Robert and Randolph: Sons in War

Abraham Lincoln and Sons

Winston and Clementine Churchill had five children – one of whom died before the age of three. Their only son Randolph served honorably and bravely in World War II as a British commando in the Balkans, but he had a very difficult relationship with his mother, who “could not abide her son’s influence upon her husband, – a feeling shared by man in Churchill’s entourage,” wrote historian John Pearson.1 Churchill’s colleagues and subordinates were pleased to see the outspoken and obnoxious Randolph engaged far away from the prime minister.

Randolph was the Churchills’ most difficult child. Churchill was on military reserve duty when the Churchills’ second oldest child was born in 1911. The future prime minister wrote his wife: “My precious pussy cat, I do trust & hope that you are being good, & not sitting up or fussing yourself. Just get well & strong & enjoy the richness wh[ich] this new event will I know have brought into your life. The Chumbolly must do his duty and help you with your milk, you are to tell him so from me. At his age greediness & even swinishness at table are virtues.”2

Neither Lincoln nor Churchill had a strong relationship with their own fathers. “We have this evening had a longer period of continuous conversation than the total which I ever had with my in the whole course of his life,” said Winston Churchill to his son Randolph in 1938.3 (Winston’s father Randolph spent all of his childhood in politics, dying in 1895 of syphilis.) Young Randolph and Winston had a frequently contentious, but adoring relationship. Randolph, who never finished college, had difficulty finding his place in the world and difficulty getting along with others, including his family. His drinking aggravated all his relationships. Historian Norman Rose wrote: “Father and son rowed constantly. ‘One’s children are like a lot of live bombs. One never knows when they will go off, or in what direction,’ Churchill wrote to Clementine after one altercation. Their explosive arguments, followed by touching reconciliations, lasted until Churchill’s final years.”4

Most Churchill contemporaries simply detested Randolph, who lived in the shadow of his father’s eminence and desperately sought to assert his own claim to fame. In that, Randolph was generally unsuccessful. His attempts to win election to parliament before and after the war were failures; he was elected only in 1940 in a race without opposition. His marriages were also generally failures – although Winston adored Randolph’s first wife Pamela Digby, who married Randolph at 19 and divorced him at 25. Churchill also adored his grandson and namesake Winston, born in October 1940. In May 1942, Churchill wrote Randolph: “Winston was in the pink when I saw him last. He has not so far grown old enough to commit the various forms of indiscretion which he would be expected to inherit from his forebears.”5 Meeting in Algiers with his son Randolph in August 1944, Winston Churchill avoided talk of the state of his marriage: “No reference was made by either of us to family matters.”6 A few weeks later, British MP Harold Nicolson wrote of Randolph’s dissolving marriage: “Winston is terribly distressed. The old boy is tremendously domestic and adores his family.”7

Randolph’s sister Mary later wrote that Randolph “had difficult personal problems to resole between himself and Pamela, and distance from all the people involved made for misunderstandings. Throughout his life an easily aroused and explosive person, Randolph was at this time under considerable strain and, sadly, the brief meetings with either or both of his parents were often marked by painful scenes, which left their mark on all concerned.”8 During the war, Mary wrote in her diary: “I think the greatest misfortune in R’s life is that he is Papa’s son – Papa has spoilt and indulged him & is very responsible….”9 When Randolph joined a special parachute unit in the spring of 1942, Clementine wrote her husband: “I feel this impulse of Randolph’s caused by natural disappointment that he has lost his interesting post is sincere but sensational – Surely there is a half-way house between being a Staff Officer and a Parachute Jumper? He could have quietly and sensibly rejoined his Regiment & considering he has a very young wife with a baby to say nothing of a Father who is bearing not only the burden of his own country but for the moment that of an unprepared America, it would in my view have been his dignified & reasonable duty.” She added: “I think his action is selfish & unjust to you both, & as regards Pamela one might imagine she had betrayed or left him.”10 Actually, during the war, Pamela did have several affairs – including one with her future husband, American diplomat Averell Harriman, and one with broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow.

