Some 150 years ago, events during a Civil War battle in rural Northwest Georgia profoundly affected the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
You may wonder how a battle so far removed from the White House -- and to this day from the importance history grants more famous fights -- could so personally affect Lincoln himself. The answer lay in a story of divided loyalties, but similar paths.
Most people are familiar with Lincoln's story, from his birth in Kentucky, education in the law and rise in politics to the presidency, but how many know about Benjamin Hardin Helm?
Helm was born in Bardstown, Ky., the son of lawyer and politician John. L. Helm. He studied law at the University of Louisville and Harvard and began practicing with his father in 1853. In 1855, he was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives, eventually becoming state's attorney. In 1856, Helm's parallel to Lincoln became even more pronounced when he married Emilie Todd, half-sister of first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
Helm was a Confederate, but, as with so many other citizen-soldiers from states with divided loyalties, could've easily allied with the Union. He loved the South and his father had risen to the governorship. So, who could have swayed his allegiance to the Confederacy? Perhaps a president. As war loomed, Lincoln offered Helm the position of Union Army paymaster or a post on the distant frontier. Both roles would have kept him mostly out of harm's way, either in Washington, D.C, or the West, but his upbringing and family loyalty swayed his allegiance.
Helm chose to remain loyal to the Confederacy, returning to raise the 1st Kentucky Cavalry Regiment. The decision likely cost him his life.
Helm became a commissioned officer and by the time he arrived at Chickamauga was a general commanding the First Kentucky Brigade, known popularly as the "Orphan Brigade." On Sept. 20, 1863, the unit engaged Union forces from, ironically, Kentucky. Helm was shot in the chest, quite possibly by a sharpshooter from his home state. Carried off the field he later lay dying, but was reportedly able to ask who won the battle. Assured the Confederates had taken the day, he muttered, "Victory! Victory! Victory!" He succumbed to his wounds on Sept. 21, his last thoughts being of Confederate victory. Rebel forces may have won the battle, but the main objective, Chattanooga, was still up for grabs and would fall into Union hands only two months later.
Once news of Helm's death reached the White House, Lincoln, visibly shaken, reportedly refused to believe it. Senator and friend David Davis witnessed Lincoln's reaction, writing: "I never saw Mr. Lincoln more moved than when he heard of the death of his young brother-in-law Ben Hardin Helm, only thirty-two years old, at Chickamauga. I called to see him about four o'clock on the 22nd of September; I found him in the greatest of grief. 'Davis, he said, I feel as David of old did when he was told of the death of Absalom.' I saw how grief stricken he was so I closed the door and left him alone."
Lincoln's affection for his sister-in-law was unwavering, despite her allegiance to the Confederacy. After Helm's death, Emilie, summoned to the White House, spent considerable time there in mourning. Lincoln, consequently, faced many political attacks from the press about his loyalty, providing evidence that some things never change, and that family can trump politics. Once Emilie left the White House, Lincoln granted her passage through Union lines to return to Kentucky. Finding resistance, eventually she took the oath of allegiance to the United States to aid her journey.
That Lincoln was so profoundly affected by the death of an "enemy" officer says many things about that time in U.S. history.
The story of Helm, Lincoln's Confederate, is a fascinating one, but the same can be said for countless others who fought for the Union or the Confederacy. What motivated these men? Was it their defense or opposition of slavery, protection of hearth and home, their way of life?
When visiting Chickamauga Battlefield, view the new Visitor Center film to learn about the unsung heroes of area battles, men like Helm; Lt. Joshua Callaway, 28th Alabama; and Lt. George Van Pelt, 1st Michigan Light Artillery. The sesquicentennial provides an opportunity to reflect on how historic events in our collective "backyard" affected so many people, and helped shaped a nation's future.
Kim Coons is Chief of Interpretation at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. For more information, visit http://chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.
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