November 21, 1864

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Telegram Sent on: November 21, 1864.
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Image of the November 21, 1864 telegram

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Executive Mansion,

Washington, Nov. 21, 1864

Hon. A.R. Wright

Louisville, Ky.

Admitting that your cotton

was destroyed by the Federal Army, I do not

suppose any-thing could be done for you now. Con-

gress has appropriated no money for that class

of claims, and will not, I expect, while the

active war lasts.


No.33 W

41 fnd

Recd 6.50 am

sent 810 pm

By E

Historical analysis

This analysis makes use of a heuristic for historical thinking know as SCIM-C developed by David Hicks, Peter Doolittle and Tom Ewing. For more about this historical thinking heuristic please see Historical Inquiry

Summary of the telegram

In this telegram, President Lincoln is explaining to the Honorable Augustus R. Wright that he should not expect any compensation for the destruction of his cotton crop by Union troops since Congress had not allotted any funds for compensation.

The Context for this telegram

President Lincoln sent this telegram on November 21, 1864 to Augustus R. Wright, a former U.S. congressman from Georgia (1857-1859). Wright served as a Colonel in the Army of Northern Virginia during the war [1]. Wright originally sent Lincoln a message earlier on the 21st stating, "My cotton was burned by the Federal Army. If I return with proof can you do anything for me. I find my brother here in want. Reply." [2].

The destruction of cotton crops was a common practice on both sides of the Civil War. The problem was much worse in the Confederacy. In fact, "some 2.5 million bales of cotton were burned in the South to create a cotton shortage. Indeed, the number of southern cotton bales exported to Europe dropped from 3 million bales in 1860 to mere thousands"[3].

The federal government in Washington under President Lincoln pursued an aggressive blockade policy that was meant to severally limit the amount of cotton that Confederate states could sell on the open market. The blockade was a big success. Cotton exports fell 95% from 1860 to 1865 [4]. The systematic destruction of cotton crops and the blockade of cotton exports had a very negative effect on the price of cotton, which rose to $1.89 a pound by 1865 up from $0.10 a pound in 1860 [5]. Some shipments of cotton were allowed from southern cotton growers who were loyal to the Union [6].

Inferences about the telegram

Wright was under the impression that his cotton had been burned. Given the extremely high value of cotton at the time, he perceived this as a major loss, and telegraphed the President to inquire about compensation. As a former member of Congress, Wright must have expected a response from Lincoln. He may have thought his political connections could help him in the process. Wright received word from Lincoln that there was no program in place to provide money for certain things, such as the loss of cotton. This suggests that such a program had once existed or at least had been under consideration.

Lincoln's response to Mr. Wright lacked empathy, which is understandable under the circumstances. The original message sent from Wright asking for assistance was rather pushy and lacked the proper respect when contacting the President [7]. By telling the President to "reply," Wright was not setting himself up for a favorable response, which is why Lincoln's response to Wright lacked empathy and was also very straightforward.

Since some of Wright's cotton was in storage, it is interesting to wonder whether the cotton could have been destroyed by Confederate troops in an effort to deny Union troops an opportunity to profit from the capture of the cotton. At the writing of this memo in 1864 it is known that a serious cotton shortage existed, so Confederate troops would most likely not have purposefully destroyed this very precious commodity.


  1. Information gathered from
  3. Cotton & the Civil War
  4. See Wikipedia article on the [Union blockade ]
  5. Cotton & the Civil War
  6. Cotton & the Civil War
  7. See message from Wright here:;view=fulltext