RICHMOND, Va.—Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee characterized Virginia’s Civil War secession as a revolution and President Abraham Lincoln uncharacteristically scolded a couple for their lack of loyalty to the Union cause in letters scheduled to be sold at auction today.
The letters, along with a trove of Civil War treasures that includes the opera glasses Lincoln carried into Ford’s Theatre the night of his assassination, will be up for bidding at Sotheby’s, the New York auction house.
The opera glasses could fetch up to $700,000. The Lincoln letter, which never was mailed, is notable for its fiery tone and Lee’s because it lays bare the gravity of his decision to stand by his beloved Virginia as it bolted from the North.
Lee and Lincoln were among the defining personalities of the Civil War, which is being recalled during 150th anniversary commemorations.
“I think you have to say that Lincoln is the principal figure in the North, and I do think most people, if asked, would come up with Lee in the South,” said Selby Kiffer, international senior specialist in books and manuscripts for Sotheby’s.
Lee’s April 20, 1861, letter to his brother, Capt. Sidney Smith Lee, was sent days after a Virginia convention to secede from the Union and the same day he resigned a commission with the U.S. Army.
The previously unknown Lincoln letter is dated Feb. 13, 1864, and is in response to Mrs. V.C.K. Neagle, who had written Lincoln in hopes of easing the terms of her husband’s parole for assisting a Confederate.
“You protest, nonetheless, that you and he are loyal, and you may really think so, but this is a view of loyalty which is difficult to conceive that any sane person could take, and one which the government can not tolerate and hope to live,” Lincoln wrote.
The letter never was sent and ultimately ended up with the War Department and a private collector. Many Civil War items are passed down through families or end up in private collections, and historians are unaware of them until they are offered for sale.
The Lee letter is expected to bring in $400,000 to $600,000, while the Lincoln letter’s pre-sale estimate is $200,000 to $300,000. Lee’s correspondence is valued more because it relates to “a historical moment that was momentous both personally and for the history of a nation,” according to Sotheby’s.
The letters are among about 20 Civil War-related items to be auctioned, including the German opera glasses Lincoln brought to Ford’s Theatre the evening of April 14, 1865. The glasses were recovered by a former soldier who served on the Washington, D.C., police force and remained in his family until purchased by a private collector.
The auction also will include an original ledger from the first Confederate prison for Union soldiers, located in Richmond, and a Confederate flag from the naval cruiser CSS Alabama.
Kiffer expects the sesquicentennial to generate more treasures for auction by Sotheby’s.
“I do think it’s reinvigorated old collectors and maybe will bring some new ones into the fold,” he said.
Also, the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville has opened a free exhibit on the Civil War, according to The Associated Press.
The display is part of a year-by-year examination of the war. The current one focuses on events leading up to the war and the first year of conflict in 1861. An exhibit next year will highlight 1862.
The exhibit will show the impact of slavery on the Union, the divisive election of 1860, the beginnings of Southern secession and Tennessee’s gradual shift to becoming a Confederate state.
Tennessee was the last state to secede from the Union and first to rejoin. It had more Civil War battles than any other state except Virginia.