Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, is one of this country's most revered leaders. His role in guiding the nation through a bloody civil war to emerge united made him a legend and a folk hero. He has been honored in prose, poetry, drama, art and music. One nearly-forgotten work in his honor is about to get more attention, thanks to a recent discovery in Charleston, West Virginia.
"Our National Union March" was composed about 140 years ago, during the American Civil War. It was written by a Union soldier, to honor the nation's commander-in-chief. But there's no sign it's ever been recorded, and this performance, by well-known West Virginia pianist, Bob Thompson, is the first time the march has been heard in decades… if not longer. But the music isn't what's getting the most attention these days; it's the thank-you note from the President to the soldier who composed it.
"Permit me to thank you cordially for the honor done me and the kind feeling evinced by you. I am very truly, your obedient servant, Abraham Lincoln."
Copies of the letter have circulated for years. The Library of Congress and a Museum in Chicago both have photocopies, but no one knew where the original was until recently. Last month [June], appraiser Tom Blankenship discovered it in a Charleston, West Virginia home. "I happened to notice on a low table there was an edge of a walnut shadow bow frame," he says. "As I shoved the clothes back from it, in the lower left corner I saw a letter. It said 'Executive Mansion', February 3, 1862. I didn't read the letter, I went straight to the bottom and saw the signature, A. Lincoln."
Mr. Blankenship's heart started pounding. He told the owner, who wants to remain anonymous, that he thought he just found something very valuable and that he'd like to help her market it. "She said, 'is it furniture?' I said 'no'. She said 'well if it's not furniture, 'cause my daughters want the furniture.'"
The letter had been passed down through the family for generations. Mr. Blankenship estimates it will sell for about $55,000. According to Antique Week Newspaper, a note written the day President Lincoln was assassinated just sold for $99,000. The appraiser says price is always subjective, but the fact that the thank-you note was written during the Civil War doubles its value. "I'm not a handwriting expert," he sys. "It could be written by his secretary [John] Nicholay and signed by Lincoln, which was very common to do in that period because Lincoln was extremely busy. So that's going to be a matter of investigation. Even if it's not written in hand by Lincoln, a letter on executive stationary, during the War signed by Lincoln… [it should bring in] five figures."
No matter who wrote it, an original letter is valuable for more than just monetary or collector's reasons, according to West Virginia Historian and Archivist, Fred Armstrong. "You can learn more from an original, especially from the paper it's on," he says. "The facsimile has different paper and ink. Sometimes an original gives you a clearer understanding of the words or how they were written."
Mr. Armstrong says while the letter would be an interesting find in any state, it is especially significant in West Virginia. "West Virginians will quickly identify with it, because anything associated with Lincoln, the signer of our state proclamation which gave us statehood, is something West Virginias tend to pay close attention to and identify with," he says. "So in that sense it has significance to West Virginia."
Along with the letter, Mr. Blankenship also found a photo of the composer, a horn that belonged to him, and several letters including another thank-you note from Lincoln's Secretary of State William H. Seward. Mr. Blankenship believes selling the items together would increase their value and make a very nice collection. "This is what keeps me going," he says. "I love discovering things for people. This doesn't happen very often."
The letter must still be authenticated by a hand writing expert. But if all goes as expected it will be up for auction this fall. Both Mr. Blankenship and Mr. Armstrong hope the letter will end up in a museum where everyone can appreciate it. The march which inspired the thank-you note may even be recorded, so that more people can enjoy it.