As long-term readers of this blog will know, I’m fond of wills, and I was pleased to find that one major character in The First Lady and the Rebel, Emily Todd Helm’s husband Benjamin Hardin Helm, left one behind. (Abraham Lincoln, married to Emily’s sister Mary, died intestate.)
A graduate of West Point, Hardin, as he was called, made his will on May 13, 1861, with the expectation that he would soon be joining the Confederate army. Just a few days before, he had procured letters of introduction to Jefferson Davis. Sometime between the date of his will and May 19, 1861, he turned up in Montgomery, Alabama, then the Confederate capital, but the Confederate president urged him instead to return to his native Kentucky and to work to bring the state into the Confederacy. Hardin dutifully returned to Louisville, but by the fall of 1861 had joined the rebel forces. Commanding the storied “Orphan Brigade” (so-called because its Kentucky soldiers could not return to their native state, which stayed in the Union), Hardin was mortally wounded at the battle of Chickamauga in September 1863.
Hardin’s will is a short and simple one. Notably, although it is occasionally claimed that Hardin, who practiced law in Louisville before joining the Confederate army, owned no slaves, his will belies that, as do letters and family lore that mention two slaves: Margaret, who looked after Emily’s children, and Phil, who accompanied Hardin to war.
I B. H. Helm do publish this as my last will and testament.
I will and bequeath to my beloved wife Emily T. Helm during her life or widowhood all my property consisting of slaves, money, notes and accounts to be used by her in rearing and educating our children. At the death of my said wife or if she should marry again, then my property is to be equally divided between our children. If our children should die without issue then it is my will that my said wife take the property herein devised absolutely. I appoint and constitute my said wife Emily T. Helm Executrix of this my last will & testament. In witness I have this the 13th day of May 1861 set my hand.
Hardin’s death left his widow and three young children in straitened circumstances, with little to call their own except for the pay due to Hardin as a brigadier general, some receipts for cotton and tobacco he had stored in various warehouses in the South, and Phil and Margaret.
A family story has it that after his master’s death, Phil made his way across the Union lines and returned to Kentucky, where after emancipation he worked as a hack driver. Margaret was a different story. At the time of her husband’s death, Emily, who had followed her husband south, was in Georgia. Having made the decision to return to Kentucky, she soon learned that Margaret could not accompany her, at least not as a slave. Accordingly, Margaret remained in the South, probably with one of Emily’s married sisters in Selma, Alabama; what became of her after the war is unknown.
Emily, meanwhile, obtained a pass to return to Kentucky, but balked at signing the required oath of loyalty to the Union. At that point, her brother-in-law Abraham Lincoln stepped in and ordered that Emily come to the White House. After an awkward, week-long visit with the Lincolns in December 1863, Emily at last returned to Kentucky. There, in Louisville on December 30, 1863, she was able to admit Hardin’s will to probate. She would spend the rest of the war attempting to get her cotton out of the South so it could be sold in the North–a task she was still engaged in on April 14, 1865, when her brother-in-law was assassinated.
While Hardin’s will envisioned the possibility that Emily would remarry, this never came to pass. Emily died on February 20, 1930 at age 93, having outlived her husband over 66 years.