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Lincoln Artifacts Found

The National Archives announced in June the discovery of a handwritten note from President Abraham Lincoln to U.S. General Henry Halleck. Dated July 7, 1863—just after the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg—the note reveals Lincoln’s optimism that the Civil War could end if General George Meade stopped the Confederate army’s retreat from Gettysburg. The president’s hopes were dashed a week later when Meade’s hesitation allowed the Confederates to cross the Potomac River and escape to Virginia.

The text of Lincoln’s note was no surprise; it had been recorded in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. But the original was lost until May 14 when an archivist found it in the stacks while researching material for an upcoming Discovery Channel documentary on Gettysburg.

Also in June, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., acquired the Taper Collection, thought to be the most significant collection of Lincoln artifacts owned by a private collector. Included in the collection are the 16th president’s stovepipe hat and the gloves and handkerchief he carried the night of his assassination. The Taper Collection also contains the largest known assortment of Mary Todd Lincoln correspondence outside the presidential library as well as numerous materials relating to the extended family of John Wilkes Booth. An exhibit featuring some of the new acquisitions went on display in the museum in July, and plans are being made for traveling exhibits.

President’s House Discovered

Archaeologists in May unearthed foundations of the house Presidents George Washington and John Adams occupied in Philadelphia when the city was the national capital (1790-1800). As many as 1,000 people a day have turned out to watch the digs, prompting the National Park Service to extend the work into July. Most of the house at Sixth and Market streets was torn down in 1832, but portions remained standing until 1951 when it was finally demolished to create Independence Mall.

The location of the house’s original slave quarters was discovered in 2002 during construction of the Liberty Bell Center, sparking public demand for more research to be done. A loophole in Pennsylvania’s 1780 gradual emancipation law allowed temporary residents of the state to keep their slaves for up to six months. Washington rotated slaves between Philadelphia and Virginia so that none of them remained in Pennsylvania for more than six months at a time.

The city of Philadelphia and Independence National Historical Park have entered into a partnership to interpret the site for visitors. Kelly/ Maiello Architects and Planners have been selected to design a permanent outdoor exhibit on the site to commemorate the house and to tell the story of the African-American slaves who lived and worked there during Washington’s presidency.

Philly Mulls Tour Guide Licensing

Houses in Philadelphia once were taxed based on their width. Benjamin Franklin had 69 illegitimate children. Three-time widow Betsy Ross killed all of her husbands. These are just some of the factual mistakes tourists have heard from interpreters at historic sites in the City of Brotherly Love, and officials are taking the issue seriously. Credibility is essential to history tourism—which generates $10 billion annually in Philadelphia—so the city council is considering an ordinance to require testing and licensing of all tour guides. Similar policies have been implemented in New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and Williamsburg, Va. A vote on the ordinance was pending at press time.

Restored Ellis Island Ferry Building Opens

For the first time in more than 50 years, the Ferry Building at Ellis Island in New York Harbor is open to the public. Completed in April, the seven-year restoration project included installation of exhibits about Ellis Island, the entry point for an estimated 12 million immigrants to the United States between 1892 and 1954. The art deco–style Ferry Building, built in 1934, was a New Deal project of the Public Works Administration.

Historic Cemeteries Court Tourists

Dinner parties, jazz concerts and nature walks are all part of a trend The New York Times calls “cemetery tourism.” The newspaper recently highlighted the financial struggles of historic cemeteries when people increasingly are choosing cremation instead of burial. The cemeteries, many rich with architectural and sculptural gems, also face significant preservation and restoration costs, and many have limited room to expand.

To generate income—and attract potential customers— some cemeteries are programming events based on pertinent themes. For example, suburban Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery, where six Titanic victims are buried, re-created the doomed luxury ship’s last meal. At Washington’s Congressional Cemetery, a marching band serenaded the grave of John Philip Sousa while dogs paraded the grounds costumed as some of the cemetery’s permanent residents. The cemetery’s preservation association offers dog-walking privileges to its members for an annual fee of $125 plus $45 per dog. But with more than 600 dogs registered in the program, the association reported in April that significant damage had occurred to the grounds and monuments.

