Tag Archives: Martin Van Buren


An unparalleled offering of presidential commissions—from Thomas Jefferson to
Abraham Lincoln—covering the most significant career advances of Joseph G. Totten,
Chief Engineer of the U.S. Army, 
who fought with distinction in three wars.

This set of commissions, from an officer who served so long and contributed so much to American military preparedness in the run-up to the Civil War, is indeed a rare find.

Only Hyman Rickover, the “Father of the Nuclear Navy” served longer than Totten, at 63 years. General Winfield “Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott served 53 years, and generals such as Omar Bradley and Douglas MacArthur all served fewer than 50 years each.

Document Signed. Commission as 2nd Lieutenant of Engineers,
June 11, 1808. On vellum. 14¾ x 18 in.

Document Signed. Commission as 1st Lieutenant of Engineers,
March 9, 1811. On vellum. 15½ x 18 in.

Document Signed. Commission as Colonel of Engineers,
April 1, 1839. On vellum. 14 x 17¾ in.

Document Signed. Commission as Brevet Brigadier General,
August 23, 1848. On vellum. 14½ x 17 in.

Document Signed. Commission as Brigadier General of Engineers,
April 13, 1863. On vellum. 14¾ x 19½ in.

All in matching archival display frames. #23097.01-.05 The set: $48,000

Totten’s Career (with our commissions in bold)

In 1805, Joseph Gilbert Totten (1788-1864) of New Haven, Connecticut, graduated from West Point and was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. He resigned in 1806 to serve as secretary to the Surveyor General of the Northwest Territory. In 1808, Thomas Jefferson reappointed him to his former rank, which began his nearly 56 years of military service (55 years and 10 months, in addition to the 2 years he had already served).

Totten’s career in the Corps of Engineers spanned the development of the United States’ coastal defense program. He helped construct New York’s harbor defenses and supervised the construction of Fort Clinton in Castle Garden (now Battery Park), 1808-1812. James Madison promoted Totten to 1st lieutenant in 1811 just before the War of 1812.

Madison again promoted Totten, this time to captain, where he was supervising engineer for the fortification of Lake Champlain, the St. Lawrence River, and other coastal defenses. He served in operations on Lake Champlain, the Niagara and St. Lawrence Rivers, and the Great Lakes. He helped capture Fort George in Upper Canada (Ontario), repel the British Fleet on Lake Ontario, took part in the Battle of Plattsburg, and blew up the abandoned Fort Erie, also in Upper Canada. Still under Madison’s presidency, Totten was breveted major in 1813, and lieutenant colonel in 1814, for meritorious service and gallantry, respectively.Lincoln detailPGPresident James Monroe promoted Totten to major in 1818, and breveted Totten colonel in 1824. John Quincy Adams promoted Totten to lieutenant colonel in 1828. Between 1825 and 1838, Totten supervised the construction of Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island, (now the site of the world-famous Newport Jazz Festival).

In 1838, Martin Van Buren gave Totten one of his most important commissions to full colonel and Chief Engineer of the Army. Totten continued to build shore defenses and harbor works as well as with the drydocks at the Pensacola Navy Yard. Totten then served under General Winfield Scott at the Siege of Vera Cruz (1847) during the Mexican-American War. President Polk marked Totten’s advancement to a generalship when he awarded him the rank of brevet brigadier general for “gallant and meritorious conduct” in the battle.

Minot's Ledge Light

Minot’s Ledge Light

In 1851, he joined the lighthouse board and began reforming notoriously dangerous designs. His most notable design achievement was rebuilding Boston Harbor’s Minot’s Ledge Light, considered the “most wave-swept structure in North America,” after the first lighthouse was destroyed in spectacular fashion with the loss of both lighthouse keepers. Totten designed a granite-constructed tower, with its first forty feet serving as a massive anchor block attached to the ledge with iron pins and its own enormous weight. It took five years to construct (1855-1860) and stands to this day.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made the breveted rank permanent by promoting Totten to full brigadier general in 1863. As chief engineer of the army, Totten helped plan the defense of Washington, D.C., including construction of Fort Totten, now a D.C. neighborhood. Totten was breveted a major general for “long, faithful, and eminent services” on April 21, 1864, one day before he died.

Fort Totten-LoC-03723v-550px

100 lb. Parrott gun at Fort Totten in Washington, D.C., August 1865

In addition to his military achievements, Totten was a regent of the Smithsonian Institution, a Corporator of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Harbor Commissioner of both Boston and New York. Three forts bore his name: Fort Totten in Queens, New York, Washington, D.C., and North Dakota.