Randolph’s son Winston much later wrote in a biography of his father: “While, in later life, Randolph was able to look back upon this period philosophically, at the time he was bitterly hurt and humiliated, not least by the fact that his wife’s affair with Harriman was common knowledge in social circles. At a time when all important decisions were taken at the top and many Members were away at war, the House of Commons held little appeal for Randolph. He could not wait to get back to active service in the desert….” Winston added: “Not only did these events destroy my parents’ marriage, but they had a devastating impact on Randolph’s relationship with his father. Randolph found it impossible ever to forgive his parents for, as he saw it, condoning what had happened and, worse still, seeming to take Pamela’s side by telling Randolph to be kinder to his young wife, of whom they were both so deeply fond. When Randolph levelled this accusation against his father, a battle royal erupted at Downing Street, following which his mother – fearful that Winston might have a seizure – banned Randolph from their home for the rest of the war.””11

Churchill aide John Colville wrote that Churchill, reacting to the neglect of his own upbringing, “eagerly associated his son, when still a schoolboy, with his own activities and own political friends.” Clementine and Winston’s friends tried to advise him about the self-absorbed bully he was raising, but “Winston himself was incorrigible. He continued to spoil Randolph and to encourage his large aspirations.” He also encouraged Randolph’s combative, critical personality. Colville noted: “Whenever he came home, he would complain, all too stridently, about the Government’s policy, the strategy of the generals and the quality of members of the Government.” Frequent arguments resulted. “No doubt part of the trouble was that he had grown up under the branches of a great spreading tree, soil in which it is difficult for a young plant to thrive and blossom.”12 Oliver Lyttelton, a businessman who was a minister in Churchill government, observed: “To say that Randolph is no respecter of persons would be a flaccid understatement: he is by nature critical of authority and vociferous in denouncing its mistakes.”13

When a top Foreign Office official sat next to Randolph at a Cairo dinner in February 1943, he wrote in his diary that Randolph was “a dreadful young man….Very silly of Winston to take him about.”14 Harold Macmillan, who was Churchill’s top civilian representative in the Mediterranean for much of World War II, made repeated references in his diaries to Randolph – especially in December 1943 when Churchill was recuperating in northern Africa from a serious bout of pneumonia:

∙ December 21, 1943: “The P.M. is recovering – rather too rapidly! Stimulated by Randolph, and having nothing else in particular to do, he is getting himself into a state of irritation with the French, which is bad for his health, and looks like leading to much trouble.”15
∙ December 22, 1943: “The P.M. is beginning to ring up and telegraph from Tunis almost hourly. Randolph is stimulating him and I am sure it is bad for him.”16
∙ December 25, 1943: “I discovered from conversation with some of the staff and from Lord Moran [Churchill’s physician] that, as I thought, Randolph was the cause of all the trouble. They were much alarmed at the P.M.’s excitement and when he telephoned to me he was really beside himself and had a slight heart trouble afterwards. It is really too bad of the boy to worry his father. But Winston is pathetically devoted to him (as he is to all his family) and will not rebuke him as he should.”17

One source of conflict with his father was Randolph’s vigorously expressed disdain for French General Charles de Gaulle.18 Macmillan wrote on December 7, 1943: “6:30 p.m. Saw P.M. again. He was in bed. We talked over this for a bit, and then I had my memorandum typed in his office and got ready for him to study at leisure. I also discussed with him his proposed visit to Algiers. He seems very anxious to make a speech attacking de Gaulle! (This is Randolph’s idea, who wants a ‘secret session’ of the Assembly.) Of course Winston plays about with these ideas – partly to tease more serious-minded ambassadors than I shall ever be – and then, in the end, does exactly the right thing in exactly the right way.”19

On June 16, 1944 Macmillan wrote in his diary: “I had to put up with an hour of Randolph. He was very indignant with me at giving orders for him to be taken out of Yugoslavia (or rather persuading General Wilson to do so). He has a certain charm, but his manners are dreadful, and his flow of talk insufferable. He always manages to have a row or make a scene wherever he goes. Of course I did not want him captured and perhaps tortured by the Germans, partly for the P.M.’s sake and partly because I felt sure he knew too much – including perhaps the date of the Second Front in France. Anyway, he has not had a bad time since he came out. He has been to Rome, interviewed the Pope, spent £200 at Rome (which he tried to borrow from me) and generally enjoyed himself.” High living and gambling were among Randolph’s problems. Ten days later, Macmillan wrote: “With P.M. More talk about the plan and other matters – especially Yugoslavia. Randolph appeared, slim but truculent. He irritates his father, who adores him.”20

