A biography of Robert Todd Lincoln a few years ago is entitled Giant in the Shadows, and that is an accurate description of him. One of the foremost attorneys of his day, a noted philanthropist, Secretary of War and Ambassador to the Court of Saint James, he lived a life of hard work and accomplishment, and from the election of his father as President, he knew that nothing that he did in his life would likely matter to History and it was his fate to be remembered solely for being the son of Abraham Lincoln. It is hard being the son of a great man, and it is to his credit that Robert did not allow his accident of birth to overwhelm him. Throughout his life he never ran away from his father and his memory, a man and a memory that he loved. However, he was intent on being his own man, and his first major action demonstrating this was his desire to enlist in the Union Army. His father was sympathetic to his desire to fight for his country but was fearful that his wife would lose what often seemed to be a tenuous grasp on sanity if harm should come to Robert and he be added to the ranks of the two Lincoln sons who had already died. Nevertheless, he sided with Robert and told Mary on several occasions that many families had lost all their sons in the War and that Robert had to obey his conscience and join the Army. Mary Todd Lincoln knew that it was a “noble and manly” impulse, as she called it, that led her oldest son to want to join the Army, but allowed her fears to long cause her to battle against his desire to serve. It didn’t help that many of her relatives had already died serving in both the Confederate and Union Armies.
Abraham Lincoln, ever a born compromiser, found a solution which he set forth in a letter to Grant.
Lieut. General Grant:
Please read and answer this letter as though I was not President, but only a friend. My son, now in his twenty second year, having graduated at Harvard, wishes to see something of the war before it ends. I do not wish to put him in the ranks, nor yet to give him a commission, to which those who have already served long, are better entitled, and better qualified to hold. Could he, without embarrassment to you, or detriment to the service, go into your Military family with some nominal rank, I, and not the public, furnishing his necessary means? If no, say so without the least hesitation, because I am as anxious, and as deeply interested, that you shall not be encumbered as you can be yourself.
Grant assured Lincoln that his son would be welcome as an officer on his staff. On February 11, 1865, Robert joined the Army as an adjutant on Grant’s staff with the rank of Captain. By all accounts he was a hardworking officer, and well-liked by his fellow staff officers. He would have preferred a combat assignment, but by that time of the War he was probably more useful where he was. The Union army had no shortage by the end of the War of seasoned combat officers, and with his Harvard education Robert was probably more useful as a staff officer than as a green officer in a combat command.
Lincoln served until June, resigning his commission shortly after the conclusion of the War. Although he made light of it in later years, he was obviously proud to have finally served in the Union Army, as indicated by his decision to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery rather than in the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield.