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November 22, 2022

Abraham Lincoln's Presentation Carbine to Rep. John Crittenden

By Seth Isaacson

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A Burnside carbine presented by Abraham Lincoln to Kentucky Congressman John Jordan Crittenden points to the important political bond shared by the two men as they worked together to save the Union.

As much a gift of consolation as a symbol of Lincoln's continued faith in Crittenden, this rare Second Model Burnside symbolizes the partnership between two men critical to navigating the Union through the Civil War.

A silver oval presentation plaque on the right side of the stock reads: "Presented to the/Hon. J.J. Crittenden by A. Lincoln/President of the United States/As a testimony of affectionate regard/for his long and patriotic Services/to which a grateful people bear/willing testimony/Feby 1st 1862." This fascinating carbine remained the property of American statesman John Jordan Crittenden's family until 1992 when it was sold by Jane Crittenden Harris after being displayed for several years at the Kentucky Military History Museum. This historically significant firearm, with direct ties to one of the United States’ greatest presidents as well as a Congressional ally and friend at a critical juncture in the nation’s history is available in Rock Island Auction Company’s Dec. 9-11 Premier Auction.

President Abraham Lincoln, left, saw the importance of the border states like Kentucky in preserving the union and found an ally in Kentucky Congressman John Jordan Crittenden, right. Lincoln presented Crittenden with a Second Model Burnside carbine for service to the country and loyalty to the Union.

Secession and the Border States

When Lincoln took office, the secession crisis was already well under way, and secessionist forces had already begun seizing federal property in the South, including military forts, but many of the slave states remained in the Union. Virginia, later home to the Confederate capital and home state of Confederate General Robert E. Lee remained in the Union. Lee was still a general in the U.S. Army, and Lincoln actually offered Lee the job of leading the Union forces. The situation was tense. Lincoln sought to avoid the outbreak of the Civil War, but he also refused to allow more forts to fall into Confederate hands. He maneuvered carefully to resupply Fort Sumter without taking offensive action. He understandably feared that perceived aggression by the federal government could push more states to secede.

The shelling of Fort Sumter by Confederate forces under General P.T.G. Beauregard on orders from President Jefferson Davis changed the situation from a political crisis to war. The South had fired first, and now Lincoln was forced to act to end open rebellion. Lincoln called on 75,000 volunteers from the remaining states. This in turn led to more southerners supporting secession and thus the Confederacy. Virginia, which had previously voted overwhelmingly to remain in the Union, quickly seceded, and Robert E. Lee resigned from the U.S. Army and joined the Confederacy in support of his home state.

This Second Model Burnside carbine was presented by President Abraham Lincoln to Kentucky Congressman John Jordan Crittenden in 1862. A plaque on the stock reads "Presented to the/Hon. J.J. Crittenden by A. Lincoln/President of the United States/As a testimony of affectionate regard/for his long and patriotic Services/to which a grateful people bear/willing testimony/Feby 1st 1862."

While Lincoln had to act following the attack on Fort Sumter, he continued to maneuver carefully lest he push the remaining slave states out of the Union and into the Confederacy. Nonetheless, in addition to Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee soon seceded. Because the Civil War is generally discussed as North vs South, Free States vs Slave States, all too often the Border States get left out of the discussion, but they were high on President Abraham Lincoln’s mind when he entered the White House in 1861 and following the fall of Fort Sumter

The governors of Missouri and Kentucky refused to provide men for the Union effort but remained in the Union. Delaware and Maryland also remained in the Union. Missouri descended into its own internal conflict between Unionist and pro-Confederate forces but formally remained part of the Union for the duration of the war. What was to become of Kentucky? No man was more crucial to keeping the Border States in the Union than John Jordan Crittenden of Kentucky.

Who was John Jordan Crittenden?

