A Community for Abraham Lincoln & American History — For Collectors, By Collectors. More About Us.

Feature Articles

The Sanitary Fair’s Gifts to President Lincoln

December 3, 2020

Sanitary Fairs (1863-65), organized by the United States Sanitary Commission, a precursor of the Red Cross, offered an entertaining and patriotic diversion from the agonies of the Civil War. These grand events raised more revenue than any comparable source, enabling sponsors to buy medical supplies, improve sanitary conditions, establish field hospitals and care for wounded Union soldiers during and after the war. Their immense success was aided by generous gifts Lincoln donated. He was one of the single largest contributors – and Lincoln’s contributions and appearances guaranteed success. Lincoln received close to 100 requests from various sanitary fairs for either a donation or to attend openings. Due to war constraints and security concerns, the President only attended three fairs: Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. To express their gratitude, a number of sanitary fairs presented Lincoln with gifts.

Henry Whitney Bellows, Minister of the “fashionable” Old Souls Church in New York City, was upset and angry at the deplorable sanitary conditions and lack of medical supplies Union troops were experiencing. Bellows writes to Mississippi Senator Henry Foote on starting an ambulance corps.

In the spring of 1861, Rev. Henry Whitney Bellows, minister of the “fashionable” Old Souls Church in New York City’s Gramercy Park and a founder of the Union League of New York, was outraged by the deplorable sanitary conditions and lack of medical supplies Union troops enjoyed. He reflected on the British Sanitary Commission’s model and the work of Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War (1854-6). While improving sanitary conditions, they lowered the mortality rate by over 75%. Along with Frederick Law Olmsted (famed architect of New York’s Central Park, and no partisan of Lincoln), Bellows and others traveled to Washington to convince lawmakers that the Sanitary Commission was desperately needed. He wrote a letter to Secretary of War Simon Cameron asking for a “Commission of Inquiry and Advice in respect of the Sanitary Interests of the United States Forces.” With Cameron’s support, the order was written and submitted to Lincoln.

U.S. Sanitary Commission Office, Chicago, IL 1864.

Lincoln signed the order on June 8 establishing the United States Sanitary Commission. Three days later, Bellows was elected president. Fellow Reverend Edward Everett Hall would write of his oldest friend “untiring in the prosecution of his life-work, he knew no fatigue in his labor of doing good.” Frederick Olmsted was elected Secretary General, with Bellows commenting years later,”Without Olmsted, who gave vitality and organization to the commission; it would have died from inception.” To increase public financial support, Olmstead wrote to Lincoln on September 30, 1861 requesting “…a line from the President recommending the purpose of the Commission to the confidence of the public.” After reading Olmsted’s letter, Lincoln immediately corresponded with General Winfield Scott expressing his positive views of the Commission. The President declared: “The Sanitary Commission is doing a work of great humanity, and of direct practical value to the nation, in this time of its trial. It is entitled to the gratitude and confidence of the people, and I trust it will be generously supported. There is no agency through which voluntary offerings of patriotism can be more effectively made.” This letter appeared in numerous publications. With the President’s public support, donations commenced.

The commission set up a temporary home in the Treasury building, with branches established throughout major northern cities. In October they moved into the Adams House on 244 F Street, making it their permanent headquarters. While the majority of officers were men, women labored unselfishly to collect and distribute medical supplies, food, clothing, and provided nurses for Union troops. Secretary Cameron gave the Sanitary Commission a semi-official status without resources, therefore the Commission struggled during 1861-63 to raise funds. In 1863, two Chicago women, Mary A. Livermore (the only woman journalist in attendance at Lincoln’s nomination during the 1860.

Mary A. Livermore. “The most acceptable donation you could make, would be the original manuscript of the Proclamation of emancipation…”

Republican National convention in Chicago) and Jane C. Hoge would emerge as leaders of Chicago’s Northwestern Sanitary Commission. Their idea of raising revenue would forever change the commission.

By the summer of 1863, with war casualties mounting, the Northwestern Sanitary Commission had exhausted all means of raising money. With this in mind, Livermore and Hoge planned a great sanitary fair. “At last, Mrs. Hoge and myself proposed a great Northwestern Fair (October 27- November 10). We were sure that a grand fair, in which the whole Northwestern [region] would unite, would replenish the treasury of the Commission,” Livermore mused. She continued, “We knew also that it would develop a grateful demonstration of the loyalty of the Northwestern [region] to our beloved but struggling country.” The ladies presented the gentlemen of the commission with their idea, but they laughed at Livermore and Hoge’s proposition to raise $25,000 from the event. On September 1, the ladies hosted a convention in Chicago where the date and location were decided. This fair would be produced by women.

