LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph letter signed ("A. Lincoln") as President, to an unidentified correspondent, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., 7 May 1864. 1 page, oblong, 4 3/16 x 4 7/8 in., probably the top portion of the standard 8vo sheet habitually used by Lincoln, verso with faint traces of mounting, small chip in lower edge.
A PRESIDENT WHO IS "NOT IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD," AFTER RECEIVING THE FIRST REPORTS ON THE BLOODY BATTLE OF THE WILDERNESS
In the early years of the 19th century it had become customary for collectors of autographs to request a "sentiment," a term widely used in phrenology to embrace a class of human emotions such as "destructiveness," "hope," "firmness," or "love of life." The unidentified individual who made this request to the harried President received what must have been a rather unexpected reply:
I would give a senti-
ment, but just now I am not in
a sentimental mood
It is not difficult to explain Lincoln's lack of sentimental emotions at this critical juncture of the war. After a winter of relative inactivity, the Army of the Potomac had been reorganized under the command of Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, and, with Lincoln's approval, Grant prepared for a massive attack across the Rapidan River against Lee's depleted Army of Northern Virginia. On the night of May 3, the first Union detachments of Grant's 118,000-man army moved southward across the Rapidan and on May 5--two days prior to this letter--the two armies met in thickly wooded terrain. Confederate resistance was unexpectedly strong and the brutal, two-day Battle of the Wilderness inflicted more than 17,000 casualties on Grant's army. In the early phases of what he knew would be a critical campaign with far-reaching consequences--for the combatants, the officers and his own political fortunes--Lincoln was largely in the dark about the progress of the fighting as he received no dispatches from Grant. "As was usual to him when an important operation was starting, Lincoln tried to find out everything he could about what was happening" (T.Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals, p.316). But it was not until the afternoon of May 7, the day of this letter, that Lincoln received a first-hand report on the savage fighting, from H.E. Wing, who came to Washington on a special train for the purpose.
Indeed, it appears abundantly clear that Lincoln was profoundly moved by the terrible human sacrifice exacted by the Union campaign. On May 9, after further news had confirmed both the sobering casualty rates and the campaign's so-far inconclusive results, Lincoln felt moved to proclaim a day of national thanksgiving and prayer, addressed to "friends of Liberty & Union." While fighting continued anew at Spotsylvania, Lincoln proclaimed, "enough is known of Army operations within the last five days to claim our especial gratitude to God; while what remains undone demands our most sincere prayers..." Lincoln recommended that "all patriots" should "unite in common thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God" (Basler, 7:333). And, the same day, in a personal letter to Mrs. Sarah B. McConkey, who had inquired after his health, the President confided that "I have been very anxious for some days in regard to our armies in the field..." (Basler, 7:333). It is that profound human concern which is so strikingly communicated in the present brief, telling letter, penned while the war's disastrous human cost was uppermost in Lincoln's mind.
Published in Collected Works, Supplement XI, ed R.P. and C. O. Basler, pp.94.