It was days before Christmas 1863, and Abraham Lincoln wanted to offer an example of goodwill to the fractured nation in the midst of the Civil War.
The Craig family, cousins to Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd, were a slave-holding family in Arkansas who had fled their plantation as Union forces took over much of the state. But the Craigs were nearing the end of their lives and wished to return to their home for Christmas.
Despite the ongoing war — or perhaps because of it — Lincoln agreed. After meeting with the family, he wrote and signed a letter that they could use to safely move past Union forces and reoccupy their Arkansas plantation.
“Mr. and Mrs. Craig, of Arkansas, whose plantation, situated upon the Mississippi River a few miles below Helena, has been desolated during the present war, propose returning to reoccupy and cultivate said plantation,” Lincoln wrote in the letter.
“(And) it is my wish that they be permitted to do so, and that the United States military forces in that vicinity will not molest them or allow them to be molested, as long as the said Mr. and Mrs. Craig shall demean themselves as peaceful, loyal citizens of the United States.”
Lincoln’s original letter, long held by descendants of the Todd family, was recently given to The Raab Collection and put up for auction as a unique example of Lincoln’s broader attempts to reunify the country.
Nathan Raab, the president of the Raab Collection, said that the letter was more than just a gesture of kindness to his family. It showed Lincoln’s message of healing the nation — “malice toward none,” as he famously said in his second inaugural address — but within his own family.
“It’s uncommon to find something where a figure of such great prominence and historical importance is connecting so personally on such a national level,” Raab said. “You get a rare behind-the-scenes look and insight into how the war affected Lincoln himself.”
The question of how to deal with Confederacy supporters was particularly personal for Lincoln because Mary Todd Lincoln came from a wealthy slave-holding family. The letter also has a message about unity in a divided country that still resonates today, Raab said.
One purchaser clearly agreed. The Lincoln letter sold for $60,000 to an unnamed buyer from the Northwest US last week, Raab said.
As part of the agreement, the Craig family returned to farming on the plantation but without any slaves. Charley Craig, the husband, died shortly after returning, and Susan Craig died two years later, Raab said.
Still, their history will continue to live on more than 150 years later as a symbol of Lincoln’s approach to the Confederacy.
“(He) issues this remarkable order in what can only be described as a kind gesture toward his family, but which is symbolic of some of the broader things that he was doing in the nation to try and heal a country, which was being torn apart at the seams,” Raab said.