After arrangements were completed, Livermore and Hoge turned to President Lincoln. The ladies were no strangers to the President. In November 1862, they met him on two occasions with the sanitary commission’s council of women. On October 11, sixteen days before the fair’s grand opening, Livermore wrote to Lincoln requesting a donation. After explaining the purpose of the commission and their expectations of raising between twenty-five and fifty thousand dollars, Livermore broached the commission’s request: “It has been suggested to us from various quarters that the most acceptable donation you could possibly make, would be the original manuscript of the Proclamation of Emancipation and I have been instructed to ask for this, if it is at all consistent with what is proper, for you to donate.” Livermore concluded by reminding the President of his origins, “There would seem great appropriateness in this gift to Chicago, or Illinois, for the benefit of our Western soldiers, coming as it would from a Western President.” They informed Lincoln that the fair would open on Tuesday, October 27.

Two days after writing to the President, the commission enlisted Isaac N. Arnold, radical Illinois Congressman and personal friend of Lincoln, to “second our prayers in person.” Unable to deliver the Commission’s request in person, Arnold telegraphed Lincoln on October 13: “At their suggestion I ask, that you would send them, the original of your proclamation of Freedom, to be disposed of for the benefit of the Soldiers, and then deposited in the Historical Society of Chicago, where it even would be regarded as a relic of great interest…” Not to leave any stones unturned, Livermore contacted Owen Lovejoy, abolitionist minister, Congressman from Northern Illinois, and defender of Lincoln’s policies, to remind him of their request. One day after Arnold wrote to Lincoln, Lovejoy wrote: “Mrs. Mary A. Livermore of the Chicago Sanitary Com. made me promise to write to you urging her request for the original copy of the Proclamation of Freedom, to be sold to the Chicago His. Society. I told her I would write but that if you sent it at all you would send it to her at her own request.”

Lincoln wrote to the ladies in charge of the fair on October 26: “According to the request made in your behalf, the original draft of the Emancipation proclamation is herewith enclosed. The formal words at the top, and the conclusion, except the signature, you perceive are not in my handwriting. They were written at the State Department by whom I know not. The printed part was cut from a copy of the preliminary proclamation, and pasted on merely to save writing. I had some desire to retain the paper; but if it shall contribute to the relief or comfort of the soldiers that will be better.” This document, principally in Lincoln’s handwriting, was the final draft of the final version. Lincoln had photographic copies made prior to relinquishing his Proclamation of Freedom.

On the second day of the fair, Livermore recalled what occurred: “On unlocking my post – office drawer that morning I found the precious document, and carried it triumphantly to Bryan Hall (partitioned as a sales & exhibition room and dining area), one of the six halls occupied by the fair, where the package was opened. The manuscript of the Proclamation was accompanied by a characteristic letter, which I have given elsewhere.” The arrival of Lincoln’s document was announced with “immense throngs crowding the building, who welcomed it with deafening cheers.” Livermore framed the document “in an elegant black walnut frame, so arranged that it could be read entirely through the plate glass that protected it from touch, and hung where it could be seen and read by all.”

On November 11th Hoge and Livermore wrote to Lincoln expressing their deepest gratitude for such a generous gift: “We profoundly thank you, for your gift to our North Western Fair, of the original draft of the ‘Proclamation of Emancipation’. It came to us in the midst of the wonderful outpouring of loyalty & liberality, from the great throbbing heart of the North West, nay, almost of the nation; for all seemed ready to respond and give. Your proclamation is the star of hope, the rainbow of promise, that has risen above the din and carnage of this unholy rebellion, and will fill the brightest page in the history of our struggle for national existence; while it has become the anchor of hope, the rainbow of promise, to the oppressed of every land, at home and abroad.”

Thomas B. Bryan, Chicago lawyer, businessman and Lincoln supporter paid $3,000 for the document (destroyed in the October 1871 Chicago fire), and donated it to the Chicago Soldiers’ Home. During the fair, James H. Hoes, Chicago jeweler and loyal Union supporter, proposed through a column in the Tribune that the fair’s largest contributor would receive a gold watch. With Lincoln’s Proclamation selling for three thousand dollars, Lincoln was named the winner.

