A Civil War Valentine

Creed A. Lay to his wife, c.1861-1864 (Gilder Lehrman Collection)During the Civil War, Creed A. Lay, serving in the 40th Regiment, Illinois Volunteers, sent this elaborately cut letter to his wife Sarah. Lay filled in the hearts with short, amusing rhymes about love and friendship, commonly written by friends in autograph albums: 

Let not your friendship be like the rose to sever: But, like the evergreen, may it last forever!

Except (sic) my friend these lines from me they show that I remember thee and hope some thought they will retain till you and I shall meet again.

Long may you live happy may you be when you get married come and see me.

There is a small and simple flower that twines around the humble cot and in the sad and lonely hour it whispers low forget me not.

Lay’s letter created some lighthearted amusement in the midst of war. Inside one heart he wrote, “pleas (sic) forgive me for writing so much nonsense here.”

Frederick Douglass Book Prize

On Tuesday, January 31, Jeff Forret, Professor of History, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas, received the 2016 Frederick Douglass Book Prize for Slave Against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South, in a ceremony at the Yale Club. The prize, awarded by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University, honors the best scholarly book on the subject of slavery or abolition. Slave Against Slave explores violence among enslaved people in the South prior to the Civil War and how these physical conflicts were affected by hierarchies within the slave community. In his remarks, Forret spoke of the importance of digging into historical documents with an open mind. “Ask uncomfortable questions,” he advised budding historians. “Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty in archives.”

Click through the slideshow below to see photos from the event! 


Happy Birthday, Aaron Burr!

Aaron Burr to Joseph Alston, July 20, 1804 (Gilder Lehrman Collection)Aaron Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey, on February 6, 1756. In many ways his career paralleled that of his rival Alexander Hamilton. They both served in the Continental Army, became lawyers and practiced in Albany and New York City, and had rising political careers in the 1790s. Burr suffered a defeat in his bid for the presidency in 1800 and his bid for governor of New York in 1804, for which he blamed Hamilton. Their rivalry ended in the infamous 1804 duel. What became of Burr in the aftermath of the duel in which he fatally wounded Hamilton?

On July 20, 1804, nine days after the duel, Burr wrote a cryptic letter to his son-in-law, Joseph Alston. In a time of uncertainty, Burr was weighing his options. Both a grand jury in New Jersey and the coroner’s jury in New York City were considering charges against him, and “the result will determine my movements,” Burr wrote. Burr enclosed with his brief letter a mysterious message to Charles Biddle, written in cipher. The message is most likely regarding Burr’s plot with General James Wilkinson to form a separate country in the western part of the United States.

National Freedom Day

National Freedom Day commemorates the date on which President Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional resolution proposing a Thirteenth Amendment—February 1, 1865. The amendment, ratified by the states on December 6 of that year, permanently abolished slavery in America. The road to abolishing slavery in America was a long and arduous one. In commemoration of the day, click the icons below to read about some of the men and women who contributed to the abolitionist movement: 

Frederick Douglass &
Black Abolitionists
Sojourner Truth &
Black Female Abolitionists
Sarah & Angelina Grimke
John Brown


John Adams on Slavery: On This Day, January 24, 1801

John Adams to George Churchman and Jacob Lindley, January 24, 1801. (Gilder LehrOn January 24, 1801, President John Adams responded to two abolitionists who had sent him an anti-slavery pamphlet by Quaker reformer Warner Mifflin (1745–1798). Adams writes that he is personally against slavery, noting that “never in my Life did I own a Slave”—but that abolition should be “gradual and accomplished with much caution and Circumspection.” In this his vision aligned with that of George Washington, who wrote privately to a fellow Virginia planter in 1786 that it was “among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in the Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptable degrees.”

John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: On This Day, January 20, 1961

John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, 1961, published as a poster, ca. 1970 (GildPresident John F. Kennedy was inaugurated on January 20, 1961. Elected in the midst of the Cold War, Kennedy focused his inaugural address on international politics and America’s place in the world. Kennedy appealed to both American citizens and people of other nations to come together in a struggle against “the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.” He closed his speech with the now famous words:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

For more on presidential address throughout American history, check out History Now 36: “Great Inaugural Addresses.”


Civil War Essay Contest: Deadline Approaching

2016 Civil War Essay Contest Winners at the Lincoln PrizeMiddle and high school students with a passion for the Civil War can flex their writing and research skills by submitting an entry to the Civil War Essay Contest. Students have the opportunity to explore a Civil War topic of their choice and use secondary and primary sources (including letters, speeches, songs, photographs, newspapers, and military orders) to create an original scholarly essay.

