1844: Nathan Smith Lincoln to Sarah Lincoln

Dr. Nathan Smith Lincoln in later years

This letter was written by 22 year-old Nathan Smith Lincoln (1822-1898), the son of Rev. Increase Sumner Lincoln (1799-1890) and Gratia Elizabeth Smith (1803-1847). The letter was written on the 4th of July in 1844 while Nathan taught a select school in Springfield, Massachusetts, and prepared himself for college. He later graduated from Dartmouth (A.M.) in 1850, and from the University of Maryland (M.D.) in 1852. President Abraham Lincoln signed his commission as surgeon of the District of Columbia Volunteers in May 1861 and he had five hospitals under his charge. He held the position of surgeon-in-chief throughout the entire Civil War and for some months afterward. He was said to be a “great surgeon” — achieved through the “unusual power of diagnosis” that he “inherited from his grandfather, Dr. Nathan Smith.

Sarah Lincoln, ca. 1864

Dr. Lincoln was called in consultation to attend President Garfield after he was shot by Charles Guiteau in 1881. Remarkably, he was the only surgeon to make a correct diagnosis of the wound, but was overruled by Dr. Willard Bliss who assumed the role of attending physician in the treatment of the wounded President.

Lincoln wrote the letter to his sister, Sarah Lincoln (1826-1898) who was at the time (1844) teaching a select school in Whately, Massachusetts. She married (1847) Job Wheeler Goodell (1819-1890), a cabinet/chair maker, in Jamaica, Windham County, Vermont.

The “Uncle Morven” referred to in this letter was Dr. James Morven Smith (1805-1853). Morven graduated from Yale (M.D.) in 1828. “He began the practice of medicine at Westfield, but removed to Springfield, Mass., where for nearly twenty years he was a highly successful practitioner of medicine among the prominent families of the place. He was devoted to his patients and greatly beloved by them. When still in his prime (aged somewhat less than forty-eight years) he was cut off by a tragic death in a railroad accident at Norwalk, Connecticut.

Dr. John Derby Smith in later years

“The “Uncle John” referred to in this letter was Rev. John Derby Smith (1812-1884). Smith received his A.B. from Yale in 1832, and his M.D. from the University of Maryland in 1846. Before studying medicine, he was ordained as a Congregational minister at Andover Theological Seminary. He preached at Charlemont, Massachuetts for ten years before he had to give up his pastorate because of throat trouble, and took up the study of medicine at the direction of his brother, Dr. Nathan Ryno Smith of Baltimore. He later settled in Douglas, Massachusetts, and finally at Bridgewater, Massachusetts. During the Civil War, he was assistant surgeon at the Fairfax Seminary Hospital, and he afterwards served two years as Surgeon for the United States Navy.

Nathan S. Lincoln must have ruled his classroom with an iron hand. Humorously he admonishes his sister at least three times in this short letter to administer corporal punishment to the children (‘whelps” —  “the Whately wretches” — “those vile Whately skunks”) in her classroom at Whately, Massachusetts.


Addressed to Miss Sarah Lincoln, Whately, Massachusetts

Springfield [Massachusetts]
Independence morn, July 4th 1844

Dear Sarah,

It is independence morning. The people are all flying about though there is no celebration here. Some are going to Westfield, some to Worcester, and others to Hartford, at which places there are celebrations and I thought I would assert my independence by writing you a letter. I suppose you have been expecting a letter this long time. I humbly beg your pardon on the plea of want of time and a peculiar sensation regularly termed laziness, but I will endeavor to do better in future.

I have had a vacation of three weeks in which time I went through the Greek Grammar which kept me pretty busy. Since the vacation, I have been through the deletes (a little Greek Reader) and I am now just beginning Jacob’s large Greek reader. I mean to enter college a year from next commencement if I can get a school next winter. I want our folks should write to Mr. Glazier and engage the North Gardner school for me forthwith. They give better wages there than around here, and I should like that school very much.

You will be astonished to hear what wonders our kindred have achieved. David went to Charlemont [Massachusetts] last May and is there now. He and Uncle John have been to Jamaica [Vermont]. Uncle John asked a dismission. He will continue to preach in Charlemont through the summer.

Uncle Morven, Aunt Sarah, Betsy and the baby have been to New Haven. Uncle Morven went on to Baltimore. They were all gone almost a fortnight. The week after they got home, Grandmother and Aunt Mary came. Aunt Mary has had a dreadful time with the toothache and has had eight teeth extracted since she came here. She is now quite unwell.

How do you get along in your school? Give each of whelps (your scholars) a good cowhiding for me. Do write soon and let me know how you get along for though I hate to write letters, there is no one that likes to get them [better than me]. I am going to compositions. I had a letter from home about a week ago. They were all well. I wish that you and I could go and see them. I wish [you] would send this letter home for the school part is for them, but I must stop or freeze, which I should be ashamed to do on the Fourth of July.

Your affectionate brother, — A. S. Lincoln

Pound the Whately wretches. All send love.

Nathan and Sarah Lincoln’s father.

P.S. I said I wanted to have you send this letter to Jamaica [Vermont], but it looks so [bad] and I have just spilled some ink on it and I have not time to write another, so beg of you not to send it as a specimen of the school master. I mean to go to a writing school before long. Remember and not send this. If you do, I shall not send another. I wish you do me the favor of burning it up and when you write, tell the folks to be sure and write to Mr. Glazier right off. I hope you will write to them soon for I shall not have time now for a week or two. Burn this letter as you have read it.

Trounce those vile Whately skunks.


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