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Abraham Lincoln’s Dividers – Used to Trace Distances
on Civil War Maps (SOLD)
Click to enlarge:

A crucial tool used to follow and plan troop movements and Civil War strategies.

Lincoln’s family was besieged with requests for souvenirs after his death. Here Robert Todd Lincoln sends a very meaningful relic to one of his father’s closest wartime associates.

Exhibit History

“The Tsar and the President,” Moscow and St. Petersburg, Feb. – July, 2011; “Lincoln, Life-Size,” Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Ct., Feb. – June, 2010.

[ABRAMHAM LINCOLN]; ROBERT TODD LINCOLN. Folding Metal Dividers (Calipers). Approximately 5” long. With: Autograph Letter Signed to Thomas T. Eckert, chief of the War Department Telegraph Office, May 21, 1865. 2 pp., 5 x 8”, on black-bordered mourning stationery. With original autograph envelope, again signed “R.T. Lincoln,” with his black wax seal on verso. With a substantial provenance file.

Inventory #21925       SOLD — please inquire about other items

Complete Transcript

Executive Mansion
Washington, May 21 / 65

[John] Hay told me this morning that you were desirous of some relic of my Father, and I take pleasure in complying, for I know how high you stood in his esteem.
     Nearly all of our effects have already been sent away, but [2] I have found the pair of dividers, which he was accustomed to use, & with which you have doubtless often seen him trace distances on maps.
With great regards, I am

                                                            Very truly yours

R.T. Lincoln

Major T.T. Eckert”

[envelope:] “Major T.T. Eckert / Supt. Mil. Telegraph / War Dept. / R.T. Lincoln”

Historical Background

In the spring of 1862, Thomas Eckert was given charge of the War Department Telegraph Office. The Executive Mansion had no telegraph line, so the president frequently visited Eckert to obtain the latest war news or secure a respite from the crush of visitors at the White House. Lincoln even used Eckert’s desk to write out the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 had turned Lincoln – chief executive of one month’s tenure, with little military training and no combat experience – into a wartime president. The president turned the Telegraph Office into his “Situation Room,” scrutinizing the latest news from the front, tracking troop movements, and plotting strategy. Maps in Lincoln’s White House office bristled with colored pins marking troop positions. “It is safe to say,” his wartime secretaries would later recall, “that no general in the army studied his maps and scanned his telegrams with half the industry – and it may be added with half the intelligence – which Mr. Lincoln gave to his” (Nicolay and Hay, 114).

William H. Crook, the president’s bodyguard, later recalled Lincoln and Grant “poring over maps together.” The president may well have had these dividers in hand as he plotted strategy with his top general. He may also have used them during his early career as a surveyor. Like George Washington, Lincoln’s surveying experience taught him the central importance of geography to any military campaign.


Abraham Lincoln to Robert Todd Lincoln; given (with letter) to Thomas T. Eckert; by descent to Joanne Eckert Biddle; sold in 1948 to Dawson’s Book Shop (with Biddle provenance letter); to Justin Turner; to Elsie and Philip Sang; Sotheby Parke- Bernet, December 4, 1981; to Dr. John T. Lattimer; sold by his estate at Heritage Auction Galleries, 2008.

Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926) was the only one of Lincoln’s children to survive to adulthood. After graduating from Harvard, and serving as an aide on General Grant’s staff, Robert began a successful career in the railroad industry. He later served as secretary of war (1881-1885) under presidents James Garfield and Chester A. Arthur, as minister to Great Britain (1889-1893) and as president of the Pullman Company (1897-1911). He is also remembered for his troubled relationship with his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, who he had committed to a psychiatric hospital for a brief period in 1875.

Thomas Thompson Eckert (1825-1910) was sent to Hampton Roads in February 1865 to discuss protocol with Confederate peace commissioners before Lincoln would meet them himself. Robert Lincoln later recalled a conversation about the choice of Eckert for the Hampton Roads mission: “to use [the president’s] language as nearly as I can remember it–‘[Eckert] never failed to do completely what was given him to do, and to do it in the most complete and tactful manner....’” Just a few weeks later, Eckert was invited by the president to attend Ford’s Theatre on that fateful night, but was pressured by Stanton to decline. (For more on this, ask for our detailed description.) Eckert later attained the rank of brigadier general and served as assistant secretary of war. Returning to industry, he worked with Jay Gould, directing the telegraph “price wars” that led to consolidation of the entire industry. He eventually became president and chairman of Western Union Telegraph Co.

