The World Grieves for Lincoln
After President Lincoln died on April 15, 1865, condolences poured in from across the nation—and beyond. Within the voluminous collection of the Illinois-based Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project are letters from abroad lamenting the loss. They came from heads of state as well as obscure groups like the French-speaking Federal Society of Gymnasts, the Mauritian Gentlemen of Free Color in London and the London Committee of Deputies of British Jews. Whatever the death of the president meant for the United States, his commitment to human rights and freedom resonated worldwide.
In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death, Daniel Stowell, director of the Lincoln papers project, solicited comments from representatives of governments and groups related to the letter-writers of 1865. A contributor from the Republic of China (Taiwan) notes that the Gettysburg Address is a must-read there for students learning English. Japan’s note likens the tumultuous years of Lincoln’s presidency to the transformative years of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos notes that he drew upon Lincoln’s tactic of assembling a team of rivals to promote national unity. The response from Oman focuses on Lincoln’s honesty and integrity, while the contributor from Greece recognizes his mastery of Euclid’s Elements. The ambassador from Iceland shares a Viking saying: “Every man is mortal: But the good name never dies of one who has done well.”
To read the letters from 1865 and 2014, visit www.citizenlincoln.org.
Crafting Colonial Beer in Virginia
A two–sentence, 300-year-old recipe by 11-year-old Jane Randolph found in the files of the Virginia Historical Society prompted brewers at Ardent Craft Brewery in Richmond to concoct an unusual historical artifact: persimmon beer. According to Richmond.com, the result was thin and fruity, more like wine than beer. The brewers said the most difficult part was getting enough persimmons—17 pounds of fruit yielded only three gallons of beer. Participants at a December 9 event at the brewery were able to sample the beverage, which contained about 3 percent alcohol.
Tiny Island Living?
The revolution in navigating technology has left the General Services Administration, the property management arm of the federal government, with aging lighthouses to dispose of. Over the past decade some 100 have been sold or given to preservation groups, according to an Associated Press article, and 70 more are headed that way. As of mid-December two New England lighthouses were listed. Bids start at $10,000, and nonprofits have first dibs. Some lighthouses have sold for more than $280,000; renovation costs are extra. For more information, see propertydisposal.gsa.gov/ LighthouseProgram.
Providence Church to Highlight Slavery
A stately 200-year-old Episcopal church, the now-closed Cathedral of St. John, in Providence, R.I., may become the first U.S. museum dedicated to the history of slavery and slave-trading in the North, according to Providencejournal.com. Dwindling attendance shuttered St. John in 2012, but church leaders are considering how to use the historic stone structure, which dates from 1810, to illuminate Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade. The state was home to three major slave-trading ports, and a 2006 report by Brown University found that 1,000 slave-trading voyages—60 percent of all those originating in the North—departed from Rhode Island. The prospective museum would also highlight how church members supported and opposed slavery.
Helping the church develop the project is the Boston-based Tracing Center (www.tracingcenter.org), a group formed by descendants of the nation’s most prominent slave-trading family, the DeWolfs of Rhode Island. James DeWolf, who represented the state in the U.S. Senate, was also a renowned slave trader who had a distillery in West Africa, a plantation in Cuba and a company that insured slave-trading voyages. He was reputed to be the second-richest man in the United States at the time of his death in 1837.
Honoring Six Brothers Killed in the Civil War
Six brothers from Louisa County, Iowa, served in the Civil War and not one of them survived. The story of this enormous loss was discovered in 2011 through a scrapbook of the Littleton family donated to the Louisa County Historical Society in Wapello. Now an effort is underway to raise money for a granite obelisk commemorating the 1862-63 service of brothers Tomas, Noah, Kendall, William, George and John Littleton.
