Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War



Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly:
The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave

By Jennifer Fleischner (New York: Broadway Books, 2003.  Pp 372, $26, ISBN 0-7679-0258-0

Review Originally Published byNorth and South Magazine, 6:7(November 2003):89-90

Elizabeth Keckly is best remembered as Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker during the Civil War, partly responsible for the first lady’s bold and oftentimes controversial fashion sense.  A friendship formed between the pair, but like so many of Mary Lincoln’s relationships, it ended in bitterness.  The rift occurred in 1868 when Keckly wrote her autobiography, appropriately titled, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.  Jennifer Fleischner’s new book contributes much needed context to the lives of the former slave and dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly, and the colorful and outspoken first lady, Mary Lincoln.

Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly traveled vastly different paths before meeting.  Fleischner contrasts the life of privilege Mary Lincoln grew up in, with the early life Keckly spent in slavery.  In describing Mary’s background, Fleischner details the early death of Mary’s mother.  Mary was raised by a slave the family referred to as “Aunt Sally.”  Fleischner writes, “And if Mary had a nightmare about her father dying too, a natural fear under the circumstances, it was probably Aunt Sally who hushed her back to sleep, while she clutched one of her beloved dolls to her chest.”  While the biographical information is not new, Fleischner demonstrates particular strengths in both empathy and detail.       

Fleischner relies on Keckly’s autobiography to bring life to her portrait of Mrs. Keckly.  In addition, Fleischer’s own research on the subject of slavery, of which she previously wrote Mastering Slavery: Memory, Family, and Identity in Women’s Slave Narratives, provides for an even deeper understanding of Keckly’s experiences.  For instance, in her autobiography, Keckly describes the circumstances in which she gave birth for the only time.  Of her son’s white father, she wrote, “Suffice it to say, that he persecuted me for four years and I - I - became a mother.”  Fleischner adds context to Keckly’s brief description.  “At twenty,” Fleischner explains, “Lizzy was older than many young slave women who were sexually preyed upon by their masters.”  Fleischner cites a similar incident between a slave and her master. 

By using her research on slavery, particularly focusing on slave women’s experiences, Fleischner adds a depth of understanding and detail for the reader not found in Keckly’s autobiography.  By breathing life into the Keckly-Lincoln relationship, she adds color to the life of the former first lady.  Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly is not merely a supplement to Behind the Scenes, but a fascinating, colorful, imaginative, yet historically sound look into a relationship forged in the White House between a first lady and her dressmaker.

Samuel P. Wheeler, Southern Illinois University