This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. During 2009, museums around the country are commemorating the anniversary by offering special exhibitions featuring documents and artifacts related to Lincoln. At the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, director Zach Studenroth realized that in this milestone year, there was at least one interesting object in the museum’s permanent collection related to the 16th president — a letter written and signed by Lincoln himself.
“I had seen that a lot of museums around the country are doing a tribute to Lincoln,” said Studenroth. “I knew we had this interesting little document that didn’t have any relationship to Sag Harbor, so I thought I would put it on view.”
The Lincoln letter, along with a framed commemorative engraving of Lincoln created after his death (on load from a private collection) will be on view at the museum in a special case throughout the summer.
Dated October 20, 1864, the letter was written during the Civil War and addressed to a General Angus. In it, Lincoln requests that a young man serving under the general be granted a temporary furlough from duty. But why would Lincoln take the time to write such a letter for a fairly low level soldier? The answer can be found in the text of the correspondence.
“The father of the boy,” writes Lincoln, “is a domestic in my service.”
Studenroth notes that president signatures are very popular collectors’ items, and while this particular Lincoln signature isn’t attached to a document of major historic significance (which elevates the value considerably) it still provides rare insight into the life of a monumental figure.
“It’s primarily important because it bears his signature,” explains Studenroth. “He signed a lot of things, but paper objects are fragile, they fade. It’s not a formal proclamation or official document. It’s an incidental note that no one would think to save. It also gives an interesting glimpse into an everyday piece of business in the midst of the Civil War.”
“The signatures of the major presidents sell for big money,” he adds. “The actual document they signed is important — even if it’s a personal letter that gives insight into a great figure.”
Though Studenroth can’t say exactly how the letter found its way to Sag Harbor, he has determined that it has been in the collection since the early days of the museum.
“This would have gone into hands of someone in the military service who would be bringing the message to the general. Even then someone valued Lincoln’s signature,” says Studenroth. “Certainly, the letter was acquired by somebody who lived here which is why it came into the collection. The donor is Alfred Barnes and this was brought into the collection back in the 1940s.”
The second Lincoln item on view is an engraving that was created in 1867, two years after Lincoln’s assassination, as a commemorative print. The mourning portrait, as it is called, contains the handwritten words of Lincoln’s “Proclamation of Emancipation” which was issued on January 1, 1863. The letters of the writing itself form the portrait of Lincoln.
“There is a tradition of mourning portraits. They were very popular,” says Studenroth. “This is a calligraphic portrait. The actual weight of the ink is heavier in places to make the picture. The image of Lincoln is created by the writing. It merges his image in the text of the proclamation.”
“I’ve never seen this done this way.”
The portrait was created by William H. Pratt of Davenport, Iowa, who is credited as the artist and publisher. Studenroth notes that mourning pictures like this one were the memorabilia of the day that preserved historic moments in history — not unlike the coin sets or souvenir items that are sold on TV infomercials or QVC today. The difference, of course, was that Pratt didn’t have the benefit of the airwaves in the 1860s.
“To sell it, he probably placed ads in newspapers around the country – that’s what is interesting about this,” says Studenroth. “He’s out in Iowa, there were things like fairs, larger forums where he could have sold them. But I think he might have been a newspaper man and it might have been marketed in some of the larger cities.”
“It was a souvenir piece and this fellow thought it would sell,” adds Studenroth. “There would’ve been hundreds or even thousands printed — but it never went to second editions in the way certain engravings did if they were popular. This was kind of unique to the period. It’s never been out of the frame and with the original glass. The frame is oak, but stained black because it’s a mourning picture.”
“This one is unusual because it retains its original frame,” says Studenroth. “It’s in very good condition.”
Both Lincoln pieces will remain on view at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum throughout the summer. The museum is located at 200 Main Street, Sag Harbor. Call 725-0770 for information.
Above: An engraving and image of Lincoln’s “Proclamation of Emancipation”