The Littleton family had emigrated in the 1840s from Ohio to Toolesboro, Iowa, with the help of abolitionists and the Underground Railroad, but the mixed-race brothers—described as “mulatto” in the 1860 census— evidently passed for white and served in white Civil War units. Both parents died before the war ended. One brother died in Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Another drowned while serving in Missouri. The others died in combat or from combat-related illnesses. Contributions for the monument can be sent to LCHS— Littleton Fund, P.O. Box 302, Wapello, IA, 52653.
50 Brides for Seven Brothers
Polygamy among early Mormons is no secret, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself has now brought the surprising origins of the practice to light in a lengthy essay posted on its website in 2014. The essay details how Mormon founder Joseph Smith introduced the practice in the 1830s after what he described as three divine revelations, but he did not document it until 1843, a year before his death. The early church never formalized plural marriages, which were not legal, but Smith conducted ceremonies in private. A footnote in the essay estimates that Smith may have had 30 to 40 wives. Ten were teens, and some of the others were already married.
Church leaders were apparently motivated to publish the essay in an effort to grapple with questions raised by information widely available on the Internet. According to a November 10, 2014, New York Times article, many Mormons had believed that the practice of polygamy originated with Brigham Young, Smith’s successor. But the church essay claims that in addition to Smith and his wives, 29 men and 50 women had entered into plural marriage by the time of the founder’s death in 1844.
Interestingly, the essay addresses the attitudes—ranging from reluctance to abhorrence—both female and male members faced in entering plural marriages. In fact, Emma Smith, Joseph’s first wife, denied in 1860 that her husband engaged in polygamy.
The LDS Church has also digitized Joseph Smith’s letters, diaries and revelations. They are available online at josephsmithpapers.org/the-papers.
Emmett Till Commemorated
On November 17, 2014, a small group gathered on Capitol Hill around a newly planted American sycamore to commemorate Emmett Till, the 14-yearold African-American boy who was killed in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) sponsored the event, which was attended by Attorney General Eric Holder, both senators from Mississippi and Janet Cohen, author of Anne and Emmett, a play about an imagined conversation between Holocaust victim Anne Frank and Till. Cohen, the wife of William Cohen, former Maine senator and secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, came up with the idea for the memorial.
New Walt Whitman Poem Found
While researching in the Library of Congress, art history professor Wendy Katz noticed a poem by an author with the initials W.W. in the June 23, 1842, issue of the newspaper New Era. Katz, whose husband happens to be a Walt Whitman scholar, immediately wondered if the author was Whitman, who would have been 23 at the time. Trough subsequent research published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Katz has convinced her peers that the poem was indeed penned by the Brooklyn writer. The rhymes celebrate poet and New York Post editor William Cullen Bryant, who was a friend of Whitman’s and who had written favorably about Whitman a few days before. Whitman was making his way in the newspaper world of New York City and had not yet begun publishing the unconventional free verse that would make him famous.
The New-York Historical Society announced plans for a new Center for the Study of Women’s History, which will be part of the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture. Slated to open in December 2016, the center will have both permanent and rotating exhibitions. Among its features will be a theater, conference room and exhibit showcasing the achievements of New York women at the turn of the 20th century and their contribution to women getting the vote.
Canal House on Mall to Be Restored
The oldest structure on the National Mall, a small, dilapidated stone house at the busy corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue, will be restored, thanks to a million-dollar grant from American Express. The house was constructed in 1836 for the toll-taker who managed the lock gates for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal that ran along what is now the Mall. Railroads put the canal out of business in 1873, and the house was used as a shed. The grant will also support moving the house 32 feet back from the roadway.
Saving Federal Electronic Records
On November 26 President Obama signed into law an act strengthening the preservation of federal government records. The act expanded the definition of federal records to include electronic records; establishes that electronic records will be transferred to the National Archives in electronic form; and clarifies the responsibilities of federal government officials when using non-governmental e-mail systems. It also establishes the procedure by which former and incumbent presidents review presidential records for executive privilege. The revision is the first change to the law regarding archiving procedures since the Federal Records Act of 1950.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.