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President Lincoln Seeks Appointment to Naval Academy for His Wife’s Young Cousin
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ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Autograph Letter Signed, to Gideon Welles, August 21, 1863, Washington, D.C. 1 p., 4⅞ x 8 in.

Inventory #25970       Price: $17,500

Complete Transcript

Executive Mansion,

Washington, Aug 21, 1863.

Hon. Secretary of the Navy

My dear Sir

            You will oblige me very much if you can find a place to appoint John T. Grimsley, of Springfield, Illinois, to the Naval School.

Yours very truly

A. Lincoln

Historical Background

In 1861, Abraham and Mary Lincoln packed a trunk with clothing and other articles, including some of Lincoln’s important political manuscripts. When they departed for Washington, D.C., they left it for safekeeping with Mary’s cousin Elizabeth Todd Grimsley. The trunk remained in that family until John Todd Grimsley, the subject of this letter, parted with it in 1919. We have had the privilege of handling the trunk, and also several manuscripts that had been inside, including Lincoln’s House Divided Speech.[1]

Elizabeth Todd Grimsley (1825-1895) was Mary Lincoln’s first cousin; her father Dr. John Todd and Mary’s father Robert Smith Todd were brothers. Elizabeth Todd had been born in Edwardsville, Illinois, where her father had moved from Kentucky, beginning the migration of a large group of Todds to central Illinois. He moved his family to Springfield in 1827, and there Elizabeth served as a bridesmaid in her cousin Mary’s wedding to Abraham Lincoln in November 1842. Elizabeth married Harrison J. Grimsley in 1846, and they had two children before his death in 1865. When the Lincoln family went to Washington for Lincoln’s inauguration, Elizabeth Grimsley accompanied them and remained at the White House for six months. She took shopping trips to northern cities with Mary Lincoln and often took care of Willie and Tad Lincoln. She and her cousin Mary both thought that the president should appoint her as postmistress in Springfield, but he feared discontent among his supporters there. She resumed her request for the position in 1864 but again was unsuccessful.

On June 6, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln sent a message to Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, in Springfield: “Is your John ready to enter the Naval-School? If he is, telegraph me his full name?” John was fifteen and a half years old at the time. Two days later, she responded by telegram, “My son’s name is John Todd Grimsley.”[2]

Two months later, Lincoln wrote an endorsement on the back of a letter written by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to Robert J. Sperry, whom Welles had dismissed for insubordination, neglect of studies and having “a most obscene book.”[3] Lincoln told Welles, “I am under obligation to give the first appointment to the Naval School in my power, to John T. Grimsley, of Illinois, and no other commital must supersede this obligation. After saying this much, I add that I would be glad for the boy within named [Sperry], to have another chance, if at all consistent with the service.”

On August 14, Lincoln wrote to “My dear Cousin Lizzie” that he could make twenty appointments to the Naval School. By law, ten of them had to be from families of meritorious naval officers, while the other ten had no restrictions. “You see at once that if I have a vacancy in the first class, I can not appoint Johnny to it; and I have intended for months, and still intend, to appoint him to the very first vacancy I can get in the other class.”[4]

A week later, Lincoln made this request of Secretary Welles who, that same day, signed a letter ordering John T. Grimsley to report to the Superintendent of the Naval Academy at Newport, Rhode Island, between September 20 and September 30, to take an admissions examination. If he passed, he would become a Midshipman and “a pupil of the Naval Academy” and receive reimbursement for his traveling expenses. If he failed, he would receive neither the appointment nor his traveling expenses. Three days later, Lincoln again wrote to Elizabeth Grimsley that “I mail the papers to you to-day appointing Johnny to the Naval-School.” It appears, however, that despite Lincoln’s efforts, John Grimsley did not gain admission to the Naval Academy.[5]

Even as Lincoln was endeavoring to find a place at the naval academy for his wife’s cousin, crises arose around the nation requiring his attention. The Army of the Potomac was recovering in northern Virginia after the bloody Battle of Gettysburg the month before, and the Army of the Cumberland was moving toward Chattanooga from the west. On August 10, Lincoln first met Frederick Douglass, who had come to Washington to protest the army’s discrimination against African American soldiers. On August 21, William Quantrill and his Confederate guerrillas attacked the town of Lawrence, Kansas, and killed more than 150 men and boys. In response, General Thomas Ewing Jr. issued an order four days later evicting Missourians in four counties from their homes near the Kansas border to prevent both Unionist and Confederate depredations. Lincoln approved the order. And in Washington, Ford’s Theater reopened on August 27 after a destructive fire forced the owner to rebuild.

The U.S. Naval Academy was established in 1845 at Annapolis, Maryland. It temporarily relocated during the Civil War to Newport, Rhode Island. On May 8, 1861, the USS Constitution, also known as “Old Ironsides,” and the steamer Baltic arrived in Newport with the officers, professors, and some 130 midshipmen of the Academy.

In the fall of 1863, regular examinations of hundreds of candidates began, and during September and October, the Naval Academy admitted 82 midshipmen. Grimsley was not among them. There were five new midshipmen from Illinois, including Gratiot Washburne (1849-1886), the son of Congressman Elihu B. Washburne of Galena.[6]

John Todd Grimsley (1848-1920) was born in Springfield, Illinois, to Harrison Grimsley and Elizabeth Todd Grimsley. John T. Grimsley was educated in the city schools and became a merchant in Springfield, from the late 1860s into the 1890s in the dry goods firm of Herndon & Co. In 1871, he married Cornelia Messler, the daughter of a minister from New Jersey. They had one child.

Gideon Welles (1802-1878) was a Connecticut native, journalist, Democratic state legislator, Hartford Postmaster, and Chief of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing for the Navy early in his career. In the 1848 presidential election, Welles left the Democratic Party over the issue of the expansion of slavery. Welles founded an influential Republican organ, the Hartford Evening Press, in 1856. Abraham Lincoln appointed Welles as Secretary of the Navy, and Welles was highly effective in mobilizing the resources of the country for an extensive blockade and offensive operations against the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln nicknamed Welles his “Neptune,” and Welles served as Secretary of the Navy from 1861 to 1869.


[1] Justin G. Turner and H. E. Barker, “Lincolniana: The Grimsley Trunk,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 66 (Winter 1973): 455-59.

[2] Abraham Lincoln to Elizabeth J. Grimsley, June 6, 1863, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 6:252; Elizabeth J. Grimsley to Abraham Lincoln, June 8, 1863, RG 107, Entry 34: Records of the Secretary of War, 1789-1989, Telegrams Sent and Received by the War Department Central Telegraph Office, 1861-1882, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[3] Gideon Welles to Robert J. Sperry, January 8, 1863, endorsement of Abraham Lincoln to Gideon Welles, August 10, 1863, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 6:376.

It seems that Sperry returned to the Naval Academy, as he is listed as a mate in the Navy in May 1864.

[4] Abraham Lincoln to Elizabeth J. Grimsley, August 14, 1863, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 6:385-86.

[5] Gideon Welles to John T. Grimsley, August 21, 1863, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Abraham Lincoln to Elizabeth J. Grimsley, August 24, 1863, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 6:403.

[6] New York Times, October 3, 1863:1:2-3; Official Register of the Officers and Midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy, Newport, Rhode Island, December 31, 1863 (Newport, RI: Frederick A. Pratt, 1864), 26-28.


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