John Hay (1838-1905), who conveyed Eckert’s request answered here, was Lincoln’s private secretary and biographer. He served as secretary of state under presidents McKinley and Roosevelt.

Additional Historical Background

 The Telegraph and the Civil War

Three mid-nineteenth century innovations – the rifled musket barrel, railroad, and telegraph – made the Civil War the first ‘modern’ war.  “The telegraph changed the nature of national executive leadership and provided Abraham Lincoln with a tool that helped win the Civil War… Never before had the commander in chief been able to issue orders and dialog with his generals in almost real time without leaving the capital.  Lincoln also used his ability to read the telegraph traffic to and from his generals – even though it may have been addressed to others – as a keyhole through which he could eavesdrop on the headquarters tents of his armies.  He felt free to inject himself into the conversation.” (Wheeler, xiv, xix)

Lincoln’s Use of Civil War Maps

Lincoln’s hands-on approach to military strategy is evident from his correspondence. “I wish a movement made to seize and hold a point on the Railroad connecting Virginia and Tennesse[e],” he began one 1861 memorandum.  “You and I have distinct, and different plans for a movement of the Army of the Potomac,” he informed McClellan (February 3, 1862).  Lincoln later chided Halleck (December 8, 1862): “I find on maps here that Huntsville…is on the North bank of Cumberland river, sixteen miles directly east of Gallatin…What on earth an isolated Brigade was doing there I can not conceive.” 

David Homer Bates recounted: “On Sunday, July 21, [1861] when the battle of Bull Run was fought...Lincoln hardly left his seat in our office and waited with deep anxiety for each succeeding despatch.  At times...General Scott would confer with the President or Secretary Cameron for a short period, and then depart to put into effect some urgent measures for protecting the capital.”  Crammed into the small office were Lincoln, Seward, Cameron, Chase, Welles, Attorney General Bates, General Mansfield, Colonels Townsend, Van Rensselaer, Hamilton and Wright of Lieutenant General Scott’s staff, and Col. Thomas A. Scott.  According to William Bender Wilson, “With maps of the field before them they watched, as it were, the conflict of arms as it progressed.” (88)  On April 6, 1865, at City Point, there is an anecdote of Lincoln studying “the map of Virginia in connection with several despatches that Beckwith had just brought in from Grant’s pursuing columns.” (Bates, 188)  From the beginning of the war to its closing days, it is clear that Lincoln took a devoted and keen interest in the minutia of military maneuvers.  It is tempting to visualize Lincoln’s use of these dividers on countless critical occasions, aiding decisions critical to the final outcome of the war.

Lincoln and Stanton Bring Eckert and the Telegraph to the White House’s Front Door

Lincoln’s wartime relationship with both the telegraph and with Eckert got off to a very rough start.  Wheeler explains, “as telegraph technology was incorporated into government activity early in Lincoln’s term, it was organized to favor serving the military, not the civilian, leadership…” (Wheeler, 8)  Key telegraphs were reaching commanding general George McClellan, several blocks away from the White House, but were not disclosed to Stanton or Lincoln.  This became most apparent several months after First Manassas, when Federal Troops were routed atop their vulnerable position at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff (October 21, 1861).  McClellan was in a meeting with Lincoln at the White House, when Eckert, McClellan’s telegraph operator, rushed him a dispatch containing a report of the disaster.  McClellan did not discuss its contents with his commander-in-chief. 

“Perhaps sensing something amiss, Lincoln later in the day wandered over to McClellan’s headquarters...and inquired of the telegraph operator, Thomas Eckert, whether any dispatches had arrived from the front.  Eckert, however, had been ordered to give dispatches only to the general [and had just witnessed McClellan’s non-disclosure of the dispatch].  He slipped the Balls Bluff message under his desk blotter and told the president there was nothing new ‘in the file.’  Lincoln then walked into McClellan’s office where he saw a copy of the report on the general’s desk,” and became informed of the death of his dear friend Col. Edward Baker (for whom the Lincoln’s had named their son, in 1846).”