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Posted by on April 19, 2013 in General


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President’s Day


Regardless of their individual place in history, “President of the United States” is a very exclusive club. In honor of President’s Day, we are featuring inventory related to our greatest presidents as well as some presidents of more modest accomplishment. Be sure to see our signed portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt from his 1932 presidential campaign, an extremely rare William Henry Harrison document signed during his 30-day presidency, a Lincoln-signed military commission, a letter from Warren Harding praising America’s post World War I return to a peacetime economy, and a bronze plaque of Theodore Roosevelt featuring his famous “strenuous life” quotation.

All of these, and much more presidential material, can be found on our website,


John Adams Grants Two Tracts of Ohio Land to a Revolutionary War Veteran
Passed on June 1, 1796, An Act regulating the grants of Land appropriated for Military services, and for the society of the United Brethren propagating the gospel among the Heathen made accommodations to survey and sell land in the Northwest Territory. This particular act enabled the President to grant land in the Ohio Valley to former Continental Army soldiers for their service in the Revolutionary War.
#22734   $7,500


John Adams Agrees to Give Benjamin Franklin Guardianship Over a Boston Minister’s Grandson
The relationship between the United States and France takes a personal turn as Adams leaves a friend’s grandson in Franklin’s care.
#22884   $26,000


John Quincy Adams Signs a Patent for Improving Bellows
A handsome vellum patent document, signed by Adams as President, is accompanied by the inventor’s two-page description of his device.
#21830   $3,000

Andrew Jackson and the Fight for Florida
At the height of the U. S. diplomatic crisis with Spain over Florida, Old Hickory makes plans to return to combat in Florida while venting his rage against Treasury Secretary William H. Crawford.
#21944.99   $25,000

Van Buren Handles an Early Falklands Crisis
In this detailed letter, Martin Van Buren instructs the United States Chargé d’ Affairs to Buenos Aires to inquire into the Governor of the Falkland Islands’s warning U.S. fishing vessels to stay clear of valuable whaling and seal fisheries in the area.
#22216   $2,900


William Henry Harrison Signed as President—Extremely Rare
Harrison’s death from pneumonia after 3o days in office makes his tenure the shortest of all the presidents. Our current census finds fewer than 40 Harrison documents (including signed and unsigned letters, free franks, and clipped signatures) as president in any format, many of which are in permanent collections.
#22920   $145,000


Lincoln-Signed Military Commission
President Lincoln appoints Charles S. Stevenson of Indiana “Additional Paymaster” with this signed, vellum commission dated August 7, 1861.
#22382   $6,800

James Garfield Opposes “the Democratic Silver Scheme”
Congressman James Garfield writes to Samuel Ruggles, a New York lawyer, Canal Commissioner, and businessman regarding monetary policy. “We have thus far successfully resisted the Silver Scheme, but the Democrats renew the fight every day determined, if possible, to carry it through.
#22564.01   $1,500


Theodore Roosevelt Commissions a Captain
President Roosevelt  commissions John J. A. Clark as Captain in the Philippine Scouts, a group organized by the U.S. Army to combat the Philippine Revolution.
#22949   $1,500


Theodore Roosevelt’s “Doctrine of the Strenuous Life”: A Scarce Bronze Plaque Featuring One of His Most Famous Quotes
Roosevelt’s personal philosophy of life is cast in bronze under his profile portrait in bas relief, followed by a facsimile of his signature.
#22579   $1,750

Harding’s Return to Normalcy–and Isolationism–after World War I
Key political circular from the first-year Republican President, written to influence off-year elections in New Mexico and other places. Harding justifies, and praises, the rapid postwar dismantling of America’s military by Congress, while backhandedly criticizing the inattention of his predecessor—Woodrow Wilson—to the peacetime transition. “Vast expenditure without proper consideration for results, is the inevitable fruit of war.”
#21124   $2,600

Herbert Hoover Combats Starvation in Europe Before the U.S. Enters World War II
As honorary chairman of the National Committee on Food for the Small Democracies, the former president tries to rally support to aid the women, children, and destitute in those European nations affected by World War II and save them from the inevitable famine and pestilence that confronted them.
#22384   $750


Portrait of FDR, Signed and Inscribed by Roosevelt to Samuel Messer
This image of President Roosevelt was the official portrait for the 1932 campaign. It was drawn by Jacob H. Perskie, the photographer and portrait painter for FDR in the 1932 and 1936 presidential campaigns. It is inscribed to Samuel Messer was one of the largest stockholders of Quaker State Oil Refining Company.
#22467   $1,400

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Posted by on February 18, 2013 in General


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