The William P. Fessenden papers consist almost entirely of incoming correspondence addressed to Fessenden, written while he was serving as a U.S. Senator from Maine, 1855-1868. This correspondence reflects Fessenden's moderately progressive political views, and his interests in the abolition of slavery, economics and finance, the turmoil in Kansas in the late 1850s, and the Civil War. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the correspondence consists of requests for favors from acquaintances and constituents, usually in seeking recommendations for jobs, political appointments, or assistance in pressing legislation.
The major topics of interest covered in the collection include the national debate over slavery. Several letters relate to the political turmoil in Kansas between 1856 and 1860, and there are letters requesting that Fessenden address particular abolition societies, and one interesting item relating to slavery in Missouri that includes a small printed map depicting slave-holding patterns in the state (2:49).
The Civil War forms the context for approximately half of the letters in the collection. There is a small series of letters relating to increases in pay for naval chaplains and army surgeons, and several routine letters requesting commissions or transfers in the army. The most important items present include a letter written from New Orleans, 1864, complaining of Gen. Stephen A. Hurlbut's apparent unwillingness to execute the government's orders to stop trafficking in cotton (Hurlbut's corruption appears to have been no secret); a letter describing the situation in Missouri in the midst of Sterling Price's Wilson's Creek Campaign, complaining about John C. Frémont's ineffectiveness; and a fine letter from a commander of a Maine independent artillery battery in the defenses of Washington, complaining of their inactivity. Finally, there is a brief obituary of Jesse Lee Reno, killed at South Mountain in 1862.
There are very few items that relate in any way to Fessenden's private life, but three letters include some discussion of the problems of his son, Samuel. The only letter written by Fessenden in this collection is addressed to Sam, advising him to behave himself and not to consort with bad company. Apparently, the Senator had good cause to worry for his son, since Sam apparently fell in with gamblers and fled for Canada after running up a sizable debt.