He received the news from Livermore and Hoge on November 26 : “Among the many remarkable incidents of our recent Fair, not one has been more pleasant, than the duty that devolves upon us of consigning to you, on this National Thanksgiving Day, the accompanying watch; by asking you to accept it as a memorial of the Ladies N. Western Fair.” After explaining Chicago jeweler Hoes’s generous proposal in the Chicago Tribune, Livermore and Hoge declared “Thou art the man… Your glorious Emancipation Proclamation, world wide in its interests and results, was sold for $3000, the largest benefaction of any individual.” Within three weeks the President responded to this generous offering.

On December 17, Lincoln wrote to James H. Hoes expressing his gratitude: “I have received from the Sanitary Commission of Chicago, the Watch which you placed at their disposal, and I take the liberty of conveying to you my high appreciation of your humanity and generosity, of which I have unexpectedly become the beneficiary.” In Livermore’s 1884 Civil War memoir My Story of The War, she suggested the inscribed gold watch “has fallen into the hands of his son, Robert Lincoln, our late Secretary of War, who holds it sacred as a memento of a touching incident in his father’s history.” [I contacted Brian Knight, curator of Hildene, Robert Todd Lincoln’s family home in Manchester, Vermont, and he informed me that the neither the pocket watch nor any other gift from the sanitary fairs was in their possession.]

CDV of the Children’s Department at the Baltimore Fair, one of the most endearing attractions of the fairs.

During the planning phase of the February 22 – March 2, 1864 Buffalo Central Fair, F.A. Allberger wrote to Lincoln requesting “an autograph note from you to the ladies of Buffalo, assuring them of your appreciation of their efforts and wishing them success.” She concluded the letter by informing the President that his autographed letter would add five hundred dollars to the cause. Following the fair’s closing, Clara and Julia Brown, eleven and thirteen-years-old respectively, expressed their admiration and love for the President by forwarding an afghan and CDVs of themselves. They wrote: “Please accept this ‘Afghan’ from your little friends, who desire to express their regard for you in these terrible days of war—The afghan was exhibited at the ‘Central Fair’ recently held here, and now we are very happy in sending it to our Dear President. Please remember that you have little friends in Buffalo who pray for you, that you may be cheerful, strong and wise.” Children contributed immensely to the sanitary fairs, and numerous fairs incorporated a children’s department. With articles such as socks, dolls, toys, and Afghans, the children’s departments were one of the most endearing attractions at the fairs. So when the president received this special gift from his “little friends” at the Buffalo Central Fair – he was delighted.

Twelve days later Lincoln acknowledged the gift and photographs: “The afghan you sent is received, and gratefully accepted. I especially like my little friends; and although you have never seen me, I am glad you remember me for the country’s sake, and even more, that you remember, and try to help, the poor soldiers.”

Following the success of Chicago’s Northwestern Fair, and Lincoln’s incredible donation, Northern cities were blanketed in fair-mania. A Brooklyn newspaper reported “By the middle of December, Boston was in the agony of a fair. Brooklyn went ‘crazy’ and raised the battle cry, ‘Let us beat Boston!’” The New York Times reported that “Boston is mad about the Great Metropolitan Sanitary Fair. We expected it. For what sort of an affair was the Boston Fair when compared with ours.” William W. Goodrich on behalf of the Ladies of Brooklyn wrote to Lincoln on February 6, 1864 inviting him to attend the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair being held February 22 – March 8, 1864. (Numerous fairs opened on February 22, Washington’s birthday.) Prior to the invitation, Lincoln received three creditable requests, including one from Gordon L. Ford, chairman of the autograph committee, who wrote Lincoln on January 19: “ Can you send us for our approaching fair, some autograph document of your own that will enable us to rival if possible even the Chicago fair.”

On March 2, Lincoln wrote to the “New England Kitchen” of the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair: “It is represented to me that my autograph, appended to this note, may somewhat augment, through the means you are so patriotically employing, the contribution for the benefit of our gallant and suffering soldiers, and for such an object I am glad to give it.” Brooklyn’s Drum Beat reported that C. H. Mallory of Connecticut purchased Lincoln’s autographed letter at the fair for $100. Two days later, Lincoln received a gift from the fair.

On March 7, Corresponding Secretary of the fair Reverend Frederick A. Farley wrote to Lincoln with the news: “A few of your fellow – citizens have the honor of offering … a silk ‘Bed – Spread,’ formed of the National colors, and emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes and the National Eagle.” Lincoln responded to this gift: “Permit me to return my cordial thanks for the beautiful present transmitted by you, and for the kind and graceful manner in which it was conveyed.” The gift was profiled in the book History of the Brooklyn and Long Island Fair.

