Lincoln's letter among Civil War treasures set for auction

Thursday, June 16, 2011 | 5:04 p.m. CDT

RICHMOND, Va. — Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee characterized Virginia's Civil War secession as a revolution and President Abraham Lincoln uncharacteristically scolded a couple for their lack of loyalty to the Union cause in letters scheduled to be sold at auction.

The letters, along with a trove of Civil War treasures that includes the opera glasses Lincoln carried into Ford's Theatre the night of his assassination, will be up for bidding Friday at Sotheby's, the New York auction house.

The opera glasses could fetch up to $700,000. The Lincoln letter, which was never mailed, is notable for its fiery tone and Lee's because it lays bare the gravity of his decision to stand by his beloved Virginia as it bolted from the North.

Lee and Lincoln were among the defining personalities of the Civil War, which is being recalled during 150th anniversary commemorations.

"I think you have to say that Lincoln is the principal figure in the North, and I do think most people, if asked, would come up with Lee in the South," said Selby Kiffer, international senior specialist in books and manuscripts for Sotheby's.

Lee's April 20, 1861, letter to his brother, Capt. Sidney Smith Lee, was sent days after a Virginia convention to secede from the Union and the same day he resigned a commission with the U.S. Army.

Scholarly accounts of his correspondence have said Lee used the phrase "ordinance of secession" instead of the one found in the original letter: "ordinance of revolution."

The change has historical heft because "secession" may sound constitutionally viable while "revolution" suggests something altogether different, Kiffer said.

"'Revolution' to my mind indicates an extralegal or illegal violent action rather than a civil and political one," he said.

Historians believe Lee's son changed the wording when he transcribed the letter to present it to scholars, a revision that Kiffer speculated was intended to support the notion that the Southern cause was honorable and lawful.

In his letter informing his brother of his resignation, Lee wrote: "I wished to wait until the ordinance of revolution should be acted on by the people of Virginia, but war seems to have Commenced & I am liable at any time to be ordered on duty which I Could not Conscientiously perform."

William M.S. Rasmussen, lead curator at the Virginia Historical Society, said he doesn't see a great distinction between the use of "revolution" and "secession."

Rasmussen, who has not seen the original Lee letter, said Lee used the words interchangeably, and once wrote to his son, "Secession is nothing but revolution."

The Lee letter had remained in the Lee family until it was purchased by a private collector.

The Lincoln letter, which was previously unknown, is dated Feb. 13, 1864, and is in response to Mrs. V.C.K. Neagle. She had written Lincoln in hopes of easing the terms of her husband's parole for assisting a Confederate.

"You protest, nonetheless, that you and he are loyal, and you may really think so, but this is a view of loyalty which is difficult to conceive that any sane person could take, and one which the government can not tolerate and hope to live," Lincoln wrote.

The letter was never sent and ultimately ended up with the War Department and a private collector.

Kiffer said it presents a contrast with Lincoln's usual calm pronouncements.

"Here is an unusually fiery letter where he really excoriates this woman and her husband for their claim that they're being loyal when they're acting in a way that, if that defines loyalty, then the United States government couldn't survive," Kiffer said.

The Lee letter is expected to bring in $400,000 to $600,000, while the Lincoln letter's pre-sale estimate is $200,000 to $300,000. Lee's correspondence is valued more because it relates to "a historical moment that was momentous both personally and for the history of a nation," according to Sotheby's.

The sums are considerably lower than the $3.4 million paid in 2008 for a letter Lincoln wrote to Massachusetts schoolchildren who appealed to him to "free all slave children."

The letters are among about 20 Civil War-related items to be auctioned Friday, including the German opera glasses Lincoln brought to Ford's Theatre the evening of April 14, 1865. The glasses were recovered by a former soldier who served on the Washington, D.C., police force and remained in his family until purchased by a private collector.

The auction will also include an original ledger from the first Confederate prison for Union soldiers, located in Richmond; and a Confederate flag from the naval cruiser CSS Alabama.

Kiffer expects the Civil War's sesquicentennial to generate more treasures for auction by Sotheby's.

"I do think it's reinvigorated old collectors and maybe will bring some new ones into the fold," he said.

The owners of the items to be auctioned requested anonymity, Sotheby's said.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.