A recently discovered letter written by President Abraham Lincoln that offers a glimpse into his thinking during the early part of the Civil War sold this week in Pennsylvania for $85,000, according to an autograph dealer.
The unpublished letter had been in the same private collection for at least a century before it was acquired earlier this year, said Nathan Raab, the dean of the Raab Collectionwhich buys and sells historical autographs, documents and signed letters.
« Discovering unpublished and unknown letters from Abraham Lincoln is increasingly rare, » Raab said in a declaration on the document on the Pennsylvania Collection website. The letter, which measures 5 inches by 8 inches, was sold to a private collector in the southeastern United States on Wednesday, Raab said.
Dated August 19, 1861, the short letter is addressed to Charles Ellet Jr., an American civil engineer and colonel in the Union Army, who had met with the president and lobbied him for the creation of a civil engineering corps. Colonel Ellet had insisted that immediate action be taken to understand the infrastructure of the South because he believed Washington was vulnerable.
“So here we see Lincoln embarking on an effort to document Southern infrastructure and leverage that information to benefit the Union and protect Washington,” Raab said Wednesday.
Mr. Raab said the document showed the 16th president in his role as commander-in-chief in the early months of the Civil War, which began in 1861 and ended in 1865.
He added that Colonel Ellet was a « very well known engineer » and that his letters to Lincoln had been digitized by the Library of Congress.
In the letter, Lincoln orders Colonel Ellet to discuss the matter of the body with Gens. Winfield Scott, George B. McClellan and James Totten, all described by Raab as protagonists of the war.
« You propose to raise for the service of the United States, a Civil Engineer Corps, » Lincoln opened in the letter addressed by the White House, which he called « Executive Mansion. »
Lincoln continued: “I am unable to judge the value of such a body; but I would gladly accept one if approved by Gen. Scott, Gen. McClellan and Gen. Totten. Please watch them and get their opinions on it.
Lincoln signed the letter « your true » followed by his name.
Mr. Raab said « we know from Ellet’s subsequent letter to Lincoln that he took this very letter to McClellan, who refused to see him despite the order, physical evidence, from the president. »
But Colonel Ellet’s suggestions fell on deaf ears by the Union Army, and on March 9, 1862, Merrimack, a Confederate ramming vessel, destroyed a Union fleet of boats at the Battle of Hampton Roads.
Overall, Raab said, the letter « fills in some of the historical record that was missing. »
Presidential artifacts are highly sought after by collectors. Historical significance often plays a big role in price range. A rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation sold for over $2 million in New York in 2012.
Dark interest can also be a factor. A lock of Lincoln’s hair, wrapped in a bloody telegram reporting his assassination, sold for $81,000 in 2020. Another lock of her hair was sold in Dallas in 2012 for $38,837.
A letter from Lincoln on the chancery of the Executive Mansion calling for the postmaster’s resignation before the 1864 election sold for $115,000 last yearwhile a one-sentence note called for a cabinet meeting sold for $43,125.
« Abraham Lincoln is very popular with manuscript collectors, and anything written by the White House, or Executive Mansion, is pretty special, » said Bobby Livingston, executive vice president of Boston-based RR Auction.
Newly discovered letters written by Lincoln appear every few years, but the letter to Colonel Ellet was important because it showed the president’s efforts to balance engineering, military and political needs, said James Cornelius, historian and editor of The Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.
Harold Holzer, a Lincoln historian, said the letter was arcane but significant.
“We have long known of Ellet and his prescient concerns for the security of Washington, DC, during the early months of the Civil War, but not so much of Lincoln’s almost casual willingness to let subordinates decide how to resolve such crucial issues… while he was still trying to educate himself on military tactics and strategy, » Holzer said in an email.
Mr Raab said on Friday the letter to Colonel Ellet was sold within hours of going on sale.
« Its content was not part of the collected works, which adds to the excitement, » he said. « There’s also the intangible item that hasn’t been on the public market, so it’s the first time a collector alive today would have had the chance to own it. »