Image: German opera glasses carried by President Lincoln
This image provided by Sotheby's shows a pair of German opera glasses carried by President Lincoln at the April, 14, 1865 performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre - the evening he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. The glasses, which have a pre-sale estimate of up to $700,000, will go up for bidding Friday, June 17, at Sotheby's in New York, along with a trove of Civil War artifacts.
updated 6/16/2011 3:01:50 PM ET 2011-06-16T19:01:50

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee characterized Virginia's Civil War secession as a revolution and President Abraham Lincoln uncharacteristically scolded a couple for their lack of loyalty to the Union cause in letters scheduled to be sold at auction.

The letters, along with a trove of Civil War treasures that includes the opera glasses Lincoln carried into Ford's Theatre the night of his assassination, will be up for bidding Friday at Sotheby's, the New York auction house.

The opera glasses could fetch up to $700,000. The Lincoln letter, which was never mailed, is notable for its fiery tone and Lee's because it lays bare the gravity of his decision to stand by his beloved Virginia as it bolted from the North.

Lee and Lincoln were among the defining personalities of the Civil War, which is being recalled during 150th anniversary commemorations.

"I think you have to say that Lincoln is the principal figure in the North, and I do think most people, if asked, would come up with Lee in the South," said Selby Kiffer, international senior specialist in books and manuscripts for Sotheby's.

Lee's April 20, 1861, letter to his brother, Capt. Sidney Smith Lee, was sent days after a Virginia convention to secede from the Union and the same day he resigned a commission with the U.S. Army.

"I wished to wait until the ordinance of revolution should be acted on by the people of Virginia, but war seems to have Commenced & I am liable at any time to be ordered on duty which I Could not Conscientiously perform," he wrote.

Scholarly accounts of his correspondence have said Lee used the phrase "ordinance of secession" instead of the "ordinance of revolution" wording in the original letter.

Kiffer believes Lee's son changed the wording when he transcribed the letter to present it to scholars, possibly to support the notion that the Southern cause was honorable and lawful. Kiffer said the word "revolution" had more connotations of illegality and violence.

The letter had remained in the Lee family until it was purchased by a private collector.

The Lincoln letter, which was previously unknown, is dated Feb. 13, 1864, and is in response to Mrs. V.C.K. Neagle, who had written Lincoln in hopes of easing the terms of her husband's parole for assisting a Confederate.

"You protest, nonetheless, that you and he are loyal, and you may really think so, but this is a view of loyalty which is difficult to conceive that any sane person could take, and one which the government can not tolerate and hope to live," Lincoln wrote.

The letter was never sent and ultimately ended up with the War Department and a private collector. Many Civil War items are passed down through families or end up in private collections and historians are unaware of them until they are offered for sale.

Kiffer said the letter presents a contrast with Lincoln's usual calm pronouncements.

"Here is an unusually fiery letter where he really excoriates this woman and her husband for their claim that they're being loyal when they're acting in a way that, if that defines loyalty, then the United States government couldn't survive," Kiffer said.

The Lee letter is expected to bring in $400,000 to $600,000, while the Lincoln letter's pre-sale estimate is $200,000 to $300,000. Lee's correspondence is valued more because it relates to "a historical moment that was momentous both personally and for the history of a nation," according to Sotheby's.

The sums are considerably lower than the $3.4 million paid in 2008 for a letter Lincoln wrote to Massachusetts school children who appealed to him to "free all slave children."

The letters are among about 20 Civil War-related items to be auctioned Friday, including the German opera glasses Lincoln brought to Ford's Theatre the evening of April 14, 1865. The glasses were recovered by a former soldier who served on the Washington, D.C., police force and remained in his family until purchased by a private collector.

The auction will also include an original ledger from the first Confederate prison for Union soldiers, located in Richmond; and a Confederate flag from the naval cruiser CSS Alabama.

Kiffer expects the sesquicentennial to generate more treasures for auction by Sotheby's.

"I do think it's reinvigorated old collectors and maybe will bring some new ones into the fold," he said.

The owners of the items to be auctioned requested anonymity, Sotheby's said.




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