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Rare 'Lincoln Letters' found in Santa Maria to go on display

March 29, 2013|By Mary Forgione | Los Angeles Times Daily Travel & Deal blogger
  • A War Department pass for Leonard Swett to visit Gen. Benjamin Butler dated 1864 is among the papers that will be on display April 27 at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society Museum.
A War Department pass for Leonard Swett to visit Gen. Benjamin Butler dated… (Santa Maria Valley Historical…)

A week and a half before the movie "Lincoln" opened last November, Cindy Ransick had an amazing Lincoln moment of her own.

The executive director of the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society Museum opened three scrapbooks stored in the museum's archives and, among hundreds of items of correspondence, found a letter from Abraham Lincoln to his friend and Republican Party activist Leonard Swett, a calling card from Mary Todd Lincoln and letters from the president's oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln.

"It was a miracle," Ransick said Thursday. "I found the old scrapbooks and thought they were obituaries." Instead the thick books were filled with papers from other famous figures, too, such as Gen. George Custer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Seward.

The collection is dubbed the "Lincoln Letters," even though the president authored just one letter. Ransick says they provide a snapshot of the politics and happenings in the Republican Party and its players as the nation was on the brink of Civil War. 

The papers will go on display for free for a single day from noon to 5 p.m. on April 27 at the historical society museum in Santa Maria. A Lincoln authority will be on hand to explain the papers' historical context and a Lincoln impersonator will be there, too. The exhibition is called "Across Five Aprils" as a nod to the period from 1860 to 1865 in which most of the letters were written.

Ransick says some items have been authenticated by the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill. Among the finds:

-- A "war pass" for Swett to enter the battlefield at City Point, Va., where Grant was headquartered in 1864 and 1865.

-- A letter from Swett to his wife in which he describes Grant's tent and the plan to take Richmond.

-- A letter from Custer to his wife.

The scrapbooks, which reflect the experiences of Swett, had been donated to the museum in the 1980s by the family of Santa Maria Valley resident Laura Burnham, who was his granddaughter.

Contact: Santa Maria Valley Historical Society Museum, 616 S. Broadway, Santa Maria; (805) 922-3130.

mary.forgione@latimes.com
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