New-York Historical Society Library Exhibitions

SLAVERY AND THE CIVIL WAR: Selections From a Private Collection

While the immediate abolition of slavery was not one of Lincoln’s aims as President, as the Civil War went on Lincoln saw the ending, or at least curtailment, of slavery as a potent weapon to use against the South.  Indeed, were it not for the Civil War, slavery would have continued for some time in the South and beyond.  Some of the threads in this complicated and momentous story are on display here in this marvelous show assembled from an important private collection.  It is being mounted in honor of Black History Month.

This exhibit reminds us that institutions such as libraries, archives, and historical societies don’t hold everything on a topic, that private collectors seek out and acquire the kind of primary documentation that is the stuff of research and learning.  It reminds us, too, that collectors are often public-spirited people, open to sharing their collections with others.

We are privileged to be able to present these documents on public display as well as on the web, and we are grateful to the collector for giving us the opportunity.





Michael Ryan





Abraham Lincoln
Letter to John M. Palmer, September 7, 1854

On January 4, 1854, the Committee on Territories reported a bill to the Senate that would lead to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The prospect of slavery spreading above the Missouri Compromise line displeased Lincoln who here encourages Democrat John M. Palmer to stand against the Kansas-Nebraska Act by appealing to his anti-slavery sensibilities. Palmer’s dissatisfaction over his party’s stance on slavery would lead him to join Lincoln as a Republican and found the Illinois Republican Party two years later.

Full Document



John Brown
Letter to Samuel L. Adair, April 22, 1856

As a result of the provisions of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, pro- and anti-slavery groups poured into Kansas in a scramble to control the territory’s fate. Abolitionist firebrand, John Brown, describes confronting a pro-slavery court in the Kansas Territory in this 1846 letter to his brother-in-law. As his letter suggests, Brown was preparing for the violent confrontations with pro-slavery settlers that would define “Bleeding Kansas,” as the ensuing battle over the territory came to be known. His first raid would take place a little over a month later on May 24 near Pottawatomie Creek, Franklin County.

Full Document



John McLean
Legal notes for the dissent in Dred Scott vs. John F.A. Sanford, 1856-1867

In 1846, Dred Scott, a slave who had accompanied his master through both a free state and free territory, began legal proceedings to obtain freedom for himself and his family. By 1856, the case had made it before the Supreme Court of the United States. Though the Court decided against Scott, Dred Scott vs. John F.A. Sanford fueled the intense national debate over slavery, becoming one of the most controversial decisions in the court’s history. John McLean, one of two justices who opposed the decision, made these notes in preparation for his dissent.

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William Tecumseh Sherman
Letter to J.E. Williams, November 16, 1858

Despite his role as a General in the Union Army, William T. Sherman was relatively tolerant of slavery, particularly in the lead up to the Civil War. In 1858, Sherman opined to the president of the Metropolitan Bank in New York about the political turmoil over the future of slavery. His objections to its northward spread are rooted in its appropriateness for the region and legality, rather than any ethical questions slavery prompted. This outlook likely served Sherman well in two years employed as superintendent at the Louisiana Military Seminary before he re-enlisted in 1861.

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John W. French
Letter to Jefferson Davis, December 9, 1860

Elected President of the Confederate States in November 1861, Jefferson Davis was initially reluctant to embrace secession. This may explain why just four months before South Carolina became the first state to leave the Union, the Rev. John W. French wrote this lengthy missive counseling his friend Davis, then a Mississippi senator, against secession. In the letter, French, West Point chaplain and professor, argues that “The sober second thought of the people will settle things to your satisfaction.” He considers that Davis’ mind is already settled though, fearing that his words “will have no influence.”

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Ulysses Grant
Letter to Jesse Root Grant, August 3, 1861

With civil war already under way, General Ulysses Grant, summarizes the situation in Missouri for his father. He labels those convinced that the war is fundamentally about the eradication of slavery as “entirely ignorant.” While Grant would later change his mind, he demonstrates the broadly held view, early on, that suppression of the rebellion was the war’s primary objective.

