One of our imaging techs recently came across this daguerreotype of Emilie Hardin Helm (Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-sister) and did a double-take at what looks like a smartphone resting in her hands. It’s most likely a small book, but it’s fun to think of what she would have been texting or tweeting at this moment: “Sitting for a photograph and then meeting Mary for supper.” or “Why hasn’t Louis Daguerre invented a faster camera yet?”
This daguerreotype is from the Helm and Todd family photographs and papers, which will soon be available via the Kentucky Digital Library (beta). The Kentucky Historical Society holds the Emilie Todd Helm papers and the following biography is from the finding aid.
Helm was born November 11, 1836 in Lexington, one of nine children of Robert Smith Todd and his second wife, Elizabeth Humphreys. (Todd had seven children by his first wife, Eliza Parker.) Benjamin Hardin Helm was born June 2, 1831 in Elizabethtown, the son of John Larue Helm, two-term Governor of Kentucky. Benjamin Helm attended the Kentucky Military Institute and the U.S. Military Academy, graduating ninth in his class at West Point in 1851. After brief service as a cavalry officer, Helm resigned his commission, due to illness, in 1852. He then studied law, first at the University of Louisville where he graduated in 1853, and later at Harvard. He practiced law in Elizabethtown and later in Louisville from 1856 to the outbreak of the Civil War. He married Emilie Todd in 1856. They had three children, Ben, Jr., Elodie, and Katherine.
Despite deep political differences, the Helms had a close relationship with her sister and brother-in-law, the Lincolns. The President offered Helm an officer’s commission in the Union army but Helm declined the post. He was briefly associated with Kentucky’s short-lived stance of neutrality as Assistant Inspector General of the State Guard. After neutrality was abandoned, Helm became a colonel in the Confederate Army with the First Regiment of Kentucky Cavalry. Following the battle of Shiloh he recieved promotion to brigadier general.
In early 1863 Helm assumed command of the First Kentucky or “Orphan” Brigade. He was mortally wounded September 20, 1863 while leading these troops in the Battle of Chickamauga.
Emilie Helm became very active after the war as a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). She also took part in many of the military reunions and was named “Mother” of the Orphan Brigade.
She served as postmistress in Elizabethtown from 1883 to 1895, having secured the post in a Republican administration with the aid of her nephew, Robert Lincoln. Helm later moved to a colonial mansion near Lexington once owned by her ancestor, General Levi Todd. She died there at the age of 93 on February 20, 1930.