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The Nation

Archivists find 1863 Lincoln letter urging an end to Civil War

The note offers no new details but underscores his sense of urgency.

June 08, 2007|Leora Falk | Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — Abraham Lincoln thought the Civil War was nearing the end in July 1863. If only Union Gen. George Meade would capitalize on victories in Vicksburg and Gettysburg and aggressively attack Robert E. Lee's Confederate army, the war could be over, Lincoln believed.

That sentiment -- and a desperate sense of urgency -- is expressed in a newly found July 7, 1863, letter Lincoln wrote to Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck that was unveiled at the National Archives on Thursday.

The letter, only a few lines long, does not offer new information, but it captures Lincoln's strategic sense and fervent desire for the war to end.

The letter was quoted in a telegram Halleck sent to Meade that day, so its content had been known to historians. But archivists were thrilled to discover another original Lincoln document.

The note, written on War Department letterhead, came to light when an archivist at the National Archives, searching for another document, happened upon the signed letter among Civil War-related papers.

"Now, if Gen. Meade can complete his work so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the ... substantial destruction of Lee's army, the rebellion will be over," Lincoln wrote.

In the end, Meade did not listen to the pleas of Lincoln and Halleck, which continued over the next week, and Lee's army crossed back over the Potomac River, leaving Lincoln distraught. The lack of action possibly prolonged the war for nearly two years.

"These discoveries remind us that history is a dynamic field," Allen Weinstein, the archivist of the United States, said to reporters.

Trevor Plante, the archivist who found the letter, said it was significant because "we are not left to rely on a telegram quoting Lincoln. We now have the original document."

He added that the fact the telegram to Meade was sent on the same day as the letter indicated "the urgency and importance" of the note.

Daniel Stowell, director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project in Springfield, Ill., agreed.

The project, under the joint auspices of the Illinois Historic Preservation Society and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, has been collecting documents written by or sent to Lincoln. Stowell said 20 to 25 new documents had been found in the last 18 months.

But he said this find was important because of "the combination of it being the original document written by Lincoln himself and also the significance of the time in which it was written."

Richard J. Carwardine, the Rhodes professor of American history at Oxford University in England and author of "Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power," said that Lincoln was right in viewing July 4, 1863, when the Union forces won the battles at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, as "the crux of the Civil War" and that the victories were "cause for celebration."

But the document, he said, offered little new information to historians.

"It's splendid to have the original letter ... but it doesn't tell us anything that we didn't already know from the original records," Carwardine said.

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