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Edward Everett Hale, et al.
Signed endorsement of Lincoln’s Proclamation of Prospective Emancipation, [circa September 1862]

While Lincoln officially issued his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he released a preliminary document to the press on September 22 of the previous year. He intended that document as a warning to rebels of the consequences of refusing to lay down their arms by the beginning of 1863. The preliminary proclamation met with a wide range of responses, including this endorsement, by a group of Unitarian ministers. Their firm support reflects New England’s critical role overall, and that of Unitarians in particular, in the pursuit of abolition.



William H. Seward
Letter to William P. Fessenden, January 27, 1863

In a victory for abolitionists, Secretary of State William H. Seward entered into the Lyons-Seward Treaty with Great Britain in early 1862. Ostensibly the treaty sought to end the African slave trade but it also provided an implicit assurance that the British would not assist the Confederacy. Writing to Senator Fessenden, Seward provides an estimate of the costs associated with fulfilling the American end of the agreement.

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James Harper Graham
Letter to Samuel Gordon, January 11, 1864

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George Bliss, Jr., et al.
Circular letter regarding the 26th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops, January 13, 1864

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Vincent Colyer
Letter to James Harper Graham, January 14, 1864

Grasping the destabilizing effect it would have on the South, and slavery, Lincoln paved the way for recruiting African-American soldiers in his Emancipation Proclamation. This circular and letters regarding the 20th and 26th regiments document the successful recruitment effort that followed. New York would form three regiments of United States Colored Troops, with over four thousand men serving during the remainder of the war.



Abraham Lincoln
Annual Message to Congress, circa December 6, 1864

Among a number of subjects Abraham Lincoln covered in his last Annual Message to Congress, (now the State of the Union) on December 6, 1864 was his backing for the Thirteenth Amendment. At the time, the landmark amendment abolishing slavery had not yet passed; however, black men had already begun to enlist in the army, a fact Lincoln referenced in his typically eloquent address: “…while thousands, white and black, join us, as the national aims press back the insurgent lines.” A printer is reputed to have saved these leafs which are two of only three complete manuscript pages of the speech to have survived.

Full Document



The National Freedman, A Monthly Journal of the New York National Freedman’s Relief Association. Volume 1, Number 2. New York, December 15, 1865.

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in those states in rebellion against the Union, but it was the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that officially abolished slavery throughout the nation. This issue of The National Freedman, the organ of the New York National Freedman’s Relief Association, includes the text of Secretary of State William Seward certifying the ratification. Curiously, although Congress adopted the amendment on December 18, 1865, this issue is dated December 15.



William Beverly Nash
Letter to Myles L.M. Myers, February 10, 1870

On February 3, 1870, Iowa’s ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was meant to enfranchise adult African-American men, provided the minimum twenty-eight states needed for final ratification. Here, a state senator for South Carolina, William Beverly Nash, celebrates the news. It was perhaps most satisfying for Nash, a former slave, who had gained his freedom only a few years before becoming senator.



Frederick Douglass
Autograph note regarding John Brown, 1883

Though Frederick Douglass regarded Brown’s failed raid at Harpers Ferry as imprudent, he remained an admirer, even sharing Brown’s views on the efficacy of violence in the abolitionist cause. This note, signed by Douglass, is excerpted from his “Lecture on John Brown” given in 1881 at the now-defunct Storer College, in Harpers Ferry. Established in 1867, Storer was open to all regardless of sex, race or religion.



Fitzhugh Lee
Letter to Magnus Lewis Robinson, December 12, [1885]

Despite its brevity, this letter signed by Virginia’s governor-elect, Fitzhugh Lee, suggests how the Civil War and reforms enacted during the Reconstruction era had ostensibly changed the position of blacks in the United States. Lee, a former Confederate general and nephew of Confederate hero Robert E. Lee, expresses his commitment as governor to “equal rights” for African-Americans in his response to Robinson, a journalist and the great grandson of Martha Washington’s personal slave.

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