In addition to prizes for the winning entries, the top essay writer from each school will receive a Gilder Lehrman publication, and both the school with the highest average judges’ score (minimum 10 entries) and the school with the greatest number of entries will receive a special certificate and a pack of materials. The deadline for submissions is February 27, 2017.

Click here to learn more about the contest and to submit an entry!


Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Today we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s immense contributions to civil rights and social justice. One of the most enduring images of the civil rights movement is Dr. King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. In this video, join Stanford University professor Clayborne Carson as he recalls the events of August 28, 1963, and explores the legacy of that iconic gathering: 

Read more about the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the Major Events and Legacies of the Civil Rights Movement.

A Jamestown Settler Describes Life in Virginia: On This Day, January 13, 1622

Sebastian Brandt to Henry Hovener, January 13, 1622. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)In 1622, colonist Sebastian Brandt wrote a letter to a merchant in London, seeking supplies and assistance. Brandt had arrived in Jamestown intending to scour the land for precious minerals such as gold, silver, and copper. But he was impeded by the deaths of his wife and brother, his own illness, and a lack of supplies. He asks Henry Hovener to send him a long list of necessities. including a bed, clothing, shoes, cutlery, cheese, spices, “cullerd beads” to trade with Native Americans, and a strong young man to assist him in mining. Though he lacks money and gold, he assures Hovener that he can pay the Virginia Company back with “Tobacco Bevor and Otterskins.”

The letter stands as eyewitness testimony to the many hardships facing migrants who traveled to Virginia to seek their fortunes. Brandt most likely never found his fortune. He does not appear in any known existing official records, and he likely died not long after writing this letter. 

Happy Birthday, Alexander Hamilton!

Alexander Hamilton was born on January 11—in 1755 or 1757—in Nevis, a small island in the Caribbean. Hamilton left an immense legacy as the first secretary of the treasury and architect of the American financial system. But what of Hamilton the man?

Hamilton’s amorous side is revealed in an intimate letter to his fiancée, Elizabeth Schuyler.

Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler, October 5, 1780 (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

Writing in the midst of the American Revolution, while serving as George Washington’s aide, Hamilton declares, “I meet you in every dream . . . ’Tis a pretty story indeed that I am to be thus monopolized, by a little nut-brown maid like you and from a statesman and a soldier metamorphosed into a puny lover.”

The two were married on December 14, 1780. With this marriage, Hamilton joined one of the wealthiest, most socially prominent families in New York, and Elizabeth Schuyler became to wife of a man widely recognized as a brilliant and patriotic rising star.

Read the full transcript of the letter here.

You can explore other Gilder Lehrman resources on Alexander Hamilton here.

SAT US History Exam

The SAT US History Exam is only two weeks away, on January 21! Forty percent of the exam will focus on the momentous events and changes of the twentieth century. Prepare by reviewing the prewar, postwar, and present-day eras, or view the entire SAT II Study Guide here


New York Stock Exchange Opens First Headquarters: On This Day, January 4, 1865

The New York Stock Exchange, 1885. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)On January 4, 1865, the New York Stock Exchange opened for business in its first permanent headquarters on Broad Street.

The Exchange had formally existed since 1792, but had operated out of a series of packed Wall Street coffee-houses and rented offices. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the need for a more permanent exchange became clear: the opening of the Erie Canal saw New York City rise to prominence as the nation’s financial center, while a surge in American enterprise and the invention of telegraphs, tickers, and transatlantic cables greatly increased trading capacity. After the opening of the first building, the NYSE would only continue to grow—by 1886, more than a million shares a day were being traded!

To learn more about the history of America’s economic system, explore History Now 24: Shaping the American Economy.

George Washington Writes from Valley Forge: On This Day, December 29, 1777

George Washington to the legislature of New Hampshire, December 29, 1777. (Gilder Lehrman Institute)On December 29, 1777, badly in need of more supplies and troops, George Washington wrote to the New Hampshire legislature pleading for assistance. He describes the desperate state of the 9,000 Continental Army troops camped for the winter in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, counting many ill or wounded and noting that least one-third were braving the cold barefoot and without proper clothing. Washington sent a version of this letter to every state legislature, with the exception of Georgia.

In the six months the Continental Army was camped in Valley Forge, two thousand died from cold, hunger, and disease, while the survivors emerged as hardened and disciplined soldiers. 

Read a transcript of Washington’s letter here.

WWI Project Deadline Fast Approaching

The deadline for the WWI and America Project is January 13, 2017, in just three weeks!

Public, academic, and community college libraries have the opportunity to join institutions across the country in commemorating the 100th anniversary of America entering World War I by receiving a programming grant and a dynamic Gilder Lehrman traveling exhibition.

Apply to the program, a partnership with the NEH and The Library of America, or discover WWI programs being held in your state.

