1865: Cyrus Barrett Burnham to Justin Smith Morrill

This incredible letter was written by Cyrus Barrett Burnham (1822-1916), the son of John and Harriet (Barrett) Burnham of Strafford, Vermont. He formed an acquaintance and warm friendship with the Hon. Justin S. Morrill—to whom he wrote this letter—while clerking for him in his store in Strafford from 1839 to 1842, after which he entered the mercantile business on his own hook. By 1847 he had relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, where he started as a clerk for Greeley & Gale, wholesale grocers, and eventually he became a member of that firm.  He also was an organizing member of a bank in St. Louis that grew into the National Bank of Commerce, eventually rising to become its president. During the Civil War, Cyrus served as quartermaster-general, commissary-general, and ordnance officer and paymaster of the Missouri volunteers. At the close of the war, he was serving as a colonel on the Governor’s staff.

In the opening paragraph of this letter we learn that General U. S. Grant—carrying a letter of introduction from U. S. Congressman J. S. Morrill—visited with Cyrus (then bank executive) looking presumably for a post-war business opportunity in St. Louis. From Ron Chernow’s book, “Grant,” we learn that Grant was in the midst of a tour to the midwest with his family in which he made stops in Chicago and Galena as well as St. Louis. While in St. Louis, he was enthusiastically greeted by 10,000 people in Lafayette Park—quite a different reception from a few years earlier when residents barely took notice of him as the shabbily dressed huckster sold cordwood from the street corners. This tour took place between July 24th and October 6, 1865 when he returned back in the Nation’s capitol.

Cyrus B. Burnham’s 1865 letter to US Congressman J. S. Morrill

Addressed to Hon.  J. S. Morrill, Strafford, Vermont
Postmarked St. Louis, MO

Saint Louis [Missouri]
15 August 1865

Hon. J. S. Morrill
Strafford, Vt.

Dear Sir,

Fen’l Grant on 7th inst. presented your letter of 11th ult. Unfortunately I was not able to show him such civilities and attentions as I should have been pleased to do for the reason one of my partners was absent in Maine & the other engaged in a wholesale railroad negotiation which just then occupied his whole time. I explained to the General why I could go about with him so little but promised if he would prolong his stay for a day or two, I would take pleasure in doing my best to show him something of St. Louis. I reckon he was not very favorably impressed with our appearance for he departed on Thursday last. I ake this explanation lest you may infer I failed to show him that courtesy his credentials and position entitled him to receive at my hands.

My impression is he prefers Chicago having if I correctly understood him received a very favorable proposition from a party established there on the legal profession to unite their intellect talent and share equally the gains & hopes of the partnership.

I am of opinion an opportunity so favorable might vainly be sought for here just now under our new constitution, “old things are done away & all things have become new,” at least so far as our courts are concerned and our judges, lawyers, & clerks do not yet know what those “new things” are—especially in this county.

We have had, are now having, and are likely to have great trouble growing out of the late rebellion and if we ever get steady on our pins again, I shall be very glad of it. Things are hard under our new dispensation. The government has fallen into the hands of those unfamiliar with its mechanism, the channels are full of sand bars & crooked places and require care & watchfulness to keep the ship from fouling. Our taxes are almost overwhelming—merchants & manufacturers being charged in addition to our United States tax a rate which is really oppressive and tending to discourage enterprises which are required to develop the resources of this state.

The farmers are almost wholly exempt under our revenue laws from this burden but in this county he who nominally makes 10M per annum has if he pays taxes lawfully chargeable upon his gains and supports his family only comfortably has but about one fourth of above sum left. So onerous so I deem these rates that when the opportunity offers to dispose of my property, I shall do so and then seriously consider whether or not I will remain in the State. I do not object to pay my share of the cost of suppressing the rebellion, but I do object to the payment of the rates locally imposed for the support of party favorites in offices of no practical utility. I say this not intending to change the party in power here with greater desire to reward its friends than any other party occupying a similar position would exhibit, for there is devilish little difference & that little is not worth cherishing.

To cultivations of the soil, this State really offers the inducements of rich, cheap lands, good climate & water, reasonable and improving facilities for markets and almost complete exemption from taxation. Slavery has gone to grass and I am glad of it and I see no reason why those who wish to pursue agriculture for a livelihood may not come here, wax fat, and get rich.

Our rebellious citizens have many of them disappeared. I believe I may say truthfully that the majority of those who prior to the rebellion were of any account as we have it have gone, never to return. But unfortunately the no account rebels—those chaps who obtained positions in rebel bomb proofs and thereby retained their breath in their worthless carcasses have returned & are returning. I have spoken to but one of the many of this class since the rebellion succumbed and regret that they never were of any sort of use and unless a radical and immediate improvement is made upon their inferior material, they never will be. They look smiling & pleasant but they can’t vote in this State. That is one consolation as the Paddy said of the steam excavator.

I am in good health once more but I came near handing in my checks two years since. With kind regards for yourself and household.

I am yours, — C. B. Burnham





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