Back in 1985 I visited the Illinois State Historical Library, then located in the basement of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois. I was doing research on my dissertation. There, in a back room, combing through documents related to Ulysses S. Grant, I came upon a letter from Robert E. Lee to Grant, dated June 13, 1865. Lee was writing Grant to inquire as to whether the terms he had signed at Appomattox protected him from being prosecuted for treason: he had just learned that he had been indicted for treason by a grand jury sitting at Norfolk, Virginia. He enclosed a request for pardon in compliance with President Andrew Johnson’s proclamation of May 29, 1865. Grant endorsed the letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, declaring that the Appomattox terms protected Lee from prosecution, adding that Abraham Lincoln had approved the terms.
This document is a treasure. It was part of a critical moment in the restoration of peace in 1865. It showed Grant, as a man of his word, looking to protect Lee from prosecution to preserve the peace just won. Moreover, it is one of the few pieces of paper in existence signed by both Grant and Lee. The Appomattox terms were an exchange of letters, not a commonly-drafted or signed document. And I was privileged enough to be looking directly at the document itself (with the usual protections in place … archives have procedures to protect their documents … although, as we’re about to see, they don’t always work).
Working in the archives is a necessity for good scholarship. You need to see many documents firsthand, and often the only way to find important information is by sifting through page after page of material until you come upon something that you may not have anticipated. I’ve had that experience several times, including once when I had to dig through several drafts of a manuscript prepared by James H. Wilson to find out important information that called into question critical aspects of perhaps the most famous story of a Grant wartime drinking spree. You find the most unusual things in the most out-of-the-way places. But you’ve got to go to the documents themselves, often literally, even in this day of online resources.
But working in the archives is also a privilege and a trust, one scholars cannot abuse.
That trust was recently broken and that privilege abused by Thomas P. Lowry, author of several books. Earlier this month he confessed to deliberately altering the date on a Lincoln pardon in the National Archives so that it read “April 14, 1865” (the day John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln) from “April 14, 1864.” Lowry detailed to investigators how he altered the document and explained that he believed that pointing to the pardon as being signed on that fatal fourteenth was a way to elevate his status among the many people who are interested in Civil War history.
The National Archives released a press release, with an embedded video.
This story will now take its place alongside the tales of plagiarism, fabricated repositories and footnotes, and outright thievery from archives. What seems especially telling is that Lowry admitted that he did this in order to get attention, leading to book deals, speaking opportunities, and so on, many paid for, I suspect, by some readers of this blog.
It would be useless for me to express my outrage. Suffice it to say that this is so wrong on so many levels that I don’t know where to begin.
UPDATE: Read Lowry’s response to the report. Please explain to me how he could be pressured into offering such a detailed explanation of what he did (hat tip to Kevin Levin). Read also this account that appeared in the online New York Times. Meanwhile, Larry Cebula reveals two instances where authors unknowingly incorporated these false findings into their work. Harry Smeltzer deplores what Lowry did, but he can’t resist the following dig: “And how could it have been missed by NARA and Lincoln scholars for thirteen years? While Dr. Lowry no doubt deserves the approbation sure to be heaped upon him, there are a lot of other folks who look foolish right about now.” Would that include Ted Savas, who published Lowry’s book? Name names, Harry.
I’m not sure how many people knew of the original claim: I did not. All I ever heard was that the Lowrys had found many courts martial records with notations made by Lincoln. That’s something that does not interest me: the findings did not change my understanding of Lincoln. I did not hear about the claim about Murphy’s pardon. Most Lincoln scholars apparently did not consult Lowry’s book, and the claim that’s caused such a fuss was not something professional historians have talked about. So it would be hard to blame people for not disproving what they did not know. Lowry seems to have been a favorite with two Lincoln organizations on the East Coast, so perhaps Harry should do a little digging there and ask those folks how they feel (they doubtless heard the claim). I haven’t read Lowry’s books (a few titles, courtesy of various prize committees, remain unopened in my garage/library, and may be among the few Civil War books I have actually sold); I don’t have the book in question.
Apparently Harry Smeltzer’s been a big fan of Dr. Lowry’s work, which might help explain his response. It would be interesting to see if there were any other so-called discoveries that had in fact already been found. I am intrigued by the notion that no one has done this, and perhaps there’s an opportunity for folks who seem to be interested in this sort of thing. I do wonder why no one at the National Archives checked the Basler edition (the endorsement’s right there); I assume that in today’s world, people would have hastened to check his claim, much as they did when the issue of Lincoln’s transmittal letter pertaining to the Corwin amendment came to light. But Harry paints with too broad a brush, to put it kindly.