The First Lady and the Rebel
by Susan Higginbotham
Publication Date: October 1, 2019
eBook & Paperback; 400 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
From the celebrated author Susan Higginbotham comes the incredible story of Lincoln’s First Lady
A Union’s First Lady
As the Civil War cracks the country in two, Mary Lincoln stands beside her husband praying for a swift Northern victory. But as the body count rises, Mary can’t help but fear each bloody gain. Because her beloved sister Emily is across party lines, fighting for the South, and Mary is at risk of losing both her country and her family in the tides of a brutal war.
A Confederate Rebel’s Wife
Emily Todd Helm has married the love of her life. But when her husband’s southern ties pull them into a war neither want to join, she must make a choice. Abandon the family she has built in the South or fight against the sister she has always loved best.
With a country’s legacy at stake, how will two sisters shape history?
“Historical fiction at it best: A unique, intimate view of a character we thought we knew. The Civil War comes to life through two sisters on opposite sides, one the first lady of the not-so United States. And through it all, a fascinating family saga. I learned a lot and loved this book.” – Karen Harper, New York Times bestselling author of American Duchess
“Susan Higginbotham’s The First Lady and the Rebel is a meticulously researched and powerfully written account of the complicated and compelling relationship between the Todd sisters. Higginbotham’s two female protagonists are bonded by blood and love, but pulled apart by war. Set against the sweeping backdrop of our nation’s Civil War, this is the tragic and true story of human hearts both fierce and fallible, of deeply mixed loyalties, and of the imperfect but inspiring individuals who were asked to do the unimaginable. Moving and enlightening.” – Allison Pataki, New York Times bestselling author of The Accidental Empress
“Susan Higginbotham has done it again-crafted a richly detailed novel that immerses readers in America’s Civil War. The First Lady and the Rebel explores the tragic story of a family and a nation torn apart, while shedding light on rarely reported events in the personal life of Abraham Lincoln. Mary Todd Lincoln, the President’s wife, and her sister, Emily Todd Helm, are devoted to their husbands and to each other, yet find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict as they face overwhelming grief and loss. The novel presents a devastating time and place rendered so vividly you’ll feel as if you’d lived through the war yourself. Higginbotham’s painstaking and extensive research is evident from the engaging first chapter to the novel’s moving conclusion. For those who like their historical novels based on real people, this book is a must-read.” – Amy Belding Brown, author of Flight of the Sparrow
This was a title I was very excited for as I’m quite the fan of American Civil War stories. It’s a sad time in history, but a fascinating one regardless. To think there was a single country at war with itself–brother against brother. Families torn apart. It was a tragic time and a great many families never recovered. How could they? And even if some wanted to reconcile…others were torn apart by death. War is cruel and this one, in particular, was heartwrenching. Mary Todd Lincoln was one such woman. Having grown up in the South and been in a family that owned slaves, one would assume that she would have loyalties to the South still. But her allegiance was to the Union and to her husband. It is she who is one of the narrators, the other is her sister Emily, who was loyal to the South.
I have often bemoaned that Mary Todd Lincoln has always been made to be the most…frustrating character in a book or the most misunderstood. In this book, I found her to be lacking slightly, but I enjoyed her far more than I did in other tomes. I wish Ms. Higginbotham had gone more in-depth, giving Mary more of a fleshing out, if that makes sense. I feel we got a sense of Mary and Emily, but we never got to know them entirely. I feel this to be a sad thing; because I wanted to get to know them more. There was a lot of room for that.
Still. we see the struggles each woman faces, not very different from everyone else at the time, though Mary’s loss is particularly hard. I know that I made it sound like Mary turned her back on her family, she did not. She worried after them but had little contact. Besides, if she were seen to have loyalty to the South still, what message would that send? She was already not the most popular.
Regardless, this is a good read and a bit of a quick one, though I admit the story stayed with me. I often wonder how I would have survived during the War and how I’d have felt if my family declared loyalties to the opposing side. I think that’s something that everyone else might feel too. I hope Ms. Higginbotham continues writing novels set during the Civil War; I am enjoying them. Hanging Mary, about Mary Surratt, was particularly good.
Susan Higginbotham is the author of seven historical novels, including Hanging Mary, The Stolen Crown, and The Queen of Last Hopes. The Traitorâ€™s Wife, her first novel, was the winner of ForeWord Magazineâ€™s 2005 Silver Award for historical fiction and was a Gold Medalist, Historical/Military Fiction, 2008 Independent Publisher Book wards. She writes her own historical fiction blog, History Refreshed. Higginbotham has worked as an editor and an attorney, and lives in Maryland with her family.
Blog Tour Schedule
Tuesday, October 1
Review at Gwendalyn’s Books
Friday, October 4
Review at Donna’s Book Blog
Saturday, October 5
Review at So Many Books, So Little Time
Tuesday, October 8
Review at The Lit Bitch
Wednesday, October 9
Review at Just One More Chapter
Thursday, October 10
Review at Unabridged Chick
Saturday, October 12
Review at Jorie Loves a Story
Tuesday, October 15
Review at Passages to the Past
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We think of Mary Todd as the wife of Abraham Lincoln, so it may come as a surprise to you that for a while during their courtship, it appeared that the lovers would go their separate ways.
