On June 25, 1788, Virginia became the 10th state admitted to the United States of America. At the time, Virginia’s western border extended all the way to the Mississippi River.
On June 1, 1792, the western half of Virginia split away and was admitted as the 15th state in the United States. The name of the new state (actually a commonwealth) was Kentucky. Kentucky was considered a ‘free state’ although slavery did exist in the state.
In 1831, Kentucky State Representative John Helm and his wife Lucinda welcomed a son to the family and named him Benjamin Hardin Helm, after his mom’s father Benjamin Hardin. At the time, the Helm family lived Bardstown, Kentucky, located about 35 miles south southeast of Louisville and about 45 miles west southwest of the capital city of Frankfort.
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Benjamin Helm attended West Point and the went on to study law. After receiving a law degree from Harvard University, Helm joined his father’s law practice.
In 1850, John Helm became the 18th Governor of Kentucky.
In 1855, Benjamin Helm was elected to the Kentucky State House of Representatives, representing Hardin County.
In 1856, Benjamin Helm married Emilie Todd, the half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln. In the same year, Helm became the State Attorney for the 3rd District of Kentucky.
In 1860, Helm’s brother-in-law, Abraham Lincoln, was elected President of the United States.
In 1861, upon the breakout of the Civil War, knowing that Kentucky was a neutral state, Lincoln offered his brother-in-law, Benjamin Helm, the position of paymaster for the Union Army. However, Helm was more sympathetic to the southern cause and declined the offer.
On October 19, 1861, Benjamin Helm received a commission of Colonel in the Confederate Army. He initially was assigned to the command of Brigadier General Simon Buckner who at that time was located in Bowling Green, Kentucky near the southern border.
On March 14, 1862, Helm was promoted to Brigadier General and assigned to the command of General Braxton Bragg.
In April 1862, Helm was tasked with creating a new military group, the Kentucky Brigade, also known as the Orphan Brigade. This new Orphan Brigade was assigned to the Army of Tennessee.
On September 20, 1863, Helm and his Orphan Brigade were under the command of Confederate General Braxton Bragg. They were part of the Confederate effort at the Battle of Chickamauga. The Orphan Brigade were given orders to advance on the Union line and nearly an hour later, over 30% of the Orphan Brigade lay dead or wounded on the battleground. As the rest of the Orphan Brigade continued to fight, a Union sharpshooter, also from Kentucky, shot Helm in the chest and he died several hours later.
When Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln received news of Helm’s death, they went into a time of mourning in private. Mary reportedly knew that if anyone saw Lincoln shedding a tear or mourning for a fallen Confederate soldier that he would be subject to intense scorn and ridicule, she they mourned the death of Mary’s brother-in-law in private in the White House.
In December, 1863, Emilie Todd Helm, General Benjamin Helm’s widow was secretly admitted to the White House to stay a few days with Mary and the President. When Union General Daniel Sickles discovered that Emilie Helm was at the White House, he told the President that she should not be there. Reportedly, Lincoln replied:
“General Sickles, my wife and I are in the habit of choosing our own guests. We do not need from our friends either advice or assistance in the matter.”
On December 8, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. This was a plan to pave the way for reconciliation and reunification for the South. Part of that plan was offer amnesty to anyone associated with the South would be granted amnesty if they left the Confederacy and came to the North.
On this day, December 14, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a full pardon for his sister-in-law, Emilie Todd Helm under his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction plan. A few days later, Emilie returned to her home in Kentucky without any fear of retribution for being the widow of a Confederate general.
Sources for the above includes: Lincoln Pardons His Sister-in-Law; Relatives and Residents: Emilie (Emily) Todd Helm; Emilie Todd Helm; The Death of Benjamin Hardin Helm; The Orphan Brigade; History of the Orphan Brigade; Today, September 20, 1863: Confederate Victory at Battle of Chickamauga: Lincoln Issues Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction