defense) in 1881. In early 1889 he was appointed ambassador to Britain. The Lincolns were moving to London.
Jack responded like any adolescent. He didn’t want to leave his school and friends and was dead set against it. But ever the dutiful son, he went.
That summer his parents accompanied the now-teenage Jack to Paris, where he was enrolled in a French school.
In November, Jack cut his left arm (possibly the result of a teacher’s discipline). A boil appeared below the left armpit. Doctors lanced it. But an infection developed and entered his bloodstream. Jack grew seriously ill.
His mother wanted to move him to their London residence. Too risky, doctors warned. A wintry English Channel crossing could become life-threatening if Jack caught a cold or the flu.
As Jack’s condition steadily worsened his parents decided to chance it. He arrived safely on January 17, 1890. Robert assembled some of the finest British physicians (including several who served Queen Victoria) to attend to his son. For 10 days he seemed to improve. Then he relapsed. In the time before antibiotics, there was little doctors could do.
Then pleurisy set in. (Ironically, it was the same disease that had killed Jack’s Uncle Tad two years before Jack’s birth. He was Abraham Lincoln’s youngest child and yet another relative Jack never got to meet.)
Jack bore his illness, in his father’s words, “with pluck and determination.” But they weren’t enough.
The end came on March 5 after 17 painful weeks. Robert was talking with an embassy staffer when his daughter burst in and shouted, “Go upstairs, quickly!” He returned 10 minutes later and whispered, “It’s all over.”
Abraham Lincoln II was dead at age 16.
A nasty argument played out in the press with British doctors blaming their French counterparts, and vice versa, for the boy’s death.
Jack was buried near his famous grandfather inside the family tomb in Springfield, Ill. Nearly 40 years later, after his father died, he was moved to Arlington National Cemetery where he now rests beside his parents.
As for Robert Lincoln, his remaining days were lived in endless torment haunted by memories of the father and the son he could not save.
Jack had begged him not to move to London. Robert believed if he had heeded that plea, Jack would have reached adulthood.
The rest of us are left to wonder how American history might have been different if a second Abraham Lincoln had made it to manhood.