Friday, March 13, 2009

Lincoln At The Huntington: Letter To General Grant

The Jess and I made a day-long sojourn to Pasadena a few days ago to take in the Huntington Library's magnificent Abraham Lincoln collection, and I'm pleased to say that our expectations were actually exceeded by the beauty, gravitas, and size of the exhibit. There's a unique energy in this hall that gives a sense of being in the presence of history; this is primary sourcing at the highest level. Seeing letters written in Lincoln's hand, broadsides from the day of his assassination, rough drafts of the First Inaugural, is frankly quite staggering. When you see these items, it feels like you've been transported to another time, and that is a special feeling.
We got some outstanding, flash-free photos that capture some of the thrill of seeing these items, and I'd like to start with this letter from President Lincoln to Lt. Gen Ulysses S. Grant written on April 30th, 1864.
Here is the transcript:

Executive Mansion
Washington, April 30. 1864
Lieutenant General Grant
Not expecting to see you again before the Spring campaign opens, I wish to express in this way, my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, so far as I understand it. The particulars of your plans I neither know or seek to know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you. While I am very anxious that any great disaster, or the capture of our men in great numbers, shall be avoided, I know these points are less likely to escape your attention than they would be mine -- If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know it.
And now with a brave army, and a just cause, may God sustain you.
Yours very truly
A. Lincoln

First, let's take a look at Lincoln's handwriting her, because it really captures the story here. You'll note the deliberate, clear hand applied, the even lines, and the sharp margins. This is not the standard in Lincoln's writing; indeed, most items I've seen (and will show you over the next few days) have a much more variegated and rushed appearance. I'm no handwriting expert, but we all know how our writing can vary depending on the context, which begs the question...
On April 3oth, 1864, Lincoln, his administration, and the entire Northern war effort were at a momentous point. The long-planned thrusts into the South in both the Eastern and Western theaters, with newly appointed Lt. Gen Grant in overall command but following the Army of the Potomac into Virginia, were about to be launched. It was an election year, and with three years of bloody war gone by with no end in sight, there was real concern that the Lincoln administration and the war effort were nearly spent.
Lincoln knew what he had in Grant; indeed had known since 1862 when Grant surged onto the national scene. The two men had met in Washington DC in mid-March 1864, a few weeks before this letter was written, when Grant had been given overall command of the Union Army. Grant had earned Lincoln's respect as well as the clear autonomy spelled out in the letter, but with that came the tremendous expectations that underscore every single word Lincoln wrote.
The timing and expectations that traveled with this letter to Grant's camp were of course not lost on Lincoln. He possessed a keen sense of history and his place in it, indeed he facilitated this by the use of his personal secretaries, and he knew that this type of letter would become a touchstone for the moment it was written.
Bringing these considerations into the fold, we can see a meticulously written note, likely the final of several drafts, with each word selected for the moment and crafted with the very best penmanship. General Grant was about to carry the spearpoint of the Union army into the heart of the Confederacy, and with this letter, Lincoln not only sent him on his way, but captured the profound anxiety, courage, and diligence that history requires of its touchstone moments.


dw said...

That was an outstanding post. Picture Grant reading this letter. And you're right, the Huntington's collections are really amazing -- overlooked by some East Coasters, but not the serious ones.


Mark said...

Hi David,
Glad you enjoyed it, and I'm thrilled to here that the Huntington has a following beyond California. Have you been there before? Also, do you happen to be the David Ward that runs Blue and Gray Tours? Your schedule is absolutely fantastic, I'm really hoping to join one of the trips later this year.

dw said...

Hi Mark,

Actually, I am in California. I live just below San Francisco. Not David Ward, but Woodbury, though long ago I published an article of David Ward's in "Civil War Regiments" on the 96th Pennsylvania. I assume it's the same David Ward.

Coincidentally, I am also running a series of Civil War tours this year, only one of which has been announced, the 1864 Shenandoah Campaign. Beyond that, I have a bunch of custom events I'll announce next week, involving small groups in large vans, traveling with a historian to sites off the beaten tracks of the typical organized tours. Starting with "Unseen Appomattox" in May, with park historian Patrick Schroeder.

I have been to the Huntington once for several days under the auspices of Broadfoot Publishing when he was putting together his Supplement to the O.R. The Huntington had a lot of unpublished after-action reports that didn't make it into the O.R. for one reason or another. Most notably, they had Simon Buckner's report on Perryville, and tons of Joe Hooker reports.

Click on the "dw" in the title to this post for info on the Shenandoah tour.