Budge Weidman’s legacy is the preservation of our legacy.
The passing this summer of Budge Weidman, the tireless organizer of volunteer Civil War researchers at the National Archives, brought to mind an endearing anecdote from the Civil War.
In October 1863, an equally indefatigable home-front volunteer from Chicago named Mary Livermore audaciously sent Abraham Lincoln a request he initially wanted to refuse. Mrs. Livermore was organizing a monster charity fair to benefit Union soldiers. And she hoped to get Lincoln to donate something priceless to sell there. Her target: his handwritten final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“[T]he most acceptable donation you could possibly make, would be the original manuscript of the Proclamation of emancipation,” Livermore wrote. “There would be great competition among buyers to obtain possession of it, and to say nothing of the interest that would attach to such a gift, it would prove pecuniarily of great value.” If it were any consolation, she assured Lincoln the document would ultimately end up safely preserved in the Chicago Historical Society.
At first, Lincoln hesitated. He had no desire to part with what he knew would go down in national memory as his most important decree (he said as much when he signed it). But Livermore kept up the pressure. She even got the president’s old Illinois friend, Isaac N. Arnold, to telegraph him to “beg you will send the original of proclamation of Freedom if possible.” Lincoln surrendered and reluctantly mailed it off to Chicago. “I had some desire to retain the paper,” he candidly admitted in his cover letter, “but if it shall contribute to the relief or comfort of the soldiers that will be better[.]”
Just as Livermore predicted, the manuscript sold for a breathtaking $3,000, earning Lincoln the distinction of having provided the fair with “the largest benefaction of any individual”—and a gold pocket watch as a reward. Lincoln promptly acknowledged his “high appreciation” for the “generosity, of which I have unexpectedly become the beneficiary.” He proudly wore the timepiece for the rest of his life.
Livermore’s promise to safeguard the proclamation, however, proved harder to keep. She did make good on her vow to preserve the document in Chicago. Unfortunately, it was residing there when the Great Fire struck that city in 1871. The relic went up in flames.
So, eventually, did much of the can-do spirit Livermore once personified. Her compelling story ranks only as a Civil War sidebar, but it evokes deep appreciation for some quintessentially American traits that have sadly proved more endearing than enduring: the obligation of civilians required to sacrifice during wartime, the power of communities to join harmoniously in support of high ideals and, of course, the crucial importance of cherishing our great documents.
Fortunately, one ethic survives in some quarters, though its practitioners are growing scarcer: that is, the crucial need for volunteers, especially in today’s recession-driven era of threadbare staffing, to help safeguard our historical touchstones.
Sixteen years ago, Budge Weidman emerged as the Mary Livermore of her day—and more. Her effort was not a season’s do-good lark, but a lifetime commitment to Civil War history. In 1994 Budge organized an army of retirees to work at the National Archives. There, her “Civil War Conservation Corps,” as she named it, unbundled, reviewed and digitized the dusty records of U.S. Colored Troops in the federal Freedman’s Bureau—preserving them for a new age in a new medium.
History was served. Budge Weidman’s corps shed new light on the long-neglected black veterans of the war, and their quest for acceptance, equal pay and military justice. Next her team tackled the Civil War Widows Pension Files. Budge Weidman & Co. unearthed hundreds of post-war entreaties for recognition and relief from poverty. I remember how excited she was when she discovered a Ketubah—an illuminated, traditional Jewish pre-nuptial agreement—that one bereft war widow had mailed in what must have been a desperate plea for a pension. No Jewish wife would have otherwise parted with such a treasure— since the government offered no guarantees that “evidence” would be returned. Indeed, Budge discovered many such personal enclosures buried in the files, unseen for generations: wedding photographs and final love letters from longsilent battlefields, all forwarded to Washington to attest to the legal status of marriages terminated by wartime death.
Budge led this work diligently, enthusiastically and selflessly. She received no gold watch—though appropriately, the National Archives created a volunteer award in her name, and made her and her husband, Russ (who worked at her side), its first honorees. She served, too, on the advisory board to the Lincoln Bicentennial as well as the Board of Advisors of the Lincoln Forum, where she focused on recognizing that organization’s own unsung heroes and heroines—volunteers, like her (though no one was quite like Budge). No one lucky enough to enjoy the privilege of being in her company will ever forget her energy or her elegance—whether in Washington or at Civil War conferences from Gettysburg to Palm Beach—as a hostess, a researcher and a devoted friend.
Budge Weidman died in July at the age of 75 after a long and brave battle with cancer—during which she continued working at the Archives as long as her energy allowed. Like the original Emancipation Proclamation, which left us in body but endures in spirit, she remains with us indelibly and will not be forgotten. But the loss of this treasure is also cruel and deeply ironic. For if the past is to have a future, we need more Budge Weidmans, not fewer.
Award-winning author Harold Holzer served as co-chairman of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.