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1 page | SMC 1554
BackgroundLadies and gentlemen, you, no doubt, desire to have a speech from me. In lieu of a speech, I propose that we give three cheers for Major General Grant and all the armies under his command. - Abraham Lincoln, Remarks of a Marine Band Concert, May 7, 1864
On May 7, 1864, President Lincoln received a first-hand report – his first – from the Battle of the Wilderness. Because the field telegraph was down, it was not until a young reporter for the New York Tribune, Henry Wing, arrived in Washington at 2:00 a.m. on a special locomotive, that Lincoln learned the results of the most ferocious fighting ever seen in North America: Grant had lost 18% of his command – 17,666 men. And that wasn’t the only bad news that Lincoln heard. Far from the Wilderness, the Red River Campaign was also a dismal failure; there, just three days before, the valiant Jewish Colonel of the 67th Ohio Volunteers, Marcus Spiegel, had been killed in battle. At Calcasieu Pass in Louisiana, the Confederates had captured the U.S.S. Granite; on the James River, in Virginia, the Commodore Jones was torpedoed, and sunk. When Lincoln was asked, then, on that dismal day, to provide a “sentiment” for an autograph collector from, most likely, Commissioner of Internal Revenue Joseph J. Lewis, his reply was short, and to the point:
"I would give a sentiment, but just now I am not in a sentimental mood."
The war was in its third year and, as Lincoln would famously soon say, it had deranged business, destroyed property, ruined homes, increased debt and carried mourning into almost every home. Waiting for the news from the Wilderness, and then getting it, was terrible...
The Commissioner of Internal Revenue had unwittingly picked the worst possible moment, then, to do a favor for his neighbor, Mrs. Sarah B. Meconkey, of West Chester, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Meconkey, Lewis wrote Lincoln on that dreadful 7th day in May, was "a most estimable and loyal lady of Pennsylvania" who, "piously concerned for the health and personal welfare of the President inquires how he sustains the burden of his multiplied cares at this trying period." Lewis continued that he "thought it best to refer the inquiry to the President himself for an answer" and then, gave away the game:
...with the assurance that nothing can afford her higher gratification than a cheerful line under your hand, with the addition, if it may be, that you feel that you have just grounds for confidence in a near deliverance of our bleeding country from its present perils and troubles.
What Mrs. Meconkey wanted, piously concerned or no, was an autograph letter, and she wanted it, ostensibly, for the Great Sanitary Fair to be held next month in Philadelphia, as an donation to be auctioned. She got it, in fact, just two days later when, the military situation having improved, Lincoln's dark mood lifted, and his fabled graciousness, returned. Here is what he wrote her:
Our mutual friend, Judge Lewis tells me you do me the honor to inquire for my personal welfare. I have been very anxious for some days in regard to our armies in the field, but am considerably cheered, just now, by favorable news from them. I am sure you will join me in the hope for their further success; while yourself, and other good, mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, do all you and they can, to relieve and comfort the gallant soldiers who compose them.
Whether it was Lewis' influence, however, that swung the pendulum in favor of a quick reply, or Lincoln's own knowledge that Mrs. Meconkey was the step-mother of Richard Meconkey, a frequent visitor in the family quarters of the White House - the young man, the best friend of his own son Robert - is unknowable.
What is less elusive, given time, is the faint trace of pursuit of a presidential letter: a Lincoln letter, specifically, to complete a set of such letters assembled by the noted autograph collector, Ferdinand J. Dreer. Mr. Dreer was one of the planners of the Curiosities and Autographs Department for the Great Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia Fair, and he planned to auction off a bound set of presidential letters next month, June 7 - 28, at the Fair. But he didn't have a full set: he was missing the current president, Lincoln. And he hadn't much time to find one, either. He had first tried, through a Mrs. Field of Philadelphia - and failed. Mrs. Field, on May 28th, had written to Charles B. Sedgwick of the Naval Department, asking his assistance in obtaining a Lincoln letter for inclusion in the collection of autograph letters of the Presidents gathered for the Fair. Though she was quite emphatic that a “letter” by Lincoln was required, Sedgwick, in sending her request to John G. Nicolay, the President’s secretary, wrote instead to beg an “autograph.” It would seem that Nicolay either did not read Mrs. Field’s actual note, and/or had referred it to Lincoln as a simple request for a signature- as had, indeed, been requested by Sedgwick. If Lincoln did send a signature, it must have been a great disappointment, and only added to the desperation to obtain a letter from the sitting President. It is easily surmised then, that among a certain set of friends and neighbors in the Philadelphia area, the hunt was on, and fast, to get a Lincoln letter. This Mrs. Meconkey managed to do - with, it seems, not only Lincoln's compliance, but his full understanding of the matter. He did, after all, conclude his letter of May 9th to her with a gracious and sweeping compliment to the "mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters" who do all "they can, to relieve and comfort the gallant soldiers", which clearly was a nod to the women's auxiliaries so crucial to the Sanitary Fairs themselves.
Ferdinand Dreer's complete set of Presidential letters, Washington through Lincoln, was sold, at the Grand Central Fair held for the Sanitary Commission at Philadelphia in 1864, to the New York collector Stephen Whiney Phoenix. And it was Phoenix's bequest of the bound autograph set - along with some 7000 other books and manuscripts - to Columbia in 1881, that laid the foundation for that University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), as President, 1 page, oblong octavo, Executive Mansion, May 7, 1864. To "Dear Sir" who was, in all likelihood the Commissioner of Internal Revenue Joseph J. Lewis, writing to get an autograph for Mrs. Sarah B. Meconkey, a resident of Lewis' hometown, West Chester, Pennsylvania.