Abraham Lincoln: “Take the Oath” Autographed Note Signed. Estimated at Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions
DALLAS, TEXAS — On January 24, Heritage Auctions will auction a rare letter fragment written by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 to Baltimore attorney and politician Reverdy Johnson. The letter contains a rare admission that the U.S. Civil War was looking bad for the Union cause. Lincoln wrote the letter to Johnson on July 26, 1862, at the height of a bloody Civil War. Although a large section of the letter has been lost, the fragment that remains is very revealing of events that pervading a war that had taken many lives.
In the letter, Abraham Lincoln deflects concerns the government would emancipate and arm former slaves for the Union effort. It was due to a failed effort by Union General John S. Phelps to organize three regiments of black troops in Louisiana. “I never had a wish to touch the foundation of their society or any right of theirs,” Lincoln wrote.
I am a patient man – always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance; and also to give ample time for repentance. Still I must save this government if possible. What I cannot do, of course I will not do; but it may as well be understood, once and for all, that I shall not surrender this game, leaving any available card unplayed. Yours truly A. Lincoln.
Estimated at $25,000, the rare letter fragment is part of the auction of The Donald P. Dow Collection of Lincolniana, an extraordinary grouping of more than 302 lots of manuscripts and memorabilia, particularly devoted to Abraham Lincoln’s April 15, 1865, assassination, which marks its 150th anniversary this year.
Collected over 20-30 years ago by Mr. Dow who was a meticulous collector, this auction marks the first time in a generation that collectors have seen these items. Tom Slater, Director of Americana Auctions at Heritage Auction notes that the fact that the collection is coming to the market at this time is most significant. “Considering Mr. Dow’s effort to document the assassination and the nation’s reaction, it’s fitting the collection is offered during its sesquicentennial year,” Slater said. Slater notes further that it was clear to Lincoln during the summer of 1862 that a change in tactics and policy was necessary. He notes: “The letter indicates Lincoln was open to any and all options, including emancipation and the arming of slaves if it was deemed necessary to restore the Union.”
In addition to the Abraham Lincoln’s letter, a letter and presidential endorsement written on behalf of a Union prisoner at Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, who was on the verge of being executed by Confederates is another major highlight of this auction at Heritage Auctions. Estimated at more than $10,000, the letter reveals a dark yet magnanimous history when a prisoner swap was arranged that involved the son of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, then a prisoner of war in Union custody. Lincoln authorized the exchange, saving the soldier’s life, adding some directives to his endorsement.
The manuscripts and memorabilia auction at Heritage Auctions will also include the collection of unprecedented number of autographs by Lincoln assassin and stage actor John Wilkes Booth. In an autographed letter signed by Booth on Oct. 9, 1861, Booth describes his plans to perform in Boston and in Buffalo, New York. Estimated at more $20,000, it is expected to engender a bidding war. Also included in the collection are Booth’s military arrest warrant estimated at more $4,000, and the original diary kept by James Rowan O’Beirne, a Washington, D.C. Provost Marshal active in the hunt valued at more than $10,000. The memorandum meticulously records his investigation, interviews, leads, directives to operatives as well as his final report summarizing the actions he took that lead to Booth’s capture, which entitled him to a share of the reward money.
Among a trove of important documents are probably the two most extensive eyewitness accounts to the assassination itself estimated at more than $8,000 as well as rare signed letters of Presidential Theater Box occupants Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone. Signatures of both Lincoln and wife Mary Todd Lincoln on the same sheet of paper dated “Jany 6th 1864.” It is estimated at over $10,000. A framed presentation display featuring photographs and autographs from Lincoln, Booth, and Boston Corbett, the soldier who shot and killed Booth is estimated at more than $10,000. A lock of Abraham Lincoln’s own hair that was removed from the president’s head by Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes at the Peterson House, shortly after he was shot is also expected to be a major attraction at the Heritage Auctions. It is estimated at more than $10,000.