Mary Todd left her home in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1839, to pay an extended visit to her married sister Elizabeth Edwards in Springfield, Illinois. Such visits were common: it gave the married sister companionship and help around the house, and it gave the unmarried sister an opportunity to expand her circle of acquaintances, particularly of the male variety. A prairie town that was still raw around the edges, Springfield had recently been made the state capital, although it was hardly a prepossessing one at the time. There, Mary met Abraham Lincoln, a legislator who had a law practice in Springfield, and soon she and Lincoln were courting, despite his legendary awkwardness among women. But in 1841–probably on New Year’s Day–the couple broke up.
To this day, no one is sure what caused Abraham and Mary to part company. Both, like proper Victorians, maintained a discreet silence on the matter, at least in public, and their confidantes likewise kept their counsel. After Lincoln’s death, however, when every detail of his private life became of intense interest, speculation was rife. Some believed that Lincoln had fallen in love with Matilda Edwards, a cousin of Mary who was visiting in Springfield; others thought that Mary had been flirting with other men. One version of the story even had Lincoln failing to show up for his wedding, leaving a weeping Mary alone at the altar.
What is well attested is that after the split, Lincoln fell into a deep depression, while Mary grimly soldiered on. Letters indicate that each took an interest in the welfare of the other during their time apart. Finally, probably through the intervention of friends, the couple reconciled and were married on November 4, 1842. (First, though, Lincoln was challenged to a duel. But that’s another story.)
On New Year’s Day, 1841, Mary was sitting in the parlor when she heard a knock at the front door, followed by the appearance of Mr. Lincoln. “Why, I wish you a happy new year, sir. And”–she lowered her voice and smiled–“what a better way to start a new year by planning a wedding? I’ve been reading cookery books and am growing quite domesticated.”
“Now, I know you consider me a spoiled creature, but really, sir, you underestimate us Todd girls. Why, my sister Mrs. Wallace is still lodging in the Globe Tavern, and she never complains of the quarters, even after becoming a mother! We have the capacity to make do, sir.”
“I am sure you don’t want a grand ceremony; I don’t want one either. Just a few friends and family–”
“Mary, we can’t do this. We can’t marry.”
“Why on earth not?” Mary shot up to her full five feet two inches. “Has Mr. Edwards forbid it? The nerve! I am of age, and I will marry whom I please. Why, we’ll elope!”
“No, Mary. It’s not him. It’s me. I can’t marry you.”
Mary sat back down. “You’re in love with Matilda Edwards,” she said flatly.
“No. I’ve hardly spoken a word to her.”
“When did that stop anyone?”
“Be that as it may, I’m not in love with her. I’m not in love with anyone else.”
“You are angry that I paid so much attention to Mr. Webb the other night. Maybe I was flirting a wee bit. The deceiver deceived! I meant no harm, truly. He was the only person not acting ridiculous about Matilda, and he is a perfectly agreeable man, and–”
“It’s not Webb. I like Webb. Why would your being friendly to him distress me? Mary, it’s me. I can’t marry you. I can’t marry anyone.”
Mary reviewed all of the reasons a man might not marry–a loathsome disease, unnatural behavior, financial distress–and decided to focus on the least frightening one. “Mr. Lincoln, I told you again and again that I don’t expect to live in high style.”
“I can keep a wife. It’s me. Mary, will you listen to me? Every time I think of marriage, my blood runs cold. I’m not ready. I don’t know if I ever will be, but I do know that I’m not ready now.”
“Do you love me?”
Lincoln gazed at her for a long time. “I don’t know,” he said. “You’re pretty, and you’re smart and lively, but–”
“Then end it.”
He began pacing around the room. “But we were engaged. I made a promise. Perhaps–”
Lawyer that he was, no doubt he was worried that she might sue him for breach of promise to marry–not that she would humiliate herself by taking the witness stand as a spurned bride. “End it,” she repeated. “I will not hold you to a promise that you do not wish to keep. I will release you from our engagement. I will even put it in writing.”
She went to the desk, supplied with ink and paper as if awaiting such an occasion, and scrawled something–anything–to the effect of what she had told Lincoln, then held out the finished product to him. Evidently, it satisfied his lawyer’s mind, for he took it and stuffed it into his coat pocket.
“I didn’t want to hurt you, Miss Todd.”
“Yet you managed that quite competently.” She turned away, conscious of the tears beginning to run down her face. “I did not write this in the letter, but know this: my feelings for you have not changed. Should you come to your senses and recognize how good we would be for each other, I will be here.”
He pulled her on his knee and kissed her, as passionately as he had kissed her when he had proposed marriage. It was she who disengaged herself, marched to the parlor door, and flung it wide open.
“You have this all backwards, Mr. Lincoln. Good-bye.”