As the Army of the Potomac Seeks to Outmaneuver Lee, President Abraham Lincoln Writes to General George Meade, Detailing a Plan to Help Sick and Wounded Soldiers

A rare war-date letter, on engraved letterhead, of the President to Major General Meade, seeking Meade's approval for an arrangement that would lead to a donation of $200 per month for the needy soldiers.

In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln commander of the Union Armies. His headquarters would be with the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Gen. George G. Meade. So though Meade would retain his post as leading that army, Grant would be his superior, in command the...

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As the Army of the Potomac Seeks to Outmaneuver Lee, President Abraham Lincoln Writes to General George Meade, Detailing a Plan to Help Sick and Wounded Soldiers

A rare war-date letter, on engraved letterhead, of the President to Major General Meade, seeking Meade's approval for an arrangement that would lead to a donation of $200 per month for the needy soldiers.

In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln commander of the Union Armies. His headquarters would be with the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Gen. George G. Meade. So though Meade would retain his post as leading that army, Grant would be his superior, in command the actions of Meade’s army and the other Union forces.  Grant developed a strategy to defeat the Confederacy by placing his army between the rebel capital of Richmond and Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. In his Spring offensive in 1864, Grant and Meade confronted Lee’s army a number of times in very bloody engagements in which both sides suffered great losses. The Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania were essentially draws but resulted in huge casualties. After each battle Grant’s armies moved southeast to try to create a wedge between Lee and Richmond, but Lee’s army successfully followed up the engagements by foiling that maneuver.

The United States Sanitary Commission cared for the Union’s sick and wounded soldiers and promoted clean and healthy conditions in army camps. It held fairs in certain large cities around the country, mainly in 1863-4, to raise funds for its activities. Lincoln’s personal assistance to benefit these fairs is well known, as he contributed notes, documents and signatures to be sold or auctioned at the fairs.  It turns out that he also intervened on behalf of others seeking to donate to the fairs.

A little known aspect of the war relates to the material left behind by the soldiers, who left a trail behind them as they moved. This included clothing and other rags that they no longer needed, were useless in their present form, or which they had to discard because the loads they carried in their backpacks were too heavy.  One enterprising former soldier, John C. Swift, who had served in the Union Army from 1861-1863, wrote Lincoln on March 4 and March 9, 1864, offering to pay $200 per month to the Sanitary Commission for the exclusive privilege of picking up clothing cast off by Meade’s and Grant’s army.  This subject touched close to Lincoln’s heart so he intervened directly Meade, though it was during a period of intense conflict, when tens of thousands were fighting and dying.  But realizing that there might be logistic issues, rather than insist, Lincoln left the decision up to Meade, even while indicating his own willingness.

Autograph letter signed, on engraved Executive Mansion letterhead, Washington, May 25,1864, to “Major General Meade, Army of Potomac.  Mr. J. C. Swift wishes a pass from me to follow your army to pick up rags and cast-off clothing. I will give it to him if you say so, otherwise not.  A. Lincoln.”

If Meade responded, history does not take note of that response, an unsurprising development given the hostilities in which his troops were involved at the time.  It is noteworthy that knowing this, Lincoln still chose to intervene on Swift’s behalf, a testament to Lincoln’s interest in the well-fare of the soldiers cared for by the Sanitary Commission.

Just days later, the Battle of Cold Harbor would commence.

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