By the time of the Civil War, John Jordan Crittenden Jr. (1787-1863) was one of the most distinguished men in Congress and one of the most powerful men in the Border States. Abraham Lincoln had long had connections to Crittenden and Kentucky. The Bluegrass State was Lincoln’s birth state though his family had moved to Illinois when he was a boy. His wife, Marry Todd, was also a Kentuckian by birth and had strong roots within the state. Her father, Robert Smith Todd, who died in 1849, had been a fellow Whig and close friend of Crittenden. Lincoln himself had known Crittenden for many years, but their political paths had diverged with the dissolution of the Whig party. Many saw Crittenden as the political heir to Kentucky’s most famous Whig leader: Henry Clay. Crittenden hoped for a compromise on slavery that might to keep the country together right up to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Like Lincoln, Crittenden had started his career as a lawyer before moving into politics. He had been the territorial attorney general of Illinois back in 1809-1810 while Lincoln was an infant in a small log cabin in Kentucky. He then served in the Kentucky legislature during the War of 1812 and then in the U.S. Senate off and on until 1861. He briefly served as U.S. attorney general under William Henry Harrison, as governor of Kentucky in 1848 to 1850, and as U.S. attorney general under Millard Fillmore from 1850 to 1853. After the collapse of the Whigs following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Crittenden remained committed to preserving the Union through compromise.

Crittenden created and led the Constitutional Union Party. In the election of 1860, the party wanted to run Crittenden for president, but he declined, so they ran John Bell of Tennessee against Lincoln, while Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, and Southern Democrat John C. Breckenridge also challenged for the presidency. Though Bell received the smallest share of the vote nationally, he carried the Border States of Kentucky and Tennessee and even Virginia by just a hair, demonstrating the power of Crittenden and his political allies in the Upper South.

President Abraham Lincoln realized the importance of having border state allies as a way to preserve the union. He presented a Second Model Burnside carbine to Kentucky Congressman John Jordan Crittenden during the Civil War. Crittenden had a long, distinguished career serving the United State and his state was a key to preserving the Union.

When Abraham Lincoln won in 1860 and the slave states of the Deep South prepared to secede, Crittenden worked on his most famous attempt to hold the nation together: the Crittenden Compromise. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in a speech about Crittenden stated he “did literally all he could to try avoid this great national conflagration” and noted that he had “tried to repair the cracks between the North and South” and was believed by many at the time to be the only one who could find a solution to hold the country together.

He hoped to preserve the Union as had been done since the early days of the republic by finding a compromise that protected slavery but also limited its expansion. Himself a slave owner, he sought constitutional amendments that would guarantee the federal government could not interfere with slavery in the South and also provisions limiting the expansion of slavery to below the 36°30' parallel all the way to the Pacific following the previously agreed upon Missouri Compromise. His plan was opposed by Lincoln and the Republicans as it would allow the extension of slavery into further territories rather than containing it, and it failed to make it out of committee. However, he did succeed in helping keep the Border States of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri in the Union which helped make a Union victory in the Civil War possible.

Though Crittenden helped keep Kentucky in the Union camp, the people of the Bluegrass State were divided on whether to support the Union or the Confederacy and initially declared neutrality. Lincoln's administration was cautious in their handling of the state for fear of nudging it into the Confederacy even after Unionists swept most of its state level and national legislative seats. Lincoln considered Kentucky to be "the bellwether of the loyal slave states" according to Kentucky historian Lowell H. Harrison.

At the same time, secessionists in the state also attempted to set up their own provisional government, and many prominent Confederates were Kentuckians. Crittenden's own family was much divided and an excellent example of how the Civil War, while largely a sectional conflict, in the border states was truly a civil war among former friends, neighbors, and brothers. Crittenden’s eldest son, George, was a West Point graduate and veteran of the Black Hawk War and Mexican-American War who resigned from the U.S. Army and joined the Confederacy despite his father’s pleading. Two of the Congressman’s younger sons fought for the Union and remained loyal to the country like their father.

A view of the left side of the Second Model Burnside carbine presented by President Abraham Lincoln to Kentucky Congressman John Jordan Crittenden.

As most Southern representatives left Washington, D.C., following their states' secession, Lincoln and his cabinet strongly considered Crittenden to fill the seat of Supreme Court Justice John Archibald Campbell. Ultimately, Abraham Lincoln decided against it, but the fact he was considered strongly for the position showed that Lincoln and his administration recognized Crittenden’s popularity and political might.

