Discoveries from the Vault

Robert E. Lee writes about friends and “the daughters of Eve” at Fort Monroe, 1834

Robert E. Lee to John MacKay, June 26, 1834. (The Gilder Lehrman Institute)

This gossipy and personal letter captures the close friendship between Robert E. Lee and John “Jack” MacKay. It offers an example of letter writing in the days before the instant communication provided by telephones and the Internet. It also demonstrates the camaraderie and easy-going friendship of army officers as well as the relatively carefree life enjoyed by US soldiers prior to the Civil War. It serves as a reminder that even the greatest of historical figures were human and spoke of girls, babies, and “blushing.”

Robert E. Lee’s condolence letter to his son Rooney, 1864

Robert E. Lee to William F. Lee, April 24, 1864. (Gilder Lehrman Collection, GLC

In this beautifully written letter, Confederate general Robert E. Lee attempts to console his son William Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee on the loss of his wife. The letter demonstrates the emotion that Lee felt for his family and offers a glimpse of the strength that carried Lee through the war. His faith in God, his empathy for others’ misfortunes, and his belief in the Confederate cause, all granted Lee the fortitude he needed to endure the war. One can see all of these attributes in this single, short missive.

Playing ball for the troops: Yankees/Dodgers/Giants exhibition benefit game, 1943

[Unused ticket, Yankees-Giants-Dodgers Double Header], April 14, 1943 (GLC09414)

There’s no denying the important role that baseball has played in America’s past. It has always been considered more than a game, whether played by professional athletes or kids at the sandlot. This was never more obvious than during World War II. By 1943, the war was raging in Europe and the Pacific. American mothers and fathers sent their sons to war and those who stayed home made whatever sacrifices they could, great or small.

Former slave, Doctor Cuffee Wells, 1781

Benjamin Huntington, Certifies Cuffee Wells’s purchase of freedom, April 30, 178

Sometimes a simple document can open the door to a great story. In this statement dated 1781, Richard Lamb and John Nutter verify that Cuffee Wells enlisted in the Continental Army in May 1777 and earned a bounty of 30 pounds, part of which was given to his master. Likewise, Justice of the Peace Benjamin Huntington confirmed that Cuffee’s commanding officer, Captain Jedediah Hyde of Norwich, “always understood that the money that was given to Wells at his Enlistment Purchased his Freedom.” It is not clear why this document was created.

Martha Washington: First Lady’s grandchildren were her top priority

Martha Washington to Frances B. Washington, June 8, 1789. (Gilder Lehrman Co

On April 30, 1789, George Washington was sworn in as our nation’s first president. His wife, Martha Washington, was not at his side. Washington had only received the election results two weeks earlier, on April 14, when Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson arrived at Mount Vernon to notify Washington. He left for the temporary national capital, New York City, two days later and arrived on April 23. He traveled through six states, attending celebrations in cities and towns along the route and being greeted by thousands of citizens who lined the roads.

New World War II acquisition: Pearl Harbor patriotic poster from 1942

Remember Dec. 7th, Office of War Information, 1942. (The Gilder Lehrman Collecti

Following the Japanese bombardment of the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan and Germany and immediately mobilized the country for war. “Remember Dec. 7th!” is a propaganda poster intended to promote a sense of nationalism and boost support for the war effort.

The Emancipation Proclamation: Raising money for sick and wounded soldiers

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, 1864. (The Gilder Lehrman

The Emancipation Proclamation stands as the single most important accomplishment of Lincoln’s presidency. The preliminary proclamation, announced on September 22, 1862, served as a warning for Southern states that if they did not abandon the war, they would lose their slaves. More important, it was the first step toward the official abolition of slavery in the United States.

Select images from the American Civil War

Confederate Prisoners at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1863. (GLC03029.08)

In October 1862, Mathew Brady opened a photography exhibition at his studio in New York City. Entitled The Dead of Antietam, the exhibition attracted large crowds and brought the war home in a way that news articles and casualty listings could not. On October 20, 1862, an editorial in the New York Times explained that “the dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams.

Food Conservation during WWI: “Food Will Win the War”

“Food Will Win the War,” US Food Administration, ca. 1918. (GLC09522)

When most people think of wartime food rationing they often think of World War II. However, civilians were encouraged to do their part for the war effort during World War I as well. This colorful poster by artist Charles E. Chambers was issued by the United States Food Administration to encourage voluntary food conservation. “Food Will Win the War” was the name of the campaign initiated by the newly appointed head of the agency, Herbert Hoover.

Patriotic Verse in a Schoolboy’s Math Book during the Revolutionary War

Poem written in John Barstow's math book, circa 1777. (Gilder Lehrman Collection

Between the pages of his math exercise book John Barstow jotted down a patriotic tune called “The Amaricans Challing” on January 2, 1777. Carefully written in a youth’s unsteady hand, the text appears to be a transcript of a popular camp song from the Revolutionary era. How this declaration of patriotism found its way into Barstow’s math lessons is unknown.

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