Auctions | January 8, 2015

Abraham Lincoln Civil War Letter Highlights January 24 Sale at Heritage Auctions


DALLAS—A rare letter fragment written by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 to Baltimore attorney and politician Reverdy Johnson, containing a rare admission that the U.S. Civil War was looking bad for the Union cause, is expected to bring $25,000 as part of Heritage Auctions' Jan. 24 presentation of The Donald P. Dow Collection of Lincolniana. The Dow Collection is an extraordinary grouping of 302+ lots of manuscripts and memorabilia, particularly devoted to Lincoln's April 15, 1865 assassination, which marks its 150th anniversary this year.

"Mr. Dow was a meticulous collector who obtained many of his pieces 20-30 years ago, and this auction marks the first time in a generation that collectors have seen these items," said Tom Slater, Director of Americana Auctions at Heritage. "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."

When Lincoln penned the letter to Johnson on July 26, 1862 the nation was deep in the throes of a bloody Civil War. In the letter - of which only a fragment survives - 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".

"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," Slater said. "Even during the summer of 1862, Lincoln foresaw a change in tactics and policy."

Another important highlight is 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 (est. $10,000+). 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 collection also holds an 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. (est. $20,000+). The collection also contains Booth's military arrest warrant (est. $4,000+) and the original diary kept by James Rowan O’Beirne, a Washington, D.C. Provost Marshal active in the hunt ($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 in the reward money.

Among a trove of important documents are probably the two most extensive eyewitness accounts to the assassination itself (est. $6,000 and $8,000+) as well as rare signed letters of Presidential Theater Box occupants Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone.

Additional highlights include, but are not limited to:

Signatures of both Lincoln and wife Mary Todd Lincoln on the same sheet of paper dated "Jany 6th 1864" (est. $10,000+).

framed presentation display featuring photographs and autographs from Lincoln, Booth, and Boston Corbett, the soldier who shot and killed Booth (est. $10,000+). 

lock of 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. (est. $10,000+).

Heritage Auctions is the largest auction house founded in the United States and the world’s third largest, with annual sales of more than $900 million, and 850,000+ online bidder members. For more information about Heritage Auctions, and to join and receive access to a complete record of prices realized, with full-color, enlargeable photos of each lot, please visit

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