Though they might argue in private, Churchill could be fiercely protective of Randolph. After Randolph won election to the House of Commons in an uncontested by-election, a suggestion was made on the House floor that “Randolph was not a fighting soldier. When the insulting MP approached Churchill to explain what he was about to say on the floor before he silenced by the Commons speaker, “Winston shook his fist in his face. ‘Do not speak to me’, he shouted. ‘You called my son a coward. You are my enemy. Do not speak to me.’”21

Abraham Lincoln also had to deal with charges of cowardice by his son. The Lincolns had four sons – one of whom died before reaching the age of four, another of whom died with profound effect on his parents in February 1862. The oldest son, Robert, attended Harvard as an undergraduate and as a law school student during the Civil war. It was reported that Lincoln said of Robert that he was “more Todd than Lincoln.” Lincoln’s relationship with his son Robert contrasted with that of Churchill’s relationship with his only son Randolph. Robert was a shy, sensitive young man who alternately admired and was exasperated by his father, who indulged his two youngest sons.

Aside from his failure to join the Union army, Robert was most noted for his normalcy. The New York Herald, seldom a fan of the Lincoln administration, reported on March 5, 1861, one day after Lincoln’s inauguration: “Bob, the Prince of Rails, starts for Cambridge tomorrow. He is sick of Washington and glad to get back to his college.”22 The Herald that summer when Robert accompanied his mother to a New Jersey vacation: “He does everything very well, but avoids doing anything extraordinary. He doesn’t talk much; he doesn’t dance different from the other people; he isn’t odd, outré nor strange in any way.”23

“We consider it a ‘pleasant time’ for us, when his vacations, roll around, he is very companionable, and I shall dread when he has to return to Cambridge,” Mary wrote a friend a year later.24 Robert’s mother fiercely opposed military service for her oldest son – especially after the death of beloved son Willie in February 1862: “We have lost one son, and his loss is as much as I can bear, without being called to make another sacrifice,’ she would say, when the subject was under discussion,” her seamstress recalled her declaring.25 (The Lincolns had lost another son Eddie at age three.) Mary told her husband: “I know that Robert’s plea to go into the Army is manly and noble and I want him to go, but oh! I am so frightened he may never come back to us.”26 The issue was a political embarrassment and a domestic headache for President Lincoln, who told his wife: “Many a poor mother, Mary, has had to make this sacrifice and has given up every son she had — and lost them all.”27 Robert chafed at his parents’ objections to enlistment, but he remained dutiful. Biographer Jason Emerson noted: “Robert was, from his time at Harvard until he death, the quintessential Victorian-era gentleman, who believed in and felicitously followed the manly tenets of duty and honor.”28 Robert joined the army as a captain on General Ulysses S. Grant’s staff in the final months of the war in 1865. Throughout the war while he studied at Harvard and spent vacations at the White House, Robert Lincoln experienced much better acceptance from his father’s subordinates and contemporaries than did Randolph Churchill.

One Lincoln aide wrote that “Robert Lincoln, the hearty, whole souled and popular ‘Prince of Rails,’ was liked by every one; and by his sincerity of manner, unassuming deportment and general good sense, won a degree of good will and respect that has followed him into private life…His presence, at long intervals, in the White House, was always a pleasant and welcome visitation.”29 Robert worried about his father’s security and objected to his solitary walks to the War Department late at night: “[O]n a number of occasions he came to my room after I had fallen asleep, and said that he wanted to go over, whereupon I dressed myself hastily and accompanied him.”30

