Raab in Forbes: Lincoln’s Life Saving Letter

This Autograph Of President Abraham Lincoln Saved A Boy’s Life

Nathan Raab , Contributor Finding inspiration through history

As first published: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanraab/2018/02/27/this-autograph-of-president-abraham-lincoln-saved-a-boys-life

We learned the story of young John Murphy, whose life lay entirely in the hands of President Lincoln, on a recent visit to see a large and important collection of historical documents on the west coast of Florida. The man had collected these documents, which ranged from Gandhi to Brigham Young to Einstein to Jefferson, in the 1960s and 1970s, and now he felt it was time to find them a new home. His autograph collection lined the walls of his home, a beautifully decorated condo overlooking the ocean; his halls resembled a museum, and each piece had been framed and on display for decades. Close to the entryway was a letter of Lincoln to General George Meade, commander of the Union Army. A powerful and beautiful letter relating to John Murphy and mentioning his mother. But who was Murphy? Why was his mother at the White House? And why had Lincoln written this letter? Most importantly, what can this letter teach us about Lincoln the man?

The Raab Collection, my firm, acquired the collection, and this intriguing letter.

We think of Lincoln as a towering and stoic figure, guiding the Union through the War, saving it, and then giving his life for that work. But you really get to know historical figures, who they were and what they did, by seeing what they wrote and how they treated others day to day, the insights enabling you to judge how they reacted not only to events, but to the people who were caught up in those events.

John Murphy, we learned, was convicted of desertion during the Civil War and was scheduled to be executed on October 9, 1863. On October 8, the day before, his mother did something you can’t do today: she went to the White House and visited with President Abraham Lincoln. She pleaded with him to save her boy’s life. He was not a man, just a minor, and clemency was needed.

Lincoln’s compassion is legendary. Enough people were dying in the war, and where Lincoln could save a life, he did. One aide later said that “there was nothing harder for [President Lincoln] to do than to put aside a prisoner’s application and he could not resist it when it was urged by a pleading wife and a weeping child.”

So how about this letter? It was dated October 8, 1863, and Lincoln wrote, “I am appealed to in behalf of John Murphy, to be shot tomorrow. His mother says he is but seventeen.” Then, wanting to be sure that Meade would not ignore this, Lincoln added, “Please answer.” It was this note that stayed Murphy’s execution.

So what does this letter teach us about Lincoln? More than at first glance. It is touching to think of the President, in the midst of the arduous task of running a torn government and winning a bloody civil war, taking time to meet with Murphy’s mother, and hearing her heartfelt plea. No press release was issued, no credit taken. Behind closed doors, he answered one family’s call. Lincoln, believing the boy to be underage and wanting to save his life, pardoned him, writing in the official pardon, “I therefore, on account of his tender age, have concluded to pardon him, and to leave it to yourself whether to discharge him, or continue him in the service. A. Lincoln.” Not hearing from Meade, on October 15 he wrote asking, “Did you receive my dispatch of 12th pardoning John Murphy?” This act shines a light on Lincoln’s morality and provides an example that often the kindest and most evocative deeds are not done in the spotlight.

Very few of such letters, staying an imminent execution, and taking up the cause of a boy, have survived outside institutions. So what is it worth? This one, now in a private collection in the Midwest, was sold by us this month for $42,000.

Follow Nathan Raab on Twitter or at www.raabcollection.com

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