The Civil War: Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker and confidant was a former slave

Library of Congress turns the historical spotlight on Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln's seamstress. Photo: Elizabeth Keckley shown dressing Mary Todd Lincoln Image: Lincoln Library and Museum

VIENNA, Va.  October 26, 2012 — One portion of the Library of Congress blogs on the Civil War, which opens in a few weeks, includes a little known lady who was both friend, confidante and seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln, who was by all accounts a difficult person and First Lady at her best.

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley was born a slave in Dinwiddie County, Virginia in 1818. Her father, Armistead Burwell ,was the white plantation owner who owned her mother, Agnes “Aggie” Keckley, and Elizabeth was said to have been very light skinned, obviously the daughter of a white man. Aggie was a house slave, working only in the main house, bringing her closer to the owner.

Since Lizzie lived in the big house with her mother, she began performing official work at the age of five. The Burwell family had four children under the age of ten, and Mary Burwell assigned little Lizzie as the nursemaid for the baby, Elizabeth Morgan. On one occasion she pushed the cradle too hard, and the baby fell out. The child was not injured, but Lizzie was beaten severely.

Lizzie Keckley’s controversial book on her White House years

When Lizzie was forced to move to North Carolina with Burwell’s son, Robert, a prominent white man in the area, William Bingham, saw her and forced an ongoing  sexual relationship on her, which she desperately hated.

Ultimately, she had a baby boy, named George, and shortly thereafter she returned to Virginia to serve the Burwell’s daughter who had now married. All of this was in the 1840s, and Lizzie worked long and hard to purchase her freedom and that of her son and it finally occurred in 1852.

Before the start of the Civil War she moved to Baltimore to begin a seamstress business, due to its proximity to Washington, the seat of government. She soon was the hit of the area with her dressmaking business with women coming to her from everywhere in the area to have their special gowns and other clothing made, including Varina Davis, second wife of Jefferson Davis, and Mary Anna Custis Lee, the wife of Robert E. Lee.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s love of clothing and other luxuries is well known, and once she met Elizabeth Keckley, she knew she must have her as her own personal seamstress and modiste. A friendship developed between the two, and their relationship lasted for the next six years. Mary Todd wanted to be the epitome of fashion and haute couture of the age, and Lizzie Keckley saw to it that that took place.

Within four months she had made 16 dresses for Mrs. Lincoln. The two women apparently had more in common than fashion, and Lizzie became her personal confidante, as well as being privy to all that went on in the White House, an enviable connection for both.

In January of 1862, with the War in full swing, Mrs. Lincoln went to Matthew Brady’s Washington Photography Studio to have her formal picture made in two of Elizabeth Keckley’s gowns, and her lovely dresses made themselves known at dozens of official events.

Meanwhile, Keckley became a minor celebrity in the free-black community, and to her credit, she helped establish the Contraband Relief Association to raise money for former slaves who had come across to the Union. It began with just the recently freed slaves and then extended to sick and wounded soldiers as well in what was becoming a poor and displaced community with her often working through the black churches in the area. 

The two friends in the White House

During her White House years, the Lincolns had two young children, William and  Tad, and part of Lizzie’s duties frequently entailed caring for them, particularly when they were ill. Her own son, George Kirkland, who was more than three-quarters white, enlisted as a white soldier in the Union Army, but was killed in action a few months later.  Due to his white appearance, it was difficult for her to obtain his pension as his survivor, but she was finally able to receive it.

With Lincoln’s assassination, Keckley’s position changed, and it resulted in what may be the worst choice she ever made. She went with Mrs. Lincoln to help her get settled in Chicago, only spending three weeks there since she had her own business to attend to. Mary Todd was deeply in debt due to her extravagant spending habits and wrote her friend asking for help in disposing many of her old clothes through a broker.

Shortly thereafter when she had donated her own Lincoln memorabilia to Wilberforce College, Keckley decided to share her life with the world, penning “Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House.”   While this opened the door of the Lincoln White House to the public, it transgressed the mores of the time in many ways. The line between employer and employee, probably between white and black, and those of confidentiality, all were breached, and she was criticized by all sides. The response from Robert Lincoln was that if she were in her right mind, his mother would be seriously embarrassed, and he regretted the publication of her work in various newspapers.

As for Elizabeth Keckley, the connection between Mary Todd and her was permanently severed.

Ultimately she was given a position at Wilberforce University to head the department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts and moved to Ohio, where she organized an exhibit for the world’s fair. By the 1890s she had returned to Washington living in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, dying in 1907. For a time, Lizzie Keckley was buried in an unmarked grave.

However, according to Michelle Krowl of the Library of Congress: “When the previous Harmony Cemetery was moved, ultimately being replaced by the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station, those interred were moved to what is now known as National Harmony Memorial Park in Largo, Maryland. Unfortunately, the headstone Keckley chose for her final resting site was not moved as well, and she was in an unmarked grave for nearly half a century. (I was told years ago by someone familiar with the removal that many of the tombstones were simply plowed under, especially for individuals like Keckly who had no descendants or interested parties to insure the headstones were moved.)

“However, in June 2010 a new marker was placed over her grave, purchased with donations made by various sponsors of the project to mark her grave.  The new marker is different than the one she chose for herself, but having visited her burial site in National Harmony Memorial Park in the 1990s, I recall that she is in a section of the cemetery in which all the markers are flat. Her marker in the former Harmony Cemetery was a traditional upright headstone.

“I am glad to be able to provide a happier ending to the story of Elizabeth Keckley’s final resting place than was the case several years ago.”

She is finally being finally remembered at the Library of Congress Civil War exposition next month and restored to her historical place in the Lincoln saga. 

Follow the blog on FaceBook at MarthaBoltz; email is . Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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