Newly Discovered Civil War Letter of President Abraham Lincoln for Sale at Raab

The 1861 Letter Sheds Light on the Science and Strategy of War

The Raab Collection announced today the discovery of an unpublished, early Civil War letter of President Abraham Lincoln. Addressed to American civil engineer and Union Army Colonel Charles Ellet, Jr., the letter documents Lincoln’s wartime strategizing, shows the use of the science of the day to protect Washington, and sheds light on political tensions. It had been in a private collection for at least a century before Raab acquired it earlier this year. It has never before been offered for sale. It is valued at $85,000.

More than a century in a private collection, the letter does not appear in the definitive collection of Lincoln’s known surviving documents

“Discovering unpublished, unknown letters of Abraham Lincoln is increasingly rare,” said Nathan Raab, author of The Hunt for History  (Scribner, 2020) and principal at The Raab Collection.

Part of an ongoing correspondence–some of which resides at the Library of Congress–regarding the need for a corps of civilian engineers to survey terrain, disrupt Confederate supply chains, and defend the city of Washington, this letter fills in a part of the historical record that had been missing; the content has never been published. As the Fourth of July approaches, this unique piece of Americana makes its first public appearance.

Abraham Lincoln Autograph Letter Signed 1861 full size

Historical Background

Charles Ellet, Jr. (1810-1862), considered the greatest civil engineer in the United States during the antebellum era, had for some time been lobbying the president to better fund and equip the Army’s Corp of Engineers, which could use science and its knowledge of Virginia’s terrain and infrastructure to cut off Confederate supply lines and build steam-powered ram ships to protect northern ports. With the Civil War underway, the need was even more imperative. Washington DC was potentially in danger. 

In this letter, Lincoln directs Ellet to seek opinions from his top three generals: Winfred Scott, George B. McClellan, and Joseph Totten. The letter was then carried to the home of McClellan, who snubbed the President by refusing to see Ellet or consider the matter. This letter is documentary evidence of McClellan’s mistreatment of Lincoln. As for Ellet, he then published a rebuke of McClellan, which caused newspapers to caricature his efforts. 

When the Confederacy’s ironclad Merrimack virtually destroyed a fleet of Union boats in 1862, the generals would come to realize that Ellet had been right. 

Ellet served in the United States Ram Fleet during the Civil War, and less than a year after he received this letter from Lincoln, he died from wounds sustained in battle. His efforts to build a bigger and better Civil Engineers Corps were, however, successful. In 1867, the CEC formed under the command of the U.S. Navy and remains active today. 

To learn more about this remarkable letter, Nathan Raab, author of The Hunt for History, is available for interviews and commentary.

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