Crittenden was elected to Congress in a special session in the summer of 1861 despite previously wanting to retire. In the special session of Congress in 1861, the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution passed after the First Battle of Bull Run declared: "That the present deplorable civil war has been forced upon the country by the disunionists of the Southern States now in revolt against the constitutional Government and in arms around the capital; that in this national emergency Congress, banishing all feelings of mere passion or resentment, will recollect only its duty to the whole country; that this war is not waged upon our part in any spirit of oppression, nor for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, nor purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of those States, but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union, with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several States unimpaired; and that as soon as these objects are accomplished the war ought to cease."

On Aug. 14, 1861, Crittenden was one of three Kentuckians who met with the president to urge him to veto the First Confiscation Act that would allow Union forces to confiscate slaves being used in support of the Confederate war effort. Lincoln did not veto the bill, but he did step in to stop John C. Fremont's more aggressive actions in Missouri in his effort to hold the Border States, including Kentucky, and assured Crittenden and others in the border state that he and the federal government would not meddle with their affairs.

Writing to O. H. Browning in September 1861, Lincoln clearly indicated his concerns about the handling of the delicate issue of emancipation, runaway and “contraband” slaves, and maintaining a hold on the Border States, especially Kentucky. He wrote that, “Genl. Fremont’s proclamation, as to confiscation of property, and the liberation of slaves, is purely political, and not within the range of military law, or necessity.” He notes that the general could seize property for the war effort when necessary, but that military officers could not decide the permanent fate of property, including slaves, and wrote of his concern of military and executive overreach on the issue. He also noted that “the Kentucky Legislature would not budge till that proclamation was modified; and Gen. Anderson telegraphed me that on the news of Gen. Fremont having actually issued deeds of manumission, a whole company of our Volunteers threw down their arms and disbanded. I was so assured, as to think it probable, that the very arms we had furnished Kentucky would be turned against us.”

The presentation plaque on the stock of a Second Model Burnside carbine that Abraham Lincoln presented to Kentucky Congressman John Jordan Crittenden. It reads "Presented to the/Hon. J.J. Crittenden by A. Lincoln/President of the United States/As a testimony of affectionate regard/for his long and patriotic Services/to which a grateful people bear/willing testimony/Feby 1st 1862."

Lincoln famously wrote, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol. On the contrary, if you will give up your restlessness for new positions, and back me manfully on the grounds upon which you and other kind friends gave me the election, and Mr. Chairman: At the beginning of our civil conflict this House passed almost unanimously a resolution offered by the gentleman from Kentucky [Crittenden]…You must not understand I took my course on the proclamation because of Kentucky. I took the same ground in a private letter to General Fremont before I heard from Kentucky.”

On Sept. 4, 1861, Confederate forces moved to take control of Kentucky, and Union forces entered the state in response, making Kentucky a battleground. On Dec. 10, 1861, the Confederacy claimed Kentucky as one of its states and added a central star to their flag, but the official state government of Kentucky remained loyal to the Union. As both sides worked to control the state, a battle to determine its fate was inevitable both politically and militarily.

Early in the war, Abraham Lincoln and his administration assured the slave-holding Border States that remained in the Union that the federal government wouldn’t meddle in their “peculiar institution.” Less than a full year into the war, the issue of slavery was becoming ever more entwined with the war effort. Lincoln, many Republicans in the North, and some of his generals came to view emancipation and then the utilization of freedmen off and on the battlefield as an important part of the Union war effort.

When Lincoln did ultimately announce the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in Sept. 22, 1862, one year after his letter to Browning suggesting he had no right to interfere in the institution of slavery without military necessity, he wrote: “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

The carefully worded statement was designed in part to assure those in the slave states that remain in the Union such as Kentucky that their “property” would not be liberated. When the Emancipation Proclamation took effect at the beginning of 1863, it freed over 3.5 million enslaved persons, but it left half a million more legally in bondage in the Border States. Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia voluntarily adopted measures abolishing slavery within their states, but Kentucky and Delaware remained slave states until the adoption of the 13th Amendment banned slavery within the United States on Dec. 6, 1865.

