One of the more unusual letters to Abraham Lincoln resides in the ALPLM collections. Rufus W. Miles, a farmer from Persifer Township in Knox County, Illinois, and a Republican member of the Illinois House of Representatives, offered to send a gift to the Republican nominee for president. Miles received a reply a few days later from John G. Nicolay, Lincoln’s secretary:
“Dear Sir—Yours of the 7th inst., offering Mr. Lincoln an Illinois Eagle’s quill to write his inaugural with, has been duly received by him. He desires me to say in reply, that whenever it may become certain that he is elected, he will be glad to have you forward him the quill.”
Perhaps it was superstition the prevented Lincoln from accepting a presidential gift before his actual election; or Nicolay’s reply may have been a polite deferral of the offer, hoping Miles might forget. But Miles wrote to Lincoln again. On December 21, 1860, the Illinois representative sent the quill along with a history that portended Lincoln’s own fate. [Spelling and punctuation modernized].
Please accept the Eagle quill (I promised you) by the hand of our Representative A. A. Smith. The bird from whose wing the quill was taken was shot by John F. Dillon in Persifer Township Knox Co. Illinois in February 1857. Having heard that James Buchanan was furnished with an eagle quill to write his inaugural address with and believing that in 1860 a Republican would be elected to take his place, I determined to save this quill & present it to the fortunate man whoever he might be. Report tells us that the bird which furnished Buchanan’s quill was a captive bird. Fit emblem of the man that used it. But the bird from which this quill was taken yielded the quill only with its life. Fit emblem of the man who is expected to use it. For all true Republicans believe that you would not think life worth the keeping after the surrender of principle. Great difficulties surround you. Traitors to their country have threatened your life, and should you be called upon to surrender it at the post of duty, your memory will live forever in the heart of every freeman. And that is a grander monument than can be built of brick or marble.
‘For if hearts may not our memories keep
Oblivion haste each vestige sweep
And let our memories end’
Composed the day following South Carolina’s declaration of secession, the letter clearly reflects Miles’s disdain for Buchanan’s policies of conciliation in response to Southern disunion threats. While death threats were sent to Lincoln on a regular basis after his election, most were dismissed as the ranting of mentally unstable individuals.
Some later accounts claim, without proof, that Lincoln used the eagle quill to pen the draft of his inaugural address. The fact that Lincoln was presented the quill does not prove he used it.
Surprisingly, Lincoln was sent several eagle quills throughout his presidency. Ethelbert P. Oliphant, a former Springfield associate of Lincoln’s, sent the president-elect an eagle quill, also for writing the inaugural address. Oliphant wanted “a quill taken from the proud and soaring emblem of our liberties” to be the instrument to inspire words that would “be sufficiently potent to ‘Save the Union.’” Edward Bates, who Lincoln appointed to be attorney general, sent Lincoln an eagle quill on November 17, 1863. It originally had been given to Bates by his friend James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart, who was serving as a lieutenant in the United States army. Like Robert E. Lee, Stuart chose his loyalty to region over country and resigned his commission in the federal military. Using language that only a fellow lawyer would appreciate, Bates closed his letter to Lincoln: “I will not undertake to interpret the sign, nor to draw prophetic conclusions from the fact, that the brave young soldier [Jeb Stuart], before deserting the flag under which he was reared, and joining hands with the enemies of his Country, first stripped himself of Eagle’s plumage.” Lincoln’s use of the quill in the cause of restoring the Union would be sweet revenge. Of all of these flights of fancy, only Miles’s dark musing of martyrdom was realized. Just as the eagle died to provide Lincoln a quill, Lincoln died for the cause of Union.