Robert’s relationship with his father was much more distant than that of his younger brothers Willie and Tad. “I scarcely even had ten minutes quiet talk with him during his Presidency, on account of his constant devotion to business,” Robert recalled.31 The distance was ironic because his father seemed to have a talent for forming paternal relationships with young men and women with whom he came in contact. The president had a real gift for putting young men and women at ease. Robert received his undergraduate degree in 1864. He came to Washington before returning to Harvard to study law. According to biographer Robert Goff, “Robert Lincoln spent only a short time at the Harvard Law School, and little information regarding his stay there is available. Evidently in October, 1864, he was ill, for the President wired him: ‘Your letter makes us a little uneasy about your health….If you think it would help you, make us a visit.’”32

Still, there were occasions when Robert witnessed important events at the White House – such as the president’s consternation in mid-July 1863 when General George Meade failed aggressively to follow up the Union victory at Gettysburg. Robert had been summoned to Washington by his father, who wanted Robert’s help in caring for his mother, who had been injured in a carriage accident. Robert recalled: “I went into my father’s office at the time in the afternoon at which he was accustomed to leave his office to go to the Soldiers Home, and found him in [much] distress, his head leaning upon the desk in front of hm, and when he raised his head there were evidences of tears upon his face. Upon my asking the cause of his distress he told me that he had just received the information that Gen. [Robert E.] Lee had succeeded in escaping across the Potomac river at Williamsport without serious molestation by Gen. [George] Meade’s army.”33 As Lincoln scholar Daniel Mark Epstein observed: “A few weeks shy of his twentieth birthday, Robert arrived to find one parent prostrated with sadness and the other with a head wound.”34

Robert recalled a visit to Washington in February 1864, “as I was passing from the private part of the house up to Mr Nicolay’s or Mr Hay’s office, I found a considerable crowd in the corridor, of persons anxious to see the President; and one of them [New York Herald reporter] Simon Hanscomb [sic] came to me as I was passing, and said that he was very anxious to see the President, that it was very urgent that he should do so, and he showed me a printed circular as I recollect, perhaps the one afterwards called [the] ‘Pomeroy circular’…Possibly I said to the doorkeeper that I would be glad to have him let Mr Hanscomb in as soon as he could. In the evening after dinner as I was in my private room in the house, my father strolled in and showed me a letter from Mr [Salmon P.] Chase, then Secretary of the Treasury, which as I recall was a brief note saying in substance that after what has occurred to day he deemed it proper to tender his resignation, &c. My father asked me to lay out writing materials for him, and at my table he wrote a short note to Mr Chase in which he said in substance ‘that he knew of no reason why he should not remain in the Cabinet.’ Upon his showing this note to me I expressed surprise, at that part of the note here specified and asked him if he had not seen the circular. He stopped me and said he didn’t know any thing about it; that a good many people during the day had tried to see him and tell him something which he supposed was some new sign of Chase’s deviltry, and it did not suit him to know any thing about it, and that therefore the remark in his letter declining to accept his resignation was strictly true. Thereupon at his request I called a messenger, and the note to Mr Chase was sent.”35

On April 21, 1865 – six days after his father’s death – Robert resigned his short-lived commission in the army. He was already seeing the woman the woman he would marry in 1868, Mary Eunice Harlan, the daughter of the man President Lincoln had just appointed as secretary of the interior, Iowa Senator James Harlan. Captain Lincoln had returned from the Virginia front and breakfasted with his father the morning of the assassination. He declined to accompany his parents to Ford’s Theater but went to Petersen House with Lincoln aide John Hay as soon as he heard news of the attack – helping to comfort his mother during the night as his father lay dying.

Five decades after the Civil War, Robert explained the delay for his entry into the army: “At the end of the vacation after my graduation from Harvard, I said to him that as he did not wish me to go into the Army (his reason having been that something might happen to me that would cause him more official embarrassment than could be offset by any possible value of my military service), I was going back to Cambridge and enter Law School. He said he thought I was right.”36 Robert said: “As long as you object to my joining the army, I am going back to Harvard to study law.” His father replied: “If you do, you should learn more than I ever did but you will never have so good a time.”37