“Returning to the telegrapher’s office, a less-than-pleased commander-in-chief demanded to know why the clerk was withholding information.  It was only then that the president learned of the standing orders to share such information only with McClellan.  [Eckert] argued he had told the truth while also following orders; by slipping the offending telegram under his blotter, he had been technically truthful in telling the president there were no new messages ‘in the file.’  It was an untenable situation.  Secretary of War Simon Cameron had ceded control of electronic information to the military, even to the exclusion of the elected government.  A growing number of such lapses in judgment convinced Lincoln to exile Cameron by making him minister to Russia.  [O]n January [15,] 1862, Edwin Stanton became the new secretary of war.” (Wheeler, 8-9)  “Thereafter, when told there was no news, Lincoln would sometimes slyly remark: ‘Is there not something under the blotter?’” Reflecting on the incident, Eckert said that “the President made no criticism of his action; but upon more careful reflection Eckert concluded he had made a mistake...[as] Lincoln outranked” both Cameron and McClellan. (Bates, 94-97)  Eckert’s continued employment, promotion, and special missions clearly highlight Lincoln’s forgiving nature.

When Congress returned in January of 1862, “it enacted legislation allowing the government to take control of the telegraph lines as necessary for military purposes.  While the network continued to be owned by private companies and to carry civilian traffic, the new secretary of war assumed control for its military application under the supervision of a reconstructed U.S. Military Telegraph Corps (USMTC).  The USMTC may have had ‘military’ in its name, but it was a civilian operation answerable only to the secretary of war who, this time, understood that he worked for the president of the United States.  Henceforth the telegraph was Lincoln’s domain… Secretary Stanton’s War Department, not McClellan’s headquarters, became the hub for all telegraph traffic… [Being in the] building next to the White House placed Abraham Lincoln in proximity to the technology and opened the door to his discovery of electronic leadership.” (Wheeler, 9-10)

In February, Eckert was promoted to Major, Chief of the War Department telegraph staff.  “Stanton detached [him] from McClellan’s staff, and ordered him to make his office in the War Department, and to connect all wires with that building, leaving only enough instruments at army headquarters to handle the separate business of the commanding general.” (Bates, 137)  “The old library room, on the second floor front, adjoining” Stanton’s own office, became the new War Department telegraph office, amidst rare books by Audubon and Lewis & Clark. (Bates, 38)

Lincoln’s “haven of rest”

According to David Homer Bates’ memoirs in Lincoln in the Telegraph Office (1907) – a book hailed by Robert Todd Lincoln for its historical accuracy – “Lincoln visited the War Department telegraph office morning, afternoon, and evening, to receive the latest news from the armies at the front.  His tall, homely form could be seen crossing the well-shaded lawn between the White House and the War Department day after day with unvaried regularity…and sometimes he would stay all night… When returning to the White House after dark, he was frequently accompanied by Major Eckert, and nearly always by a small guard of soldiers.  He sometimes protested against this latter precaution as unnecessary.” (Bates, 7-8)  [Lincoln assassination conspirator, Lewis Payne, while awaiting trial, told Eckert that he had seen and overheard the two men one winter’s evening, from a hiding spot on the White House grounds. (Bates, 385-386)

The office was at the forefront of the war news – receiving news of Elmer Ellsworths death in 1861; “Lincoln’s own despatch in cipher, from City Point on April 3, 1865, that gave us in Washington our earliest news of Grant’s capture of Petersburg and Richmond;” and “the first authentic news of Booth’s whereabouts…from Grant’s cipher-operator, Samuel H. Beckwith…April 24, 1865…that Booth had been traced to a swamp near by.” (Bates, 8)

“Lincoln’s daily visits to the telegraph office were…greatly relished by him and of course by the cipher-operators [Eckert (the chief); Albert E. H. Johnson (custodian of military telegrams; and Charles A. Tinker; Albert B. Chandler; & Bates (referred to facetiously by Johnson as the “Sacred Three”)].  Lincoln “would there relax from the strain and care ever present at the White House, and while waiting for fresh dispatches, or while they were being deciphered, would make running comments, or tell his inimitable stories.” (Bates, 9)  “One special room, between the instruments themselves and Secretary Stanton’s office, became Lincoln’s hideaway.  ‘There only was he comparatively free from interruption and he would frequently remain for hours, and sometimes all night.’  Other than the Executive Mansion itself, the president spent more time in the telegraph office than in any other place during his term.  The president would set up shop at the desk of the chief of the operation [Eckert], next to a window overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue.” (Wheeler, 10; Bates, 42)  Eckert gave a lengthy and well-known recollection of Lincoln’s writing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation for Bates’ 1907 book (Bates, 138-153; Kunhardt 376-377).  Despite the office having some relative seclusion, it was still “the scene of many vitally important conferences between Lincoln and members of his cabinet, leading generals, congressmen and others, who soon learned that when the President was not at the White House he could most likely be found in the telegraph office.” (Bates, 42)  “[I]n the intervals of waiting [for important telegraphs to be received] he would write messages of inquiry, counsel and encouragement the generals in the field, to the governors of the loyal states and sometimes despatches announcing pardon or reprieve to soldiers under sentence of death for desertion or sleeping on post.  He almost lived in the telegraph office when a battle was in progress, and on other occasions would drop in, as he sometimes jocosely remarked, to get rid of the pestering crowd of office-seekers.” (Bates, 42) 

