A newly 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The previously unpublished letter had been in the same private collection for at least a century before it was acquired earlier this year, said Nathan Raab, the principal of the Raab Collectionwhich buys and sells historical autographs, documents and signed letters.
“Discovering unpublished, unknown letters from Abraham Lincoln is increasingly rare,” Mr. Raab said in one statement about the document on the website of the Pennsylvania collection. The letter, which measures 5 by 8 inches, was sold to a private collector in the southeastern United States on Wednesday, Mr. Raab said.
Dated August 19, 1861, the short letter is addressed to Charles Ellet Jr., an American engineer and colonel of the Union Army, who met the president and lobbied him for the creation of a civil engineering corps. Colonel Ellet insisted that immediate action be taken to understand the infrastructure of the South because he felt that Washington was vulnerable.
“So here we see Lincoln trying to document the Southern infrastructure and exploit that information to benefit the Union and protect Washington,” Mr. Raab said on 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 directs Colonel Ellet to discuss the issue of the troops with Gens. Winfield Scott, George B. McClellan and James Totten, all of whom Mr. Raab described as major players in the war.
“You propose to raise for the service of the United States, a Civil Engineer Corps,” Lincoln opened in the letter addressed from the White House, which he called the “Executive Mansion.”
Lincoln continued, “I am not able to judge of the value of such a body; but I would gladly accept one if approved by General Scott, General McClellan and General Totten. Please see them and get their views on it.”
Lincoln signed the letter “yours truly” followed by his name.
Mr. Raab said that “we know from Ellet’s next letter to Lincoln that he took this letter to McClellan, who refused to see him despite the president’s order, physical evidence.”
But Colonel Ellet’s suggestions went unheeded by the Union Army, and on March 9, 1862, the Merrimack, a Confederate rowed ship, destroyed a fleet of Union boats at the Battle of Hampton Roads.
Overall, Mr. Raab said, the letter “fills in part of the historical record that was missing.”
Presidential artifacts are in high demand by collectors. Historical importance often plays an important role in the price range. A rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation sold for over $2 million in New York in 2012.
Vague interest may also be a factor. Locks of Lincoln’s hair, wrapped in a bloody telegram reporting his assassination, sold for $81,000 in 2020. Another strand of his hair sold in Dallas in 2012 for $38,837.
Letter from Lincoln on Executive Mansion papers that called for the postmaster general’s resignation before the 1864 election sold for $115,000 last yearduring a one-sentence memo calling a cabinet meeting sold for $43,125.
“Abraham Lincoln is really popular with manuscript collectors, and anything written from 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 come to light every few years, but the letter to Colonel Ellet was important because it showed the president’s efforts to balance engineering, military and political demands, said James Cornelius, historian and editor of The Journal of the Abraham Lincoln. association
Harold Holzer, a Lincoln historian, said the letter was arch but significant.
“We have long known about Ellet and his prescient concerns about the security of Washington, D.C., during the early months of the Civil War, but not so much about Lincoln’s almost casual willingness to let subordinates decide how to resolve such crucial issues – while still trying to educate itself on military tactics and strategies,” Mr. Holzer said in an email.
Mr Raab said on Friday that the letter to Colonel Ellet sold out 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 element that it hasn’t been on the public market, so it’s the first time a collector alive today would have had a chance to own it.”