Professional Development through the Gilder Lehrman Institute

We’re excited to announce that the Gilder Lehrman Institute is now a registered provider of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) in Texas!

Educators can obtain CPE hours through a variety of programs: online Self-Paced Courses, Teaching Literacy through History workshops, and summer Teacher Seminars—which are now open for applications.

We are currently in the process of becoming a registered professional development provider in all 50 states in order to make it easier for teachers to obtain professional development credit for our programs. If you would be interested in seeing the Gilder Lehrman Institute become an official provider in your state, or have any insight, comments, or experience with statewide professional development approval, please let us know by emailing pd@gilderlehrman.org.

South Carolina Secedes from the Union: On This Day, December 20, 1860

Charleston Mercury, The Union Is Dissolved, December 20, 1860 (Gilder Lehrman CoOn December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first Southern state to secede from the Union. Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 set the wheels of secession in motion. Many Southerners were convinced that the new president and his Republican Party would take federal action against slavery.

This broadside, printed by the Charleston Mercury, announced that South Carolina, by unanimous vote, would repeal the US Constitution and that “the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of ‘The United States of America,’ is hereby dissolved.”

Eventually, ten other states would follow South Carolina’s example and form the Confederacy. Read about the conflicts that culminated in secession and war, and view a talk by University of Richmond professor Edward L. Ayers on the bitter divide between neighbors that led to the Civil War.

Bill of Rights Ratified: December 15, 1791

Proposed 12 amendments printed in the Journal of the First Session of the SenatePassed by Congress in September 1789, the Bill of Rights was officially ratified on December 15, 1791, when Virginia became the tenth state (out of fourteen) to approve ten of the twelve proposed amendments. These ten amendments to the Constitution protect individual liberties from the power of the federal government; guarantee freedom of speech, press, religion, petition, and assembly; and specify the rights of the accused in criminal and civil cases.

Explore some of the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s teaching resources for introducing the Bill of Rights in the classroom: 

Battle of Fredericksburg: On This Day, 1862

The first Battle of Fredericksburg, fought December 11–15, 1862, has the distinction of being the largest Civil War battle, with a staggering total of 173,000 combatants. On December 11, Union troops came under heavy fire as they built bridges across the Rappahannock River. They crossed into the town of Fredericksburg the next day and clashed with Confederate troops, making this the first urban battle of the war. On December 13, 1862, Union troops led by General Ambrose Burnside faced off against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces at Marye’s Heights on the outskirts of Fredericksburg. After two days of fighting, the battle ended in a Confederate victory. Union forces would return in May 1863, defeating the Confederates and gaining control of the town in the Second Battle of Fredericksburg.

Read “Fredericksburg, Then and Now,” to learn how a student who grew up in Fredericksburg learned to appreciate her community’s place in history and, below, take a peek at several Gilder Lehrman Collection photographs and documents from the First and Second Battles of Fredericksburg.

Do you know a student with a passion for the Civil War? Gilder Lehrman is currently accepting entries for the Civil War Essay Contest from students in grades 6–12.


Attack on Pearl Harbor: On This Day, 1941

USS West Virginia & USS Tennessee enveloped in clouds of smoke from USS ArizonaSeventy-five years ago, shortly before 8 a.m. on Sunday, December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack against US armed forces in Hawaii. Japanese pilots targeted Army, Navy, and Marine airfields, followed by naval ships at Pearl Harbor, with the aim of devastating the entire US Pacific fleet.

The two-hour attack left 2,403 Americans dead and 1,178 injured, and was followed by a formal declaration of war against the United States. On December 8, after a nearly unanimous vote by Congress, the US formally declared war on Japan.

This interactive story map uses a timeline and photographs, documents, and letters to provide a full visual of the attack from both an American and Japanese perspective. Launch a larger version of the storymap in a new window here.

Click here to learn how to create your own interactive storymap, and discover more Gilder Lehrman resources related to the attack on Pearl Harbor and US involvement in World War II here.

Jeff Forret Wins 18th Annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize

Congratulations to Lamar University history professor Jeff Forret, who has been selected as the winner of the 2016 Frederick Douglass Book Prize for his book Slave Against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South (Louisiana State University Press). Forret’s book explores the physical conflicts between enslaved people in the American South prior to the Civil War. Using a variety of historical documents, Forret sheds light on the complex dynamics, value systems, and social relationships that existed among enslaved people. Forret will recieve a $25,000 prize at a ceremony in his honor on January 31, 2017. Learn more about Forret’s book and the 2016 book prize here

The Frederick Douglass Book Prize, created jointly by the Gilder Lehrman Institute and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University’s MacMillan Center, is awarded annually for the best book written in English on slavery or abolition.