The fairs Lincoln visited received the greatest amount of attention. And none more so than Philadelphia’s Great Central Fair held June 7-28 (this would be the last sanitary fair Lincoln would honor with his presence). Of all the fairs Lincoln attended, Philadelphia’s occupied the greatest amount of his time (4:15pm – 12am) with endless toasts, speeches, and a torch-light parade to the Union League. The guest of honor was nearly crunched by throngs of supporters. Needless to say, it was touch-and-go as to whether Lincoln would even attend. But after numerous letters and the President initially declining, a committee composed of James A. Stevens, W.H. Ashurst, Thomas Webster, and N.B. Brown journeyed to Washington to urge him and Mrs. Lincoln to attend. On June 16 at 7:00 am, Lincoln, his wife, son Tad and various politicians boarded a train for Philadelphia. Unable to attend the opening ceremony, Lincoln endorsed Bishop Simpson of the Methodist Episcopal Church to deliver the opening address.

Great Central Sanitary Fair’s Art and Photography Gallery.

Philadelphia’s Union League chairman George H. Boker wrote to Presidential Secretary John Nicolay on June 1, 1864: “Some days ago I sent about twenty copies of the Proclamation of Emancipation to Mr. Lincoln with the request that he would sign the papers and obtain Mr. Seward’s signature also. These things were intended to be sold at the approaching Sanitary Fair, for the benefit of the Commission. I have not heard anything … since I sent them, and I begin to feel anxious for the matter, as the time for holding the fair is close at hand. Will you be so good as to look into the affair; and, if there is no objection, to obtain the President’s and Mr. Seward’s Signatures to the documents. It is a small thing to ask; but we can make it of great pecuniary value to the fair.” Now identified as the “Boker – Leland Emancipation Proclamations,” these “souvenirs” were offered for sale at the fair for ten dollars each. (An example from the Forbes Collection of Americana sold five years ago for $688,000.) Five to eight unsold copies were subsequently sold at Boston’s Sailor’s Fair. Additional unsold copies were distributed to a few libraries in the northeast. The President also donated a copy of the Act to Suppress Insurrection. In addition, Lincoln signed a number of books including one presented to the Fair by F. J. Dreer with “an autographic letter of every President”, bound in leather.

During the night of June 16, while the President attended a banquet held at the fair, he received two gifts. Following Lincoln’s speech, former Governor of Pennsylvania James Pollock presented him a silver medal on behalf of the Ladies of the Fair. Lincoln responded: “I have only to say that I accept this present of the ladies as an additional token of your confidence, but I do not need any further evidence of the loyalty and devotion of the women of America to the cause of the Union and the cause of Christian humility.” Lincoln was then presented a cane with “hallowed associations” on behalf of the Loyal Ladies of Trenton. The presenter read a speech from the Loyal Ladies, who identified themselves as …” descendants of those ‘Matrons and Maidens’ who scattered flowers in the path of Washington when passing through the triumphal arch which her sons had erected in 1789.” Washington passed through this arch on his way to be inaugurated. The cane was made from the same arch. At the conclusion of the speech, the ladies declared: “we trust that you find in the staff now presented to you, as an ‘heir loom’ of the old Arch where the ‘gratulating song’ was sung by the patriotic young ladies of Trenton, similar gratification as that which was felt by Washington.”

On July 25, Lincoln wrote to the Loyal Ladies of Trenton – and communicated his “sincere thanks” for a “very pretty Cane, with hallowed associations.” Due to Lincoln’s “many duties,” he excused himself for not responding sooner. Before the President had an opportunity to respond to the Loyal Ladies of Trenton, another gift arrived from the Great Central Fair. On July 8, L. J. Leberman, Chairman of the Clothing Department, wrote to Lincoln on behalf of Messrs. Rockhill & Wilson, and explained why an “elegant suit” would be arriving by Adams Express. “Among the Contributions to the Clothing department of the ‘Great Central Fair’ for the benefit of the United States Sanitary Commission, there was presented by Messrs Rockhill & Wilson of this city, an elegant Suit of Garments made to your measures. The fair Treasury having been fully compensated, I am desired by the donors to forward the same to you.” Lincoln replied seven days later: “The suit of garments sent by you, on behalf of Messrs Rockhill & Wilson, came duly to hand; and for which you and they will please accept my thanks.”

