What Abraham Lincoln Never Knew

This is an article by Nathan Raab published on Forbes.com, where he is a contributor.

The Team of Rivals

If only a document signed by Abraham Lincoln could tell you where it has been, what it has seen, for the last 150 years.  Perhaps it has been held by other famous people, survived battles, sat decades in an attic, caught fire, traveled around the world, adorned the White House, or been torn apart and reassembled.   We do not learn about these stories in history books. Our historical narrative is often ignorant of them. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “David Swan,” the hero sleeps by the side of the road as events swirl around him.  He is tempted with love, nearly dies, and all the while slumbers, oblivious to it all.  “We can,” wrote Hawthorne, “be but partially acquainted even with the events which actually influence our course through life, and our final destiny.” Like David’s passage through events to which he is oblivious, the past exists around us and unfolds for us like a dream.  But original documents have seen more.  Their written words tell one story.  But they live a full life of their own in the subsequent years, decades, centuries.  We are looking for those stories.  Put away your white gloves; there is no need here for chemical solutions or scientific laboratories.  The process we are embarking on is more complex, subtle, and fascinating than this.  And it will take us to the fields of Ohio in 1864.

A few months ago, a woman called us and claimed to have a single sheet of paper signed by President Lincoln’s entire cabinet, the Team of Rivals.  It was bound into a book, she said.  Books of this era often carry printed signatures, and I was skeptical.

The document has been hidden inside this book for over a century

A digital scan she emailed showed signs of real ink on paper.   The pens appeared in different colorations, which you would expect to see as the different Cabinet members pressed with varying force on paper.  Printed signatures by contrast are uniform.  Also, I could see where one stroke crossed another, an example of ink on paper showing texture and thickness.  The signatures looked right, each bearing the clear script of the cabinet members.

Knowledge of history shed additional light.  The Civil War was the early dawn of organized modern medical care. For the first time in coordinated fashion, non governmental organizations played a serious role alongside their governmental counterparts in public health, working to organize Sanitary Fairs to benefit wounded and disabled soldiers.  President Lincoln and his cabinet took a personal interest in this, and occasionally donated autographs to be sold at these Sanitary Fairs.  This donation has helped contribute to his legend.  A few carried the full signatures of Lincoln and his cabinet, the “Team of Rivals,” and were signed on known letterhead.  Only 3-4 of these documents are known to have survived.  Though this sheet matched those few, there was no previous record of its existence.

  But the document told us so much more.  At the Sanitary Fair, it was bought by a man who bound it into a history book by Horace Greeley and entered his name on the front leaf: “E.N. Sill.”  He was Elisha Sill, whose father had been a Revolutionary War hero and poet-preacher.  The younger Sill was an abolitionist in Ohio, a state that, along with Massachusetts, led the anti-slavery crusade.  In Summit County, where Sill ran the local bank, the fiery John Brown, who tried to liberate slaves, grew up.  The families knew each other and John and Elisha were friends.  Sill spoke in the Ohio Senate advocating abolition.  And he fought for the well being of the soldiers going off to fight. His name was a breadcrumb that took us to an obscure book, A Historical Sketch of the Soldiers Aid Society of Northern Ohio.  He appears in the list of organizing members of the great Northern Ohio 1864 Sanitary Fair.   Single admission tickets cost 25 cents. The fair, opened by Major General and future President James A. Garfield, brought in $78,000. The book describes the event in vivid detail.  “February 22d, 1864, the anniversary of the birthday of Washington, and henceforth to be remembered as the inaugural day of the great Sanitary Fair, opened inauspiciously with clouds and rain. But by nine o clock the sun peered through the clouds, the sky cleared, the morning air was balmy and spring-like, and nature smiled in happiest mood. Above the fair building, around and in which the workers still clustered, thickly and busily as bees, floated the flag of the Union, and from housetops and flagstaffs throughout the city the stars and stripes were flung out. The streets were thronged with citizens and strangers.” This book put us on the ground, in a tent, where soldiers and citizens strolled through the exhibits, seeking a glimpse of the heroes, and browsing the items being sold.  More importantly, it put us in the shoes of E.N. Sill.  The book continues, “Several fine engravings adorn the walls, autographs of Lincoln are for sale here, and useful and fancy goods of every variety.” One of these autographs, which had survived nearly 150 years, had just walked into our office.  From Mr. Sill, it had gone to a judge in the Akron area, just miles from where it had been first sold in 1864. And when the judge’s grand daughter put the book and document on my desk, asking if she had a real signature of Abraham Lincoln, the document’s story came full circle, and was able to speak unhindered for the first time in a century. You can follow Nathan Raab on twitter at www.twitter.com/raabcollection or facebook at www.facebook.com/raabcollection

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