Monthly Archives: December 2012

William David Porter’s Commission as Commander in the Navy


On December 27, 1858 President James Buchanan signed the military commission of William David Porter appointing him Commander in the Navy. Porter was the third brother of a famous naval family. His father, Commodore David Porter, gained fame as captain of the U.S.S. Constitution and later the U.S.S. Essex during the War of 1812. His more famous younger brother, David Dixon Porter, was an admiral during the Civil War and later superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. His adopted brother, David Farragut, also rose to the rank of admiral.

William shipped out at 12 years of age on the U.S.S. Franklin, served as lighthouse inspector, and later as ordnance officer at the Washington Navy Yard. He helped develop explosive shells and, from the mid-1840s through 1855, outfitted steamers and commanded supply vessels. He retired in 1855, but at the end of 1858, President James Buchanan promoted him with this commission to commander of the sloop-of-war St. Mary’s in the Pacific.

At the outset of the Civil War, he was reassigned to assist Andrew Foote in creating the Western Flotilla to control the Mississippi River. Porter patrolled the river and engaged Confederate gunboats aboard the U.S.S. Essex, named after his father’s vessel. He was injured when the Essex’s boilers were hit during the attack on Fort Henry, Tennessee, on February 6, 1862. He supervised the vessel’s reconstruction, as well as the construction of Union ironclads, and eventually rejoined the Western Flotilla. In July 1862, he engaged the ironclad C.S.S. Arkansas and narrowly escaped capture after running aground. A month later, the Essex succeeded in destroying the Arkansas. Porter then participated in the bombardment of Natchez, Mississippi, in September 1862. Returning to New Orleans, he was promoted to the rank of commodore and reassigned to New York, where he died in May 1864.

See this beautifully engraved vellum document, signed 154 years ago today . . .

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Posted by on December 27, 2012 in General


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“Washington is no more!”


213 years ago today, citizens of Providence, Rhode Island, learned that George Washington had died. The newspaper United States Chronicle published a black-bordered mourning edition with President John Adams’s announcement:

“It has pleased Divine Providence to remove from this life, our excellent Fellow Citizen, George Washington, by the purity of his character, and a long series of services to his country, rendered illustrious through the world. It remains for an affectionate and grateful people, in whose hearts he can never die, to pay suitable honor to his memory.”

Resolutions of Congress printed in the same issue discuss how to honor the man who was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his fellow-citizens” That famous phrase was apparently coined by the author of the resolutions, Colonel Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, although it is often mistakenly attributed to John Marshall who was assigned to present them to the House in place of the absent Lee.

The end of Lee’s immortal phrase appears to be misquoted here (“his fellow-citizens” instead of “his countrymen”) but even contemporary sources do not agree on the exact wording; some end the quotation with “his country.” Whatever the case, Lee delivered his famous Eulogy on Washington, which reiterated the lines, in Philadelphia on the same day that this newspaper was published.

The slowness of communication at the end of the 18th century is evidenced by the fact that Washington died on December 14, but news didn’t reach readers of this newspaper for nearly two weeks.

See this rare newspaper, published 213 years ago today . . .

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Posted by on December 26, 2012 in General


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Washington Crossing the Delaware


Late December 1776 found the American Army ragged and demoralized, having been chased out of New York and New Jersey by the British. With the majority of the militia’s period of service about to expire on the 31st, Washington took the bold step of planning an offensive. The army crossed the Delaware on the night of December 25, 1776, at McKonkey’s Ferry, PA, under cover of fierce weather and water swollen by ice flows. At dawn the next morning they took the Hessians by surprise at Trenton. January 2, 1777 saw another American victory at Trenton and one at Princeton the following day, giving a huge morale boost to the American cause.

Leutze’s magnificent painting of Washington crossing the Delaware was sold to Mssrs. Goupil in 1851, almost as soon as he began painting it. In September 1851 the finished oil was brought to New York and exhibited at the Stuyvesant Institute and Goupil began accepting subscriptions for an engraved version—at that point the largest line engraving ever printed (38¼ x 22¼ in.).

Goupil’s prospectus offered four versions of the print: print impressions on plain paper for fifteen dollars; print impressions on India paper (as here) for twenty dollars; and proofs before letters on plain or India paper, for thirty and forty dollars respectively. Coloring was also offered as an option, but not priced. Three years later Goupil published a smaller version.

The image was so ubiquitous that Mark Twain commented sardonically upon its presence over countless mantlepieces in Life on the Mississippi. Despite this, it has become difficult to find nice copies of this print in any size, with India paper copies such as ours quite rare, and those labeled “Subscribers copy” almost non-existent.

Read more about this iconic image.

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Posted by on December 25, 2012 in General


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The Moore Things Change


Cover of an edition published in 1888 by McLoughlin Bros.

Cover of an edition published in 1888 by McLoughlin Bros.

Though long acknowledged as the author of A Visit from St. Nicholas (The Night Before Christmas), author Clement C. Moore’s claim to immortality has been questioned by partisans who believe that Henry Livingston, Jr. should be credited for the classic Christmas verse.

As someone who once owned the only manuscript copy of the poem in private hands—the other three are in museums—I took a personal as well as professional interest in the controversy. My article for the Winter 2004 issue of the New-York Journal of American History “The Moore Things Change” completely discredited the Livingston camp.

Since the controversy still lingers on Wikipedia and elsewhere I’ve published an expanded version of the article that you can find here.

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Posted by on December 24, 2012 in General


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Great Gifts, FDR, and Lincoln


Great Gifts
Just in time for the holidays, we’ve selected a gift-worthy group of historic documents, maps, signed books, prints, and more! With prices ranging from less than $150 to more than $35,000, there’s something for anyone with a passion for history.

Franklin & Eleanor
The new film, Hyde Park on the Hudson, inspired us to update our list of Roosevelt-related signed documents and artifacts. Here, we offer a group of items ranging from a large signed wartime photograph of FDR to an important letter in which the First Lady defends her advocacy of civil rights. (If you’ve seen The Help, you will want to read this letter).

Collecting Lincoln
Since Abraham Lincoln is one of our specialties, we’ve noticed interest from first-time collectors sparked by Steven Spielberg’s magnificent film, Lincoln. For this online catalog, we’ve chosen items from our large collection of Lincoln and Civil War material that include everything from inexpensive issues of Harper’s Weekly and Currier & Ives political cartoons to unique original Lincoln letters, signed documents, and artifacts—even the chair in which he was sitting when he first learned he had received the Republican nomination for the presidency.

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Posted by on December 7, 2012 in General


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