On September 6, 1943, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stopped at Harvard University to accept an honorary degree and to give a speech. “Twice in my lifetime the long arm of destiny has reached across the oceans and involved the entire life and manhood of the United States in a deadly struggle,” Churchill told his Harvard audience. “[T]o the youth of America, as to the youth of all the Britains, I say ‘You cannot stop.’ There is no halting-place at this point. We have now reached a stage in the journey where there can be no pause. We must go on. It must be world anarchy or world order.” In his speech, Churchill echoed Lincoln’s Second Inaugural: “Let us go forward as with other matters and other measures similar in aim and effect – let us go forward in malice to none and good will to all.” The prime minister’s most oft-quoted line from the Harvard address was: “With great power comes great responsibility.”38

It was a lesson that Churchill’s son and Lincoln’s as well – whatever their faults – would learn well. Robert Todd Lincoln used the lessons of his father when he served as U.S minister to Great Britain from 1889 to 1893.

For Further Reference

  1. John Pearson, The Private Lives of Winston Churchill, p. 293.
  2. Winston S. Churchill, His Father’s Son: The Life of Randolph Churchill, p. 5 (Letter from Winston S. Churchill to Randolph Churchill, June 2, 1911).
  3. Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Moral Imagination: From Adam Smith to Lionel Trilling, p. 255.
  4. Norman Rose, Churchill: The Unruly Giant, p. 257.
  5. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 101 (Letter from Winston S. Churchill to Randolph Churchill, May 2, 1942).
  6. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 887 (Letter from Winston Churchill to Clementine Churchill, August 12, 1944).
  7. Nigel Nicolson, editor, Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters, 1939-1945, p. 397 (August 31, 1944).
  8. Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill, p. 464.
  9. Winston S. Churchill, His Father’s Son: The Life of Randolph Churchill, p. 203.
  10. Mary Soames, editor, Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills, p. 464 (Letter from Clementine Churchill to Winston Churchill, April 11, 1942).
  11. Winston S. Churchill, His Father’s Son: The Life of Randolph Churchill, p. 202.
  12. John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle, pp. 35-38.
  13. Oliver Lyttelton Chandos, The Memoirs of Lord Chandos, p. 223.
  14. David Dilks, editor, The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan, O.M., 1938-1945, p. 511.
  15. Harold Macmillan, War Diaries: The Mediterranean 1943-1945, p. 331 (December 21, 1943).
  16. Harold Macmillan, War Diaries: The Mediterranean 1943-1945, p. 333 (December 22, 1943).
  17. Harold Macmillan, War Diaries: The Mediterranean 1943-1945, p. 338 (December 25, 1943). The Churchills shared a natural pugnacity. At one point Winston wrote his son Randolph: “The Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals chant their stately hymn of ‘Safety First’…I have to restrain my natural pugnacity by sitting on my own head.”
  18. William Manchester and Paul Reid, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, p. 787.
  19. Harold Macmillan, War Diaries: The Mediterranean 1943-1945, p. 322.
  20. Harold Macmillan, War Diaries: The Mediterranean 1943-1945, p. 467, 475 (June 26, 1944).
  21. Nigel Nicolson, editor, Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters, 1939-1945, p. 209 (January 29, 1942).
  22. John S. Goff, Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man in His Own Right, pp. 45-46 (New York Herald, March 5, 1861).
  23. Margaret Leech, Reveille in Washington, p. 292 (New York Herald, undated).
  24. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editors, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, pp. 130-131. (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Mrs. Charles Eames, July 26, 1862).
  25. Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes, pp. 121-22.
  26. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 738.
  27. Charles Segal, editor, Conversations With Lincoln, p. 299.
  28. Jason Emerson, The Madness of Mary Lincoln, p. 21.
  29. Michael Burlingame Editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, p. 150 (Sketch 2).
  30. Jason Emerson, Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln, p. 85.
  31. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 499.
  32. John S. Goff, Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man in His Own Right, p. 63.
  33. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 88 (Conversation with Robert Todd Lincoln, January 5, 1885).
  34. Daniel Mark Epstein, The Lincolns, p. 399.
  35. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 89 (Memorandum by Robert Todd Lincoln, January 2, 1885).
  36. John S. Goff, Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man in His Own Right, p. 62.
  37. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, pp. 416-417.
  38. Winston S. Churchill, Speech at Harvard University, September 6, 1943.
Posted in Essays