Toward the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln sent a rebel prisoner home to his uncle with a presidential photo and a letter, believed to be the only time he wrote to a Confederate official during the war.
The letter and Lincoln photo, taken by Civil War chronicler Matthew Brady, was recently sold to the University of Georgia by the descendants of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens.
In the Feb. 10, 1865, note, Lincoln wrote to Stephens:
“According to our agreement your nephew, Lieut. Stephens, goes to you bearing this note. Please, in return, to select and send me that officer of the same rank imprisoned at Richmond whose physical condition most urgently requires his release.”
Lincoln and Stephens were not just political leaders of the North and South.
They were friends and allies in the old Whig Party, serving in Congress together before the war forced them to choose sides.
Stephens opposed secession, but remained loyal to his home state of Georgia when the South broke away.
Stephens’ descendants say when Lincoln handed over the photo to the nephew of his friend, he remarked, “I don’t think there’ll be many of those down South.”
The photo’s story is unique, said Willis Van de Vanter, a Maryland historical appraiser.
“Probably, this is the only extant photo of Lincoln given to a Confederate solder. It’s an amazing story,” he said. “When I consulted with other appraisers, you could hear the gasps on the telephone.”
The prisoner exchange took place a week after Lincoln and Stephens met on a boat in Chesapeake Bay in a failed attempt to end the war.
Two months afterward, on April 9, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Va. Five days later Lincoln was assassinated.
The Lincoln letter was framed and hung for decades in the Stephens family home.
Alexander Stephens’ great-nephew, former U.S. Rep. Robert G. Stephens Jr. of Georgia, sold the letter and photo, along with other wartime letters, for an undisclosed sum far below the collection’s worth, said Chantel Dunham, program coordinator of the university libraries.
“The thing it shows us about Lincoln is that he bore no malice to anyone,” Van de Vanter said. “Lincoln had nothing to gain by it, except maybe good will.”