Mercy Levering Conkling: Friend of Mary Lincoln

First, let me apologize for not posting here for such a long time. I do have a good excuse: we have spent the last few months preparing our house for sale, putting the house on the market, selling it, and (finally!) moving from North Carolina to Maryland. I’m enjoying it here, especially the easy access to Washington, D.C., and the archives therein.

Which brings me to my next point: I’ve been making use of those resources for my work in progress: The First Lady and the Rebel (working title), the story of Mary Lincoln and her Confederate half-sister, Emilie Helm. I’ll be posting about both ladies in the months to come, but I thought I’d start by posting about one of Mary Lincoln’s closest friends.

Some time in 1839, Mary Todd moved from her father and stepmother’s stately, but crowded, house in Lexington, Kentucky, to the home of her married sister Elizabeth Edwards in Springfield, Illinois. Mary left partly because she did not get on well with her stepmother and partly because Springfield, recently made the capital of Illinois, was an ideal place for Mary, a vivacious young woman with a keen interest in politics, to look for a husband. There, she met a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, who was a junior partner in her cousin’s law office. After a rocky courtship, the two married on November 4, 1842.

During her stay at her sister Elizabeth’s house, Mary became good friends with a neighbor, Mercy Levering, who like Mary had come to Springfield on a visit to a relative (in Mercy’s case, her brother). Mercy, whose name is also rendered as “Merce” or “Mercie” (the spelling on her tombstone), is known mainly for her association with a charming story from Mary’s early days in Springfield: during one particularly rainy spell that had turned the unpaved streets of the frontier city to muck, a bored Mary hit upon a novel way to travel the short distance from the Edwards mansion to the center of town: she and Mercy would take a pile of shingles with them and, by dropping the shingles in front of them to use as stepping stones, contrive to keep their feet out of the mud. Getting back home, however, proved to be problematic, so Mary, seeing a passing dray, asked the driver for a lift, a request with which he cheerfully complied. The more conventional Mercy declined the ride, which a denizen of Springfield later immortalized in verse.

Mercy later returned (temporarily) to her family in Baltimore, giving Mary the opportunity in June 1841 to write a confiding letter to her. For reasons that still remain unclear, Mary and Lincoln had broken off their relationship the previous winter, a subject to which Mary refers very obliquely in her letter. Giving news of Joshua Speed, Lincoln’s close friend, she adds, “His worthy friend, deems me unworthy of notice, as I have not met him in the gay world for months, with the usual comfort of misery, imagine that others were so seldom gladdened by his presence as my humble self, yet I would that the case were different, that he would once more resume his Station in Society.”

On September 21, 1841, a few months after receiving this letter from Mary, Mercy married her beau James C. Conkling, a prominent Springfield lawyer. The couple had five children, including Clinton Conkling, who brought Lincoln the news of his nomination for the presidency. Clinton’s correspondence with his parents while he was at Yale before and during the Civil War gives some interesting glimpses into wartime Springfield as well as an eyewitness account by Clinton of the Baltimore riot of April 1861. Thanks to Clinton’s absence at Yale, we have this account from Mercy of Election Day, November 6, 1860, in Springfield:

Springfield has been reclaimed at last, and is now in the Republican arm!! The boys had a great time here last night. Father was out till half past two. He describes the scene as perfectly wild. While the votes were being counted the republicans were at the Representatives hall, singing, yelling! shouting!! (The boys, not children) dancing. Old men, young, middle aged, clergymen and all! John Williams was put in the chair, a Secretary, Reporter etc appointed, and there they remained all night. Dispatches coming in all the while, and being read to the enthusiastic crowd, wild with excitement, and glory! With this I send you a paper, containing a list of the dispatches as they came in. So that you see the crowd had something to keep them excited! The Ladies in the goodness of their hearts prepared a supper, at Watsons saloon, where the gentlemen were invited to go in all night, or at least till 3 o’clock. The Democratic Headquarters closed at eleven and they retired quietly & feeling sad. Poor Dug!

Mary Lincoln’s friendship with Mercy continued into Lincoln’s presidency. In July 1864, Mary, hearing that Mercy and her husband were in Washington, invited her to join them at Fortress Monroe. Later that year, in November, Mary wrote a gossipy letter to Mercy in which she concluded, “I shall be most happy, to welcome you at the Inauguration. If you can think over any plants, you have not & desire, let me know.”

Mercy died in Springfield on October 17, 1893, aged 76; an obituary praised her for her work with the Home for the Friendless. She and her husband, who died in 1899, are buried in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery, the same cemetery in which their friends the Lincolns were laid to rest.

3 thoughts on “Mercy Levering Conkling: Friend of Mary Lincoln”

  1. Fascinating. I really find these female friendships quite interesting…and odd that Mercy was a Rebel…I wouold not have guessed that. I love the story about the shingles! Glad you are enjoying Maryland! We may end up there some day…

    1. Mercy wasn’t a rebel, Mary’s sister Emilie was. Sorry for the confusion!

      If you are passing through this area, let me know!

  2. Congrats on the move! I live in Maryland, near DC, so please feel free to reach out if you need any sort of recommendations.

    Sadly, as a grant writer, I don’t have much occasion to use the LOC. I envy that

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