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President Lincoln Attempts to Resolve Issue With Illinois Railroad Vital for the Wartime Transportation of Troops; in 1857, Lawyer Lincoln had Successfully Sued the Same Company!

An important 2pp autograph letter signed by 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) as “A. Lincoln” at the center of the second page. Inscribed front and verso on “Executive Mansion, Washington” stationery, May 23, 1863. Addressed to U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (1814-1869). Expected light paper folds, else in near fine condition. 7.75” x 9.75.” Accompanied by a portion of the original transmittal wrapper inscribed and signed by Stanton as "Referred to the / Quarter Master / General for / report / Edwin M Stanton / May 29th / Presidents [sic] letter in / relation to the / Illinois R Road." Docketed below. Mounting traces verso, else near fine. 3.5" x 7.75."

President Lincoln wrote Secretary of War Stanton: “In order to construct the Illinois Central Railroad, a large grant of land was made by the United States to the State of Illinois, which land was again given to the Railroad Company by the State, in certain provisions of the Charter. By the U.S. grant, certain previleges [sic] were attempted to be secured from the contemplated Railroad to the U.S., and by the Charter certain per centage of the income of the road was to be from time to time paid to the State of Illinois. At the beginning of the present war the Railroad did certain carrying for the U.S. for which it claims pay; and, as I understand, the U.S. claims that at least part of this the road was bound to do without pay. Though attempts have been made to settle the matter, it remains unsettled; meanwhile the Road refuses to pay the per-centage to the State. This delay is working badly; and I understand the delay exists because of there being no definite decision whether the U.S. will settle its own account with the Railroad, or will allow the State to settle it, & account to the State for it. If I had the leisure which I have not, I believe I could settle it; but prima facie it appears to me we better settle the account ourselves, because that will save us all question as to whether the State deals fairly with us in the settlement of our account with a third party – the R.R. I wish you would see Mr. Butler, late our State Treasurer, and see if something definite can not be done in the case.”

It is not known if Secretary of War Stanton met with Lincoln’s old friend William Butler (1797-1876) who had first met Lincoln when he was Clerk of the Sangamon County Circuit Court (1836-1841) and Lincoln was a circuit lawyer. Butler later served as Illinois State Treasurer (1859-1862).

Secretary of War Stanton referred President Lincoln’s letter to Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs “for report” on May 29th. Meigs wrote to Major General Lewis B. Parsons, Chief of Railroad and River Transportation for the Department of the Mississippi. On June 3, 1863, Meigs instructed the Chief Quartermaster, Colonel Robert Allen of the Department of the West at St. Louis, to settle all accounts with the railroad prior to May 3, 1862.

The Illinois Central Railroad Company was chartered by the State of Illinois in 1851. On September 21, 1856, it completed the building of its 705 mile-long railroad which was, at the time, the longest railroad in the United States. It was the first land grant railroad in the United States. Lincoln had a long prior relationship with the Illinois Central Railroad. Although not a member of the state legislature, he participated in the struggle over the passage of the railroad’s charter. In the 1850s, Lincoln represented the Illinois Central in 45 cases, mostly as defense attorney.

The State of Illinois had granted the railroad an exemption for all state taxes on the condition that it pay an annual “charter tax.” Mason Brayman of the Illinois Central retained Lincoln’s services with a $250 check. According to LawPracticeofAbrahamLincoln.org, “The Illinois Central Railroad owned 118 acres of land in McLean County, Illinois. The county assessor levied a $428.57 tax on the railroad’s property. The railroad claimed that the General Assembly act incorporating the railroad exempted the railroad from taxes. The railroad retained Lincoln and sued McLean County for an injunction to stop the county from selling railroad land to pay taxes. The parties reached an agreement, in which the court would dismiss the bill, thus ruling for McLean County, and the railroad would appeal the case to the Illinois Supreme Court, where the only question would be whether the county had a lawful right to tax the Illinois Central Railroad property. Lincoln continued to represent the railroad. The Supreme Court reversed the judgment. [On January 16, 1856,] Justice Scates ruled that the legislature could exempt property from taxation. Therefore, the charter of the Illinois Central Railroad was constitutional.” Lincoln received $200 for his services in both courts. After consulting with fellow attorneys, Lincoln told the railroad he deserved more.

According to LawPracticeofAbrahamLincoln.org, in April 1857, “Lincoln sued the Illinois Central Railroad to collect his fee from the famous McLean County Tax Case (Illinois Central RR v. McLean County, Illinois & Parke). He sought $6,000 in damages. Lincoln refuted the railroad’s claim that the fee was exorbitant, and the jury awarded him $5,000. Five days later, the jury corrected the amount to $4,800 because the railroad had previously paid Lincoln $200. The court also allowed the railroad to appeal to the supreme court within thirty days, but the railroad did not appeal.” Mason Brayman represented the railroad. The decision was rendered on June 23, 1857. Lincoln continued to represent the Illinois Central Railroad until 1860.

Now, in 1863, President Lincoln tells his Secretary of War that the Illinois Central claims that at “the beginning of the present war the Railroad did certain carrying for the U.S. for which it claims pay” and that “the U.S. claims that at least part of this the road was bound to do without pay...” In addition, “by the Charter certain per centage of the income of the road was to be from time to time paid to the State of Illinois ... the Road refuses to pay the per-centage to the State ... because of there being no definite decision whether the U.S. will settle its own account with the Railroad, or will allow the State to settle it, & account to the State for it...”

Thomas Walker in “The Northern Railroads in the Civil War, 1861-1865” writes, “In April 1861, a military force of 8,000 to 9,000 troops was concentrated at Cairo, and the [Illinois Central] railroad for 253 miles south of the Terre Haute and Alton was used chiefly for transportation of troops and stores ... The government paid cheap rates in return for the land grants originally made to aid in the building of the railroad. Since the actual cost of operating the troop trains was 1.8¢ a mile, the return of 1.3¢ made the business a losing proposition and took away potential profits from local traffic ... The passenger cars of the Illinois Central were not in first class condition in 1861, and troops proved to be a severe hardship on the passenger cars ... The Illinois Central ... moved 556,421 troops in the years 1862 to 1865...”

President Lincoln did not like the delay in settling the matter, noting “the delay is working badly,” ostensibly impeding the movement of troops, so he wrote this letter to his Secretary of War. Lincoln knew he could end the impasse and also knew that the Illinois Central was well aware that he could. After all, he had defended and prosecuted cases for the railroad as a lawyer for eight years and had won a lawsuit against them just six years earlier. Now he was the President of the United States. But he had more important matters to deal with. On the day he wrote this letter, Saturday, May 23, 1863, Lincoln met with Secretary of War Stanton, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox, and General Henry W. Halleck, Commanding General of the Army, at the War Department, regarding an attack on Charleston, South Carolina, so, in this letter, he tells Stanton, “If I had the leisure which I have not, I believe I could settle it ... See if something definite can not be done in this case.”

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.

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