Border State Bond

Though this carbine has been known for many years, and Lincoln’s relationship with Crittenden to hold the Border States and reunite the country have been examined by Civil War historians, the exact details of its presentation remained a mystery. Clues within the historical context of early 1862 and what was happening within Crittenden’s family, the Union war effort, Lincoln and Crittenden's relationship, the president's political goals, and ongoing events in Kentucky may explain the timing of Lincoln’s presentation to Crittenden.

This Second Model Burnside carbine was only manufactured circa 1861 to very early 1862. This limited production window makes them a rare and scarcely seen collectors piece today. Designed by Ambrose Burnside, the gun received favorable reviews in antebellum era trials, and throughout its five different models the Burnside became the third most widely issued carbine of the Civil War with over 50,000 in service. Among the most advanced firearms of the war, the Burnside carbine was soon eclipsed by the repeating Spencer carbine.

In early 1862, the fate of the Union remained uncertain at best. When the war began, most Americans on both sides expected the conflict to be quick and decisive. However, as 1861 turned to 1862, there was no end in sight and if anything, the Confederacy had the upper hand on the battlefield. Many of the nation’s leading military men had resigned from the already small regular U.S. Army to join the Confederacy, and the Union had lost Fort Sumter and other forts throughout the South. Union forces were humiliated in the first major battle, the First Battle of Bull Run, and in several other engagements with Confederate forces. Victories in small skirmishes were counted as minor successes for the Union. The naval blockade of the South, severely limiting the Confederacy’s export of cotton and the importation of arms under Gen. Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan served as the Union’s greatest early success.

A Currier & Ives rendition of the Union rout of George Crittenden's men at Mill Springs, Ky. George Crittenden was Kentucky Congressman John Jordan Crittenden's son who went against his father and brothers and fought for the Confederacy, but with disasterous results in this battle.

In January 1862, Union forces under Brigadier General George Thomas moved to attack the Confederate side of J.J. Crittenden’s son, Major General George Crittenden, at Mill Springs, Kentucky. Gen. Crittenden ordered a preemptive attack at dawn on Jan. 19, 1862, in an attempt to prevent additional Union troops from consolidating. Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer was killed early in the battle, leading to disarray among the Confederates. Crittenden rallied his men, but Thomas's men fought off the Confederates and then successfully turned Crittenden’s left flank, forcing a retreat. Crittenden was unable to regain control of his men, leading to a disastrous rout. Crittenden’s men fled the state, leaving behind Zollicoffer and around 124 others killed, about 400 wounded or missing, plus numerous artillery pieces, horses, and other valuable equipment. General Crittenden himself was wounded but escaped. Stragglers from his army continued to arrive in Tennessee from the end of January and into February.

The rout effectively terminated George Crittenden's career as a commander, including accusations that he was drunk during the battle and of treason against the Confederacy. For the Union, the Battle of Mill Springs was their first major victory after multiple humiliating Union defeats. As such, it was both a victory for Congressman Crittenden’s cause of keeping Kentucky in the Union and a major humiliation for his family. The capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donnelson in Tennessee in February soon overshadowed the Battle of Mill Springs both in the period and in Civil War historiography, but followed after Lincoln’s presentation to Crittenden.

Thus, on Feb. 1, 1862, the defeat of Crittenden's son in Kentucky was the only major Union victory and was significant in bolstering Union morale overall, securing eastern Kentucky, and keeping the state within the Union. News of the Union victory was widespread toward the end of January which meant that Lincoln's attention was particularly drawn to the state and its most influential Unionist leader. The start of February served as a perfect time to present the carbine to the Kentucky statesman. Newspapers such as the Weekly Sentinel of Indianapolis and Daily Delta of New Orleans in February 1862 reported that Crittenden was heavily distressed by the fact that his eldest son was fighting for the Confederacy and had been disgraced at Mills Spring. The wording of the inscription certainly seems designed to salve any bad feelings regarding the elder statesman’s own patriotism and contributions to the country, and perhaps Lincoln hoped to nudge Crittenden to support emancipation as part of his effort to restore the Union.