More than just a means of sending messages, Lincoln soon came to use “the telegraph as his personal news service… ‘His thoughts by day and anxiety by night fed upon the intelligence which the telegraph brought,’ Nicolay and Hay wrote.” (Wheeler, 11)  “When he knew some specially important message was in course of translation,” he would rivet himself over one of the cipher-operator’s shoulders.  Most often, however, “Lincoln’s habit was to go immediately to the drawer each time he came into our room, and read over the telegrams, beginning at the top, until he came to the one he had seen at his last previous visit.  When this point was reached he almost always said, ‘Well, boys, I am down to the raisins.’ (Bates, 40-41)  “It was an expression the president explained by spinning one of his folksy tales, about” “the little girl who celebrated her birthday by eating freely of many good things, topping off with raisins for dessert.  During the night she was taken violently ill, and when the doctor arrived she was busy casting up her accounts.  The genial doctor, scrutinizing the contents of the vessel, noticed some small black objects that had just appeared, and remarked to the anxious parent that all danger was past, as the child was ‘down to the raisins.’  ‘So,’ Lincoln said, ‘when I reach the message in this pile which I saw on my last visit, I know that I need go no further.’” (Bates, 41; Wheeler, 11-12)

Eckert and New York’s Thwarted “General Conflagration” of 1864

The day after Thanksgiving, 1864, with the help of Maj. Thomas T. Eckert, and a Confederate double-agent working in Canada, Major General John A. Dix and his men thwarted a massive terrorist plot to simultaneously burn at least a dozen NYC hotels, just as the blazes were lit. (Bates, 300)  Eckert went to New York on Thanksgiving Day, as the War Department had heard nothing further from the spy.  On the next day, the 25th, he called on Major General Dix who “had already been advised by Secretary Stanton of the machinations of the Confederate commissioners and their emissaries, but was wholly incredulous of the news about the burning of the city... Dix had already used every available means to track the conspirators, but without success, and the scheme appeared so diabolical that he concluded it was wholly imaginary.  Eckert tried to convince him, but could not...Superintendant Kennedy and Inspector Murray of the police department were called in conference, and they too proved to be unbelievers.”

Eckert left to retrieve further instructions from Stanton, but “[u]pon entering a Broadway omnibus, his eyes encountered those of our secret service man from Canada,” who had traveled for over twenty-four hours from Toronto, not having “sufficient time to get the information to Washington by means of a New York ‘News’ personal, the usual means of communication...  [T]he conspirators intended to set fire to twelve or more New York hotels, whose names he gave, that very...evening...  Eckert...went back to Dix with his fresh confirmatory evidence, and both the military and civilian authorities then accepted the situation and took immediate steps to thwart the plans… Thirteen hotels were selected to be fired:” “the Astor, United States, Fifth Avenue, Everett, St. Nicholas, Lafarge, Howard, Hanford, Belmont, New England, St. James, Tammany and Metropolitan.”  Additionally, alarms occurred at Barnum’s Museum and “two hay barges in the North River at the foot of Beach Street.” (Bates, 300-302)  Booth may have been connected, as he was in the city at the time.  Lincoln assassination co-conspirator Lewis Powell (alias Payne) had also been in New York then, but by his own account (given to Eckert, who was assigned to guard him) he had refused to be a part, not wanting to harm those unconnected to the U.S. government or military.

Eckert the Military Strategist

September 1863, found General William S. Rosecrans’ army surrounded by Braxton Bragg’s vastly superior force at Chattanooga, in danger of being besieged.  With dire appeals bombarding the War Department, Stanton and Lincoln saw that heroic efforts were needed.  When General Halleck was asked how long it would take to move two army corps from Virginia to Tennessee for Rosecrans’ aid, he hypothesized nearly three months.  However, Stanton then asked Eckert, who was familiar with the railroad routes to Chattanooga and the heights of the Ohio River.  Placed in an awkward position with respect to Halleck, Eckert nonetheless “promptly demurred and said it was much too long; that sixty days or perhaps forty would be sufficient.”  He was instructed to give a written report, which he worked on all night, coming to a projected span of just fifteen days.  “The plan was so well laid and withal so sensible, that Lincoln and Stanton both endorsed it.”  The transfer of 23,000 troops (originally 19,000 were estimated) was completed in eleven and a half days.  “The reinforcements thus given to Rosecrans were ample and timely, and served to place his army in an impregnable position.” (Bates 172-182)

