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Abraham Lincoln Wrote a Letter 162 Years Ago

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Here’s What Happened Next:

That letter remained unknown and unpublished until earlier this summer. Prior to that time, the letter had been in a private collection for more than a century before being acquired by the Raab Collection in Pennsylvania. Once the document became available to collectors, the item sold almost immediately for the tidy sum of $85,000.

The letter in question - dated August 19, 1861 – was from Lincoln to Charles Ellet, Jr., the premier civil engineer of his day – he had built the first suspension bridges in this country. Lincoln wrote the letter in the early days of the Civil War in his role as commander in chief, a time when he was still learning the ropes of that position. Ellet is pictured above. (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Ellet’s background made him an expert on the infrastructure of his day, a subject area long of interest to Lincoln himself. Ellet was concerned about the vulnerability of the Union seat of government, Washington, D.C. He was so concerned, in fact, that he had been lobbying Lincoln to create a civil engineering corps to better understand the South’s infrastructure.

That proposal - made with the goal of keeping Washington secure - was the subject of the recently surfaced Lincoln letter. The letter, written as a response to the proposal, was short and to the point. Lincoln wrote:

I am not capable to judge of the value of such a corps; but I would be glad to accept one if approved by Gen. Scott, Gen. McClellan & Gen. Totten. Please see them and get their views upon it.

The recent appearance of this Lincoln letter has filled a gap in the history of the period. Ellet, in fact, did as his president directed and within a month reported back to Lincoln on his efforts - unsuccessful as they were. His response to Lincoln is among the documents in the Abraham Lincoln Papers (Series 1, General Correspondence) in the Library of Congress (LOC).


On September 20, 1861, Ellet wrote to update Lincoln on his efforts:

Sir: I called this morning at the residence of Genl. McClellan, and endeavored to obtain an interview with him through the influence of your note requesting him to give me one.
My effort, I regret to report, was entirely unsatisfactory.
I will only add, that until the General in command becomes fully aware of the inestimable importance of isolating the rebel army — by cutting off its rail road communications and supplies — an object which might now be effected by discreet combinations executed with proper secresy and dispatch — the fate of this Capital and Government must continue to be a subject of intense anxiety.
I believe that, supported by a commanding General fully alive to the value and consequences of the movement, it would be practicable now — while the enemy, intent on taking the Capital, is pressing everywhere so vigorously to the front — to seize and destroy all his communications down to Richmond, and throw a division in his rear, to sustain these advanced corps, and cut off his retreat.
I do not know what consideration stands in the way of my efforts; but I trust that the value of my suggestions may not be found out too late.
I remain, Sir,
With high respect
Your obdt. Sevt

The LOC transcription of the above letter annotated the word “note” in the first paragraph to say “Lincoln’s letter to McClellan has not been located.” That is no longer the case. The missing piece of this puzzle has been found! The contents of the recently surfaced Lincoln letter indicate that the letter itself was actually sent as a directive to Ellet – instructing him to discuss the proposal with McClellan (as well as Scott and Totten.)

Ellet's efforts to discuss his proposal with McClellan - although unsuccessful - did gain him press coverage.

(Photo credit: Special Collections at Musselman Library.

The incident even generated the political cartoon shown above. Here Ellet is shown ringing McClellan’s doorbell and promising that “if he won’t let me in, I’ll jerk the Bell out, or-or-or-I’ll publish a pamphlet.” McClellan’s refusal did not stop the persistent Ellet. He subsequently sent dozens of requests asking for a meeting with McClellan; all requests were ignored by the general.

And publish he did – a pamphlet about McClellan’s leadership (or lack thereof). He wrote that McClellan “was too busy with parades to actually fight the war and that he never knew where the enemy was or what they were doing.”

As part of his proposal Ellet was advocating the idea of steam rams, steam-powered ships to be used for ramming other vessels. No leadership officials bought into the idea – at first – until the Battle of Hampton Roads showed the need for “something” to stop the enemy’s ironclads. Secretary of War Stanton saw the value of this suggestion; however, the Union commander at Hampton Roads (John Wool) already had a similar idea. As a result, Stanton sent Ellet to the Mississippi River Valley to convert river steamers into rams.

Unfortunately, the military career of Ellet, commissioned as a Union colonel, proved to be a short one. Ellet and his steamers saw action at the First Battle of Memphis, a Union victory. While inspecting his ram under enemy fire, Ellet was shot in the knee. He never recovered from the wound and died of complications on June 21, 1862.

The newly discovered letter is brief but important in spotlighting Lincoln during his early days as commander in chief, when he was in a “learning mode.” Historian James Cornelius notes “the president’s efforts to balance engineering, military and political demands.” Harold Holzer told The New York Times that the letter demonstrated “Lincoln’s almost casual willingness to let subordinates decide how to resolve such crucial matters – while he was still trying to educate himself about military tactics and strategy.”

Here too one gains a view of the relationship between Lincoln and one of his generals. McClellan in snubbing Ellet does the same to Lincoln. As we know, this would not be the last time this general displayed disrespect to his commander in chief.


Diaz, Johnny and Hauser, Christine, “Abraham Lincoln Letter From Early Civil War Era Sells for $85,000," The New York Times, July 17, 2023.

Labbe, Savannah, “A Radical Idea: Charles Ellet’s Rams." The Gettysburg Compiler, April 25, 2018.


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