Behind a Discovery: Lincoln’s Clemency, 1863

A letter from one the great autograph dealers of the past offers a note on provenance


The Raab Collection recently acquired an important 1863 autograph letter signed by Abraham Lincoln, written to his Judge Advocate General, in regard to a Civil War officer who had been dismissed from the army. This letter, in which we see Lincoln interceding on the officer’s behalf, has more than one story to tell. A century after Lincoln wrote the letter, it passed through the hands of the legendary autograph dealer Charles Hamilton.  

Charles Hamilton letterhead

For centuries, collectors have relied upon autograph dealers whose expertise and experience provides them the ability to authenticate historical documents and autographs. In the best cases, that’s still how it works today.

Autograph Dealer Charles Hamilton

This is how Charles Hamilton worked, as evidenced by the handful of signed certification memos of his that we have seen over the years. In the mid twentieth century, Hamilton was a preeminent expert in handwriting and autographs, having founded his business in New York City after World War II. He wrote several books on the subject, including Collecting Autographs and Manuscripts (1962), Scribblers & Scoundrels (1968), and Great Forgers and Famous Fakes (1980). 

Although the headlines he made exposing forgeries were useful publicity, Mr. Hamilton’s real business and abiding passion was the discovery and sale of the legitimate letters and other writings of men and women who made or illuminated history,” said the New York Times in his 1996 obituary.  

The paper also quoted Hamilton: “Unless you have a soul made of solid lead, your pulse quickens and your eyes brighten when you look upon something that a great man actually held and into which he put his personal thoughts.”

One of those great men to which he referred was undoubtedly Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln photograph 1865

Abraham Lincoln: Charles Hamilton’s Specialty 

In addition to his books on autograph collecting and forgery, Hamilton wrote a book specifically about Lincoln, titled Lincoln in Photographs: An Album of Every Known Pose (1963). He authenticated the original 1865 photo seen above, recently sold at Raab.       

Hamilton traded in important and high-profile historical documents and manuscripts. A prime example would be the 1863 letter President Lincoln wrote to his Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt.  

Lincoln signed letter 1863

The 1863 Lincoln Letter 

On September 1, 1863, President Lincoln wrote and signed this letter to his appointed Judge Advocate General, directly intervening to reinstate Union officer Joseph Carbery Lay, who had been dismissed the previous year for drunkenness and breaching arrest. Showing both his mercy and his desire to retain veterans in the service, Lincoln indicates he wishes to personally review the allegations. Lincoln writes, “Please get the record, and examine the case & report to me.”

Lincoln ultimately sided with Lay, as is indicated by the fact that Lay was reinstated by being appointed a lieutenant in the Seventeenth Infantry on October 30, 1863, less than two months after this letter. 

Further of interest, the Judge Advocate General was Joseph Holt, who had previously served first as postmaster general, then as Secretary of War under President James Buchanan and was later believed to be in the running as Lincoln’s vice–president in 1864, a position that went to Andrew Johnson instead.  

After Lincoln’s assassination in April of 1865, Holt became part of a military commission that was convened to prosecute the conspirators charged with Lincoln’s murder.

Joseph Holt, John Bingham and Henry Burnett
Joseph Holt (center) with John Bingham (left) and Henry Burnett (right). Credit: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs

Lincoln Documents and Autographs 

To learn more about our Lincoln documents and autographs, visit our dedicated Abraham Lincoln page. Raab has also posted a helpful collecting guide, “What to Know about Buying Abraham Lincoln Autographs & Documents.” 

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