Eckert “as...Secretary of War”

Major Eckert was entrusted with a number of important duties during his time with the War Department.  In 1862, he carried to McClellan the order for his release from the supreme command of the Army of the Potomac. (Bates, 111)  In 1864, “General Grant wrote three separate orders, one after the other, removing General Thomas from command of the Army of the Cumberland.  President Lincoln suspended the first, General Logan did not deliver the second because Thomas had meantime advanced against Hood and fought and won the battle of Nashville, and Major Eckert suppressed the third.” (Bates, 310)  Eckert, who “had been on duty constantly day and night for nearly a week,…held it on his own responsibility, partly because the wires were not working well at the time he received it from Grant, and partly because he wanted to hear further from Van Duzer, and he hoped to receive later information that the weather had moderated, thus allowing Thomas to begin his advance.” (Bates, 315-317)  Having fretted about his potential misconduct to Stanton, the Secretary of War “put his arm around Eckert’s shoulder and said, ‘Major, if they court-martial you, they will have to court-martial me.  You are my confidential assistant, and in my absence were empowered to act in all telegraph matters as if you were the Secretary of War.  The result shows you did right.’” (Bates, 318)

In February 1865, Eckert was sent to work out the logistics of the Hampton Roads Peace Conference negotiations. (Bates, 322-342)  “[T]he subject was so complicated and so fraught with contingent dangers, and Stanton was so strenuous in his objections to the whole scheme, that only Lincoln himself or some one fresh from his councils who possessed his absolute confidence could be trusted to meet the shrewd and wily emissaries.  He did not designate a member of his cabinet for the responsible service, but selected” Eckert.  Robert Todd Lincoln, recollected in 1907 of “father telling me one evening all that had occurred up to that time in the matter, and his indicating to me that he was not feeling quite comfortable as to the way in which the matter was being handled at army headquarters at City Point; and that therefore, he had that day sent ‘Tom Eckert’ as he affectionately called him, with written instructions, to handle the whole matter of the application of these visitors from Mr. Davis to get into our lines.  He said that he had selected ‘Tom Eckert’ for this business because–to use his language as nearly as I can remember it–‘he never failed to do completely what was given him to do, and to do it in the most complete and tactful manner, and to refrain from doing anything outside which would hurt his mission.’  He was so emphatic in expressing this reason for sending Eckert that it made a deep impression upon me, and I never see General Eckert without thinking of it.” (Bates, 328-329)  No doubt, these councils were just as fresh in Robert Todd Lincoln’s mind, 42 years earlier, when he bestowed his father’s dividers to Eckert.

Ford’s Theatre

On April 14, 1865, Lincoln made his last visit to the telegraph office.  Stanton urged (as he had  been doing for days) that the president exercise caution and abstain from going out in public.  Realizing that Lincoln was set on going, Stanton “told him he ought to have a competent guard,” to which Lincoln replied: “Stanton, do you know that Eckert can break a [iron fire] poker over his arm?”  Taken aback, Stanton answered in surprise: “No; why do you ask such a question?” to which Lincoln replied: “Well, Stanton, I have seen Eckert break five pokers, one after the other, over his arm, and I am thinking he would be the kind of man to go with me this evening.  May I take him?”   Stanton, still not wanting to encourage the venture, pressured Eckert to lie about having too much work to do.  Bates remarked in 1907: “It is idle to conjecture what might have been the result if the alert and vigorous Eckert had accompanied Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre that night.  Had he done so, the probabilities are that in view of Eckert’s previous knowledge of the plot to kidnap or kill the President, Booth might have been prevented from firing the fatal shot, and Lincoln spared to finish his great work.” (Bates, 366-368)


Sharp steel points are very slightly rusted in spots, but otherwise excellent. Housed in a beige silk-lined folding box with gilt-lettered leather spine, stamped on the front cover “Justin G. Turner Collection.”  The letter has some small chips in the bottom black border and a few scattered finger marks, but is very fine. 


Bates, David Homer.  Lincoln in the Telegraph Office.  (NY: 1907); Kunhardt, Philip B. III, et al.  Looking for Lincoln.  (NY: 2008); New York Times, November 26, 1864; Nicolay and Hay.  Abraham Lincoln, Wheeler, Tom.  Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails.  (NY: 2006)