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National Archives Gets Lost Lincoln Letter

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The National Archives received a special gift today: the missing half of a letter written by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It was ripped from the pages of his Treasury secretary's correspondence and bought at auction by a collector who waited for Lincoln's bicentennial year to donate it.


There are reams of historical documents written by Abraham Lincoln. Papers from his presidency sit in well-known books and collections, so it's rare to find a missing item. But the National Archives has discovered just that, the lost half of a letter that Lincoln wrote.

Today, that letter came home to the archives, as NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: The National Archives tracked down the letter to an Arizona man named Lawrence Cutler. He's a former prosecutor and avid collector of, well, just about everything.

Mr. LAWRENCE CUTLER (Collector, Arizona): I have everything from dinosaur bones to meteorites to documents signed by George Washington.

CORNISH: In fact, he already has items with President Lincoln's signature. So when archive curators came calling, he was willing to give up the letter, which he had bought at auction a few years ago.

Mr. CUTLER: It may sound a little corny but it's true. I believe that I'm just a temporary custodian of every collection that I own.

CORNISH: The letter is dated November 14, 1863, five days before Lincoln would deliver the Gettysburg Address. My Dear Sir, it begins to then-Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. The president asked Chase to allow the chief of the U.S. Mint in San Francisco, Robert Stevens, to see the corruption report that had ended Stevens' career there.

Archivists are excited because it gives insight into the extent of the scandal and Lincoln's interest in West Coast politics at a key moment of the Civil War. The letter is about the size of a steno notebook page, sepia-toned and barely five lines long. Cutler says it's among his favorite finds.

Mr. CUTLER: One of the coolest things is that it's all in Abraham Lincoln's handwriting, that it's on executive mansion stationary or letterhead, and it - to me it shows Abraham Lincoln's compassion that he's trying to help a man understand why he was let go.

CORNISH: The letter was originally bound in Volume 91 of a series of U.S. Treasury documents. Curators say this half of the letter was likely torn from the page long before it became part of their collection, possibly in the late 19th century.

The Archives' James Hastings says they could track it down because one of their investigators is dedicated to monitoring Internet sites such as eBay.

Mr. JAMES HASTINGS (Director, Access Programs; National Archives and Records Administration): This document probably had changed hands many times before the Internet, and before then we really would not likely have known about it.

CORNISH: The letter is not yet available to the public. First, it has to be bathed in purified water. Then Archives specialists will use Japanese paper and paste to rejoin it to the other half in Volume 91.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, The Capitol.

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Lost Lincoln Letter Donated To National Archives

President Lincoln 11 days before the Gettysburg Address. i

Alex Gardner made this photograph of President Lincoln 11 days before he delivered his Gettysburg Address. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

toggle caption Bettmann/Corbis
President Lincoln 11 days before the Gettysburg Address.

Alex Gardner made this photograph of President Lincoln 11 days before he delivered his Gettysburg Address.

Original Abraham Lincoln handwritten letter i

This is an original letter handwritten by Abraham Lincoln to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. It was donated to the National Archives by Lawrence Cutler of Arizona. Courtesy National Archives hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy National Archives
Original Abraham Lincoln handwritten letter

This is an original letter handwritten by Abraham Lincoln to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. It was donated to the National Archives by Lawrence Cutler of Arizona.

Courtesy National Archives

The National Archives on Thursday added a new prize to its collection of historic documents — a letter written in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln penned the two-sentence missive about a personnel issue to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase on executive mansion stationery on Nov. 14, 1863 — just five days before delivering the Gettysburg Address.

Historians were aware of the letter's existence because it was ripped from a volume of U.S. Treasury Department records. But the contents and whereabouts were a mystery until it surfaced in an online auction a few years ago, said Miriam Kleiman, spokeswoman for the National Archives.

Online Auction

Kleiman said the National Archives has a division that monitors auctions to see if government property is being sold. Investigators contacted Lawrence Cutler, the Arizona collector who bought the document — and the rest is history.

Cutler said when the letter was taken from the public domain remains a mystery. He donated it to the National Archives in a ceremony Thursday morning.

"It is both a great honor and a pleasure for me to give this very important Abraham Lincoln letter back to the citizens of the United States of America, especially during this bicentennial year of Lincoln's birth," Cutler said.

Acting Archivist Adrienne Thomas welcomed the letter's return and said it is an important page in U.S. history.

"This brief note, written five days before President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, provides us with a window to look at a difficult personal crisis faced by Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War," she said.

Experts believe the letter may have been torn from U.S. Treasury Department records between the 1880s, when the letters were bound, and the 1940s, when they were sent to the National Archives. The National Archives said the letter was not included in Roy P. Basler's Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, which was published in the 1950s.

Archive Says Letter Affirms Fairness

In the letter, the president asked Chase to give Robert Stevens, who had been fired from his job as head of the U.S. Mint in San Francisco, access to the evidence that led to his dismissal. Stevens' appointment to the position had been approved by Lincoln as a favor to Oregon Sen. Edward Baker, Stevens' father-in-law.

Stevens protested his firing for months before appealing to Lincoln for access to the evidence that was the basis for his removal.

According to the National Archives Web site, Stevens' infractions included hiring "bad" men; encouraging insubordination; showing partiality in fixing wages; having employees who were chronically absent; buying inferior supplies at high rates; and being discourteous to his manager.

Experts said Lincoln's letter to Chase demonstrates the president's fairness.

"The newly returned letter indicates that while Lincoln was not willing to override Chase's decision, he did feel that Stevens deserved to see the charges against him. It emphasizes the president's sense of fair play and moral authority, which served as a guide throughout his presidency," according to a National Archives statement.



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