Following the Great Central Fair, committee member Alfred B. Justice forwarded a pocket knife representing American workmanship – and four pages of signatures of visitors who attended the fair. Justice asked Lincoln’s “acceptance of the Pocket Knife accompanying this note as a specimen of the handicraft of American workmen, and a slight Testimonial of their regard for yourself.” In September, Lincoln responded: “I have received at the hands of Judge Kelley a very handsome and ingenious pocket knife, for which I am indebted to the liberality of yourself and others. I shall value it no less, as a fine specimen of American mechanism, than as a testimonial of the kind approval of the donors.” Lincoln’s letter was handwritten by Secretary Edward D. Neill who apparently forgot that he wrote the letter, so he wrote another one on October 17 with similar content.

There were two gifts Lincoln did not personally accept. Charles E. Allen from the Western Illinois Sanitary Fair wrote to Lincoln on October 26, 1864, and explained that during the fair a chair and liquor case were donated to the fair “with the understanding that they were to be given to the Presidential Candidate receiving the maximum number of votes.” Allen concluded by asking the President if the furniture should be sent to Washington or Springfield. On November 1, Lincoln’s secretary John Hay wrote to Allen on behalf of the President expressing his gratitude and appreciation, however (he) “begs the privilege of requesting that these articles be disposed of, in such a manner as may contribute most effectually to the object which he, no less than you, has at heart, the relief of the suffering soldiers of the Union.”

In preparation for the National Sailors’ Fair in Boston (November 9-22), Alexander H. Rice, Chairman of the Managing Committee, wrote Lincoln on October 15 that the committee “Unanimously voted that the President of the United States be invited to be present and open the fair.” Unable to attend, Lincoln wrote to the fair committee “With the old fame of the Navy, made brighter in the present war, you can not fail. I name none, lest I wrong others by omission. To all, from Rear Admiral to honest Jack I tender the Nation’s admiration and gratitude.” This letter was sold during the fair. On the same day, Lincoln received a strange telegram from the Sailors’ Fair. Chairman Rice wrote: “The mammoth Ox, General Grant, is presented to you today. Will you pass him over to the Sailors’ Fair as a contribution?” Unaware of such a gift, Lincoln responded immediately: “Yours received. I have no other notice that the ox is mine. If it be really so I present it to the Sailors’ Fair, as a contribution.” During the fair, Carlos Pierce donated the ox in Lincoln’s name. Rice informed the President on November 22 that his donation yielded the sum of $3,500 with the proceeds used to help establish a home for disabled seamen.

Twelve weeks before that dreadful day in April, Livermore and Hoge journeyed to Washington to convince Lincoln and his family to attend Chicago’s second sanitary fair in May. Being aware of the upcoming fair, after receiving a request for a donation by a fair official, the President laughingly knew why the ladies were visiting. After the ladies confessed, Lincoln voiced his trepidations of attending another “Big Fair.” “I was nearly pulled to pieces before I reached Philadelphia… When we reached the fair it was worse yet. The police tried to open a way through the crowds for me, but they had to give up; and I didn’t know as I was going to get in at all. The people were everywhere; and, if they saw me starting for a place, they rushed there first, and stood shouting, hurrahing, and trying to shake my hand.” The President complained that he could not tolerate another large fair. Livermore and Hoge were determined to succeed. They informed their President that, if necessary, “ten thousand women from Chicago would descend on the White House to convince him to attend.” Meeting with the First Lady early in the day, Mrs. Lincoln remarked that she would like to attend the fair. To seal the deal, Livermore and Hoge told Lincoln: “We will charter a boat to take you out on Lake Michigan for a trip to Mackinaw, where the affectionate desire of the crowd to shake hands with you cannot be realized.” Admiring Livermore and Hoge, and the ladies of the Sanitary Commission – the President accepted their invitation. The New York Times reported on February 26, 1865 that President Lincoln would attend Chicago’s second fair and deliver the opening address. This would be the last time they would see their beloved President.

When Chicago’s second sanitary fair opened on May 30, an important element was missing, their most generous supporter – Abraham Lincoln. And although the fair was a success in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, the atmosphere was subdued – with mourning ribbons worn throughout. The sanitary fairs were the embodiment of Lincoln, both in symbolizing the Union and admiration for the soldiers. Gifts they bestowed on President Lincoln were a testament of their unwavering support.

– Martin C. Carlino

Editor’s Note: After contacting numerous institutions with Lincoln collections, we are still unable to locate any of the gifts presented to President Lincoln by the Sanitary Fairs. Our search will continue and we will post on our website any of the aforementioned gifts when located. There is the possibility these gifts were given away by Mary Lincoln following the assassination or were taken as souvenirs during the period before Mary and Tad left the White House.