Other ideas have been less successful. A 2005 fundraising calendar that depicted various Troy, N.Y., socialites posing nearly nude in the city’s Oakwood Cemetery was not repeated. Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark, bowed to public criticism and scrapped plans to show horror movies. Ultimately, however, many preservationists are encouraging historic cemeteries to do what it takes to raise public awareness and interest.

Amelia Earhart Exhibit

The Ninety-Nines Museum of Women Pilots in Oklahoma City has opened an exhibit dedicated to Amelia Earhart, the first president of the association of female fliers. The exhibit commemorates the 75th anniversary of her solo flight across the Atlantic on May 20, 1932, and the 70th anniversary of her disappearance over the Pacific on July 2, 1937. Earhart artifacts on display include a bracelet made of elephant hide, a scarf and navigation charts.

Design Flaw May Have Sunk Titanic

The History Channel and Lone Wolf Documentary Group revealed in June that poor design may have contributed to Titanic’s sinking on April 14, 1912. The ship went down after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage in the North Atlantic. More than 1,500 people died. The researchers concluded that Titanic broke up at a much shallower angle than previously thought because expansion joints, which allow the hull to flex in rough seas, failed. A dive on Titanic’s sister ship Britannic, which hit a mine in the Aegean Sea in 1916, also led to speculation that the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Ireland, where both ships were built, knew about the problem. Builders apparently altered the design of Britannic, which launched in 1914, to include an additional expansion joint.

Robert E. Lee Letters

The Virginia Historical Society recently made available to researchers a previously unreleased collection of materials related to Robert E. Lee. Many of the letters pertain to Lee’s Civil War career, his time on the Texas frontier prior to the war and his postwar presidency of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University). The collection was discovered in two wooden trunks in 2002. Other items relate to the Lee family, with one item dating to 1694. Among those on hand for the unveiling of the collection were Lee descendant Robert E.L. deButts Jr. (second from left) and senior Virginia Historical Society archivist E. Lee Shepard (second from right).

Casino for Bethlehem Steel Site

Bethlehem, Pa., formerly home to the nation’s second-largest steel maker, will soon host a casino. The Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which was awarded a gambling license for the site by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, has agreed to preserve more than 20 Bethlehem Steel buildings and numerous artifacts, including an 1885 press and a 60-foot gun from USS Mississippi. The casino, scheduled for completion in 2009, will use the site’s five blast furnaces as a backdrop and incorporate an ore bridge into the entrance. A National Museum of Industrial History has also been proposed. Bethlehem Steel closed in 1998. The $600 million casino complex is part of an urban renewal effort to revive Bethlehem’s economic fortunes.

Radar Aids Digs at Confederate Prison

The National Park Service is using radar to survey the grounds of Andersonville Prison, the infamous Confederate prison camp near Americus, Ga. Radar allows archaeologists to accurately locate objects underground before digging, thus preserving the integrity of the site. Archaeologists have uncovered some 120 “she-bangs,” pits dug by prisoners trying to stay out of the heat and sun. Some 13,000 Union soldiers died at Andersonville.

CIA Jewel Box Cracked Open

In late June, more than 34 years after Director of Central Intelligence James R. Schlesinger ordered employees to report activities “which might be construed to be outside the legislative charter of this agency,” the resulting 700-page document was finally released to the public. Current CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said the release would give the American public “a window into the complexities of intelligence.” A 1992 Freedom of Information Act request from the National Security Archive research group led to the release of the files referred to inside the CIA as the “family jewels.” The documents, compiled in the 1970s, reveal a series of illegal activities. At the time of Schlesinger’s order in May 1973, the CIA was reeling from reports of agency ties to conspirators in the unfolding Watergate scandal.

Buffalo Bill’s Papers

The state of Wyoming has set aside $300,000 to compile and publish the definitive collection of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody materials. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., is raising funds to match the state’s appropriation. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was a major factor in elevating the cowboy to American icon status. A one-time army scout who received the Medal of Honor in 1872, Cody was one of the most popular entertainers in the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.