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Newspaper clipping of wedding announcement
Newspaper clipping announcing the August 20, 1862, marriage of J. W. Nicholson and Mary H. Martin, which President Abraham Lincoln helped facilitate. Abraham Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Of Note: Abraham Lincoln Promotes Another Union

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Of Note is an occasional series in which we share items that have caught our eye.

On most days during his presidency, Abraham Lincoln labored under the enormous burden of managing all aspects of the federal war effort during the Civil War, while also attending to routine administrative tasks, like appointing postmasters and signing military commissions. On Saturday, August 2, 1862, however, President Lincoln enjoyed a comparatively light schedule of pardoning court-martialed soldiers and meeting with his cabinet. But one subject demanding Lincoln’s attention that day, while serious for the parties involved, must have provided him a welcome respite from other, weightier topics.

Handwritten letter
Abraham Lincoln to Gideon Welles, August 2, 1862, requesting that the secretary of the navy approve leave for James W. A. Nicholson to get married. Abraham Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

It had come to President Lincoln’s attention that Commander James William Augustus Nicholson (1821-1887), who commanded the screw steamer Isaac Smith, “wishes to be married, and from evidence now before me, I believe there is a young lady who sympathizes with him in that wish.” Perhaps Nicholson’s intended bride, Mary H. Martin, had visited the White House and was herself the “evidence now before” the president? In any case, with a stroke of his pen in place of a magic wand, Abraham Lincoln took on the role of marital “fairy godfather” by requesting that Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles “allow him the requisite leave of absence,” before adding “if the public service can safely endure it.” Lincoln, of course, knew “the public service” could spare Nicholson long enough for him to get married, and may have smiled when writing that humorous line.

Secretary Welles granted Nicholson’s leave. A newspaper clipping that now accompanies Lincoln’s letter to Welles confirms that, thanks in part to Lincoln’s intervention, James W. Nicholson and Mary H. Martin of St. Louis, Missouri, were married at St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C., on August 20, 1862. Nicholson continued his career in the U.S. Navy following the Civil War and retired in 1883 as a rear admiral. The Nicholsons had at least two children and remained married until James’s death in October 1887.

The document with which Abraham Lincoln helped facilitate the Nicholson wedding came to the Library of Congress Manuscript Division in 1969, courtesy of the David C. Mearns Fund. Named in honor of longtime Library of Congress employee, Manuscript Division chief (1951-1967), and Abraham Lincoln scholar David C. Mearns (1899-1981), the Mearns Fund was established to acquire Americana manuscripts for the Library of Congress. Given that Mearns appreciated manuscripts that were “more lively, more moving, more generally interesting than the rest,” it is appropriate that the first acquisition from the Mearns Fund was both a Lincoln document and one that exhibited Abraham Lincoln’s keen sense of humor in what could have otherwise been a routine matter of granting leave to a naval officer.

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“On Saturday, August 2, 1862…” August 2, 1862, entry in The Lincoln Log: A Daily Chronology of the Life of Abraham Lincoln.

“Commander James William Augustus Nicholson (1821-1887)…” John McDonough, “Lincoln, Welles and the Public Service,” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 26, no. 4 (October 1969): 215. Lincoln referred to Nicholson as “Lieutenant Commanding,” but other sources indicate he had been commissioned a commander on July 16, 1862. See Lewis R. Hamersly, comp., The Records of Living Officers of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, third edition (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1878): 64. A special widow’s pension request by Mary Heap Nicholson included a sketch of Nicholson’s life that suggested he had completed his service on the Isaac Smith and was an ordnance officer in New York at the time of his marriage. See H.R. Report No. 1838, 50th Cong., 1st Sess. (April 20, 1888): 2.

“The document with which Abraham Lincoln…” John McDonough, “Lincoln, Welles and the Public Service,” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 26, no. 4 (October 1969): 213.


  1. Wow! This sounds like it would make a great movie!

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