This Second Model Burnside carbine presented by President Abraham Lincoln to Kentucky Congressman John Jordan Crittenden was featured in the July/August 1989 "Men at Arms" magazine.

In early 1862, Abraham Lincoln was actively working to deal with slavery and runaway slaves both within the rebelling states and in the Border States. In the latter, Lincoln was trying to find ways to encourage the states to choose emancipation themselves as he had repeatedly promised not to interfere directly. Lincoln met with Crittenden and other border state representatives to discuss compensated emancipation in their states. Crittenden could not be persuaded to support emancipation efforts, but Lincoln was also working on keeping the Border States content in regards to federal policy concerning slaves in the rebelling states. There he found more agreement with Crittenden. For example, on Jan. 20, 1862, the Rutland Daily Herald of Vermont reported that fugitive slaves were being treated the same as other property and "We would therefore have it subject to confiscation like other property. We would not have our army return a fugitive slave any more than we would have it return a fugitive horse from the enemy,-and such we understand to be the distinct policy of President Lincoln. Mr. Crittenden, of Kentucky, gives his cordial assent to this policy, and it is the policy which will wipe out slavery ultimately, and save the Union presently, and therefore we are in favor of it most heartily."

Thomas Crittenden, the son of Kentucky Congressman John Jordan Crittenden fought admirably for the Union at Shiloh in April 1862 and was promoted to major general. He also fought in the Indian Wars. His son, a lieutenant, was killed at the Battle of Little Bighorn. This sword was inscribed and presented to Thomas Crittenden when he retired in 1881.

Though George's defection to the Confederacy and his defeat at Mills Spring served as a humiliation and strain for Crittenden, he remained proud of his other sons as well as his grandsons who fought for the Union. His son Thomas's actions on the battlefield in particular were a source of pride; he served admirably at Shiloh in April 1862 and was promoted to major general. Thomas Crittenden fought with distinction at Stone's River later in the year where his command is credited with playing a major role in the Union victory and where he argued that the Union should stand and fight rather than withdraw.

As Lincoln continued to move toward emancipation more broadly both on military and moral grounds, he personally met with Crittenden more, including a meeting with him and Congressmen John W. Crisfield, of Maryland, and William A. Hall, of Missouri, on December 18, 1862, to discuss their concerns and opposition regarding the Emancipation Proclamation that would go in effect on Jan. 1, 1863, which would declare all slaves within the rebelling states “thenceforward, and forever free.”

Crittenden did not ultimately come around to support emancipation broadly nor the use of freedmen as soldiers, but he continued to support the Union cause. He ran for reelection again in the summer of 1863 due to the urging of his friends and never stopped working to reunite the country. He died shortly after returning to his home in Frankfort on July 26, 1863. Though Crittenden and others had opposed Kentucky being brought into the war, the birth state of both President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis became a key battleground and ultimately supplied 125,000 soldiers to the Union, including more African-American soldiers for the Union war effort than any other state aside from Louisiana. Due to the partnership between Lincoln and Crittenden, Kentucky and the Border States remained with the Union, and ultimately, thanks to men like two of Crittenden's younger sons, Union forces prevailed, and the country was reunited.

President Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet consider the Emancipation Proclamation. Kentucky Congressman John Jordan Crittenden, an ally of Lincoln, didn't support emancipation in Kentucky, but the proclamation only emancipated slaves in the rebelling states.

In the years that followed, many of Crittenden's descendants and relatives served in the U.S. military and government. They took pride in their ancestor and his work with Lincoln to preserve the Union. The Burnside carbine presented by Lincoln remained with the family for generations. Jane Crittenden Harris recalled how she “took it to school for show-and-tell on several occasions on Lincoln's birthday."

Now, this incredible carbine presented between men who worked hard to preserve the Union is available for purchase publicly in Rock Island Auction’s December Premier Firearms Auction on December 10, 2022, alongside thousands of other historical artifacts, including many additional firearms, swords, and other militaria from “The War Between the States.”

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