A rare Civil War letter related to the Battle of Antietam 149 years ago and an accompanying hand-written note from President Abraham Lincoln, stolen from government files dozens of years ago, are today being returned to the National Archives thanks to the cooperation of a major U.S. historical auction house.
In what the Archives hopes will the first of hundreds of recoveries of important historical letters and files stolen by collectors and crooks 75 to 100 years ago, officials this afternoon will reveal the papers to the public and herald the auction house, Alexander Autographs and affiliate Alexander Historical Auctions of Stamford, Conn.
Officials told Whispers that the two letters were part of a recent $10,000 sale by Alexander, who, when contacted by the Archives, worked to recover the documents from the buyer and deliver them to Washington. Said Bill Panagopulos, president of Alexander. "The documents are an important part of American history and I feel a responsibility and civic duty to make sure that these documents are returned to where they belong." [Galupo asks, Are there any Lincoln Republicans left?]
One of the letters is dated November 6, 1862. It is to Lincoln from three military surgeons asking that the president appoint a chaplain to serve in hospitals treating wounded Union troops from Antietam. The other document is a letter signed by "A. Lincoln," dated November 12, 1862, endorsing the appointment. The documents were stolen from the Civil War-era Commission Branch records of Rev. Henry Edwards, who was chaplain endorsed by Lincoln.
Retired Archives Civil War archivist Michael Musick said that the files were "hit rather hard" by a thief interested in Lincoln documents when they were held by the War Department, before the Archives was created in 1934.
In recent years, the Archives has mounted a hunt for missing documents. Early in 2009, Archive investigator Mitchell Yockelson saw these two in a catalogue of a New York autograph dealer who had purchased them from Panagopulos' firm, which had received them on consignment from a Rhode Island family. After being contacted by the Archives, Panagopulos refunded the $10,000 to the other dealer and returned the letters to the Archives, losing his substantial commission in the transaction. [See a collection of political cartoons on the GOP hopefuls.]
"I'm out thousands, but it's going back to where it belongs and that's the right thing to do," he told Whispers.
Confident that the story of the recovery will inspire others who hold old documents to return them, the Archives produced a short video of the Lincoln-Antietam letters which you can see here.
In celebrated 2007 case, Civil War documents sold on eBay led to the arrest of a former Archives intern and the return of more than 160 stolen items.