Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A very unique item...

Recently, I had the opportunity to purchase a very unique historical item related to the Civil War. It is an envelope dated January 18, 1889 postmarked from New York City. The simple piece of paper is addressed to a Mrs. Horace G. Allen on Roxbury Highlands in Boston, Massachusetts. The return address in the upper left is shown as The Homosassa Company on 45 Broadway, New York City. Now, at first, this yellowed scrap of paper may just seem like old attic junk to go in the recycling bin. However, upon closer inspection and research, one can see it is much more than that. This envelope was written by General Joshua Chamberlain...

I won this item in an auction, but did some careful research before I bought the item. I'm as skeptical as anybody when it comes to old documents signed by famous individuals. However, I found numerous clues to be too overwhelming for this not to be authentic.

First of all, the return address is marked as "The Hamosassa Company." Joshua Chamberlain, along with businessmen John Dunn and Benjamin Dutton, was a part owner of this company. In Edward G. Longacre's Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the Man, he writes:

"To make his dream [of an enterprise] a reality, he had to move. Early in 1884 he and Wyllys [his son] went to live in Ocala, Florida, where Chamberlain joined what became know as the Homosassa Company. The concern planned to construct a local hotel that would develop into a tourist mecca, as well as permanent dwellings for year-round residents. But that stretch of the coast in which the firm invested proved so overgrown with vegetation and so susceptible to harsh weather that landholdings deteriorated and the grand hotel never materialized. While his father labored to commercialize the area despite declining health, his son tried to practice law in Ocala. Neither turned a profit." Chamberlain then became vice-president of the Silver Spring, Ocala & Gulf Railroad Company. This railroad link helped his other business venture with Homosassa. "Through the latter 1880s he divided his time between Ocala and New York City, where from corporate offices on Wall Street he raised funds for his railroad and improvement companies." This date fits well into the time frame of the postmark.

Now that is a good start. I've confirmed the link between Chamberlaind and Homosassa. But who is the person the letter is addressed to? Mrs. Horace G. Allen. As it turns out, Horace G. Allen was Chamberlain's son-in-law. Therefore, this was a letter for Chamberlain's daughter, Grace. Things are looking good.

Finally, what about the handwriting itself? What if this was written out by one of Chamberlain's secretaries and not himself? I went around through other digital archives looking at original Chamberlain letters and signatures to investigate further. While I'm not calligraphic expert, it is not difficult to recognize Chamberlain's distinctive handwriting. The "H" especially in "Horace" sticks out. From the other letters I examined, I saw time and time again Chamberlain formed a small triangualr shape in the base of his "H"s. The other letters also match as best I could asertain. In addition, it would seem likely that Chamberlain would personally address a private letter to his daughter while an assistant would take care of more business related matters.

In conclusion, I firmly believe this item was hand-writeen by the general. In my eyes anyway, there is plenty of proof to conclude this. While I will never know why this envelope survived 120 years before it came to me, I like to think it came all this way just so I could preserve it. Perhaps someday I will give it to a museum. Besides, it's not everyday one can get their hands on such a unique piece of Civil War History...


  1. So you are becoming CSI:Civil War... a forensic historian.... Cool find!!!

  2. Very nice detective work. Congratulations on winning the envelope.

  3. I love the envelope! I hope you share it with your brother.

  4. Wow, I've got stock certificates from his time with New Jersey Construction Company and with Ocala and Silver Springs Company but this is the first document from his time at that company that I've seen! Congrats on your find!