Loss and Letters: Artifacts of Grief


By Meera Muñoz Pandya, Adult Learning Specialist

On December 7th, 2023, the National Postal Museum co-hosted a reflective writing workshop with President Lincoln’s Cottage. The program explored one shared theme that both museums are in a position to explore in very different ways: grief, loss, and mourning.

Photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with sons Willie and Tad
Mary Lincoln with her two younger sons, Willie (left) and Tad (right). Image courtesy President Lincoln's Cottage. 

The period in which President Lincoln and his family lived at what is now known as Lincoln’s Cottage was an immensely difficult time for them. In February of 1862, as the Civil War raged around them, the Lincolns lost their son Willie while living at the White House, likely to typhoid. Willie was the second of the Lincolns’ sons to die (their 4-year-old son Eddie had died in 1850), and his loss was absolutely devastating to the family. President Lincoln felt the death of his son deeply and buried himself in the immense work of leading a nation through a civil war. Mary Lincoln had no such option, and she was debilitated by the loss. She never again entered the room where her son had died and couldn’t even attend his funeral.

In June of 1862, the Lincolns moved for the summer to a house, now known as President Lincoln’s Cottage, on the grounds of what was then called the Soldiers’ Home. The Soldiers’ Home was created in the 1850s to serve aging veterans who could not support themselves for a variety of reasons. Located roughly 30 minutes away from the White House on horseback, it was situated in what was then the countryside outside of the city. President Lincoln commuted to the White House each morning and back to the Cottage each evening for the hot summer months. He did so for the following two summers of his presidency, ultimately spending a quarter of his presidency in residence at the Cottage. The first summer at the Cottage, the Lincolns were mere months removed from the painful and unexpected loss of Willie. Living at the Cottage gave them space from the painful memories of Willie’s illness and death, which took place at the White House, and gave the couple room to spend significant time together as a family with Tad, their youngest son, who still lived at home with them. Mary Lincoln once wrote in a letter to a friend: “When we are in sorrow, quiet is very necessary to us.” The Cottage provided this quiet space for the grieving family to be together and process their profound loss.

Postcard with an illustration of the Old Soldiers Home, showing a open green space, surrounding buildings, and a flag pole with an American flag
Illustration of the cottage and surrounding structures and area. Image courtesy President Lincoln's Cottage. 
Black-and-white photograph of Lincoln's Cottage and lawn
Image of the Cottage from a photo album belonging to Mary Todd Lincoln. Courtesy President Lincoln's Cottage. 
Color photograph of Lincoln's Cottage as it looks today
The cottage as it appears today. Image courtesy President Lincoln's Cottage. 

While the Lincolns were living at the Cottage dealing with overwhelming personal grief, the country was reeling from the monumental casualties of the ongoing Civil War. By the end of the war, over 600,000 men (roughly 2% of the population of the country) had died. Soldiers who died in previous wars had often been buried in churchyards or their family cemeteries. The unprecedented death toll of the Civil War, however, coupled with the fact that so many of these men were dying very far from home and were sometimes unidentifiable, called for the adoption of new burial practices. National cemeteries were established to provide an honorable burial for men who died fighting for the United States. These cemeteries were often placed in regions that had seen heavy fighting. The very first of these was established in 1861 on the grounds of the Soldiers Home, within view of Lincoln’s Cottage. The land set aside for this cemetery was quickly filled by the bodies of Union soldiers. While living through their personal grief, the Lincolns witnessed the burials of soldiers dying in the extremely bloody war that raged around them. In this way, the Cottage served both as an escape for the grieving family, and a space from which they could not truly escape the reality of loss and mourning.

The National Cemetery, rear of Soldiers' Home, Washington, D.C., image courtesy of the New York Public Library
Photograph of the first National Cemetery, possibly taken while Lincoln was living at the Cottage. Image courtesy New York Public Library.

President Lincoln’s Cottage currently has on display a temporary exhibition exploring the Lincolns’ grief over losing a child, placing their experience alongside experiences of modern parents who have lost children.

Sculpture of a white tree in President Lincoln's Cottage exhibition space
Reflections on Grief and Child Loss Exhibition at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

The National Postal Museum has in its collection a wide variety of objects related to loss and mourning. Of note are the mourning covers. Covers are the outer part of mail that includes the postage and cancellation, usually an envelope. A common Victorian practice of writing on stationery with a black border when in mourning extended to envelopes. The National Postal Museum’s collection includes dozens of these black-edged covers, spanning decades. Often these covers were donated to the museum without their associated contents, leaving only the clues on the cover itself.

Of particular relevance to a collaboration with President Lincoln’s Cottage are the mourning covers from the Civil War period.

Envelope cover with a handwritten address, stamp, and black border
Confederate mourning cover in the National Postal Museum’s collection.

This cover can be dated to the Civil War by the stamp, which features Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. The Confederate postal system only existed for the short window of the Civil War. The black border indicates that the envelope’s contents likely announced the death of a relative or friend. The recipient, William Cabell Rives, was serving in the Confederate Congress when this cover was sent through the mail. Prior to the war, he had served as the U.S. Ambassador to France and in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

Envelope cover with a handwritten address, stamp, and black border
Hand-drawn mourning cover from the National Postal Museum collection sent to Mrs. Rachel J. Walters.

Rachel Walters, whose husband served in the Civil War, received this mourning cover in the mail sometime between 1859 and 1868, possibly during the war itself. The Postal Museum has a remarkably robust number of letters to and from Rachel Walters. The letters exchanged between Rachel Walters, her husband (a soldier in the Union Army), and her husband’s two brothers also serving in the Civil War form a rare and extremely personal record of that family’s experience of war. From the letters we learn that during the course of the war, Rachel’s mother-in-law, her sister’s husband, and Rachel’s own husband all died. The letters contain communication about these painful losses. It isn’t clear which letter is associated with this particular cover, but the black border is obvious and notable in that it was drawn by hand, rather than pre-printed.

The program on December 7th was facilitated by museum educator, teaching artist, and playwright Mary Hall Surface. She guided participants through a program that wove together thoughtful, reflective writing prompts with relevant historical content. Participants reflected on their personal places of solace; remembered a loved one inspired by a poem of Walt Whitman’s, who was an admirer of Lincoln; wrote letters to or from departed friends or family and crafted covers for the letters; and wrote metaphors for their own understandings of grief. Opportunities for sharing and collaboration created a space for connection among the participants. The Lincolns’ experience of mourning, the loss of the Civil War period, and artifacts of Victorian mourning anchored the prompts and exercises. Reflecting and writing in the Drawing Room of President Lincoln’s Cottage gave attendees the chance to experience the quiet space that was so impactful to the Lincolns. Even today, visitors to the Cottage notice the quiet that Mrs. Lincoln commented on. Surface created a gentle space and a supportive framing for participants to engage with their own loss and grief. This kind of program, one that allows for quiet reflection while anchoring very personal experiences in the past, is something that museums are in a very unique position to be able to offer. It was deeply wonderful to be able to participate in such a creative and meaningful event.

If you are grieving, here is a supportive resource provided by Lincoln's Cottage.


About the Author
Meera Muñoz Pandya is the Adult Learning Specialist at the National Postal Museum. She is responsible for building and implementing in-person and virtual programs that focus on an adult audience. She has previously worked as a museum educator at the National Museum of Natural History, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, President Lincoln’s Cottage, National Children’s Museum, and National Portrait Gallery, where she worked with audiences of all ages and backgrounds.