Doctor wants to find out what was ailing Abe
We know what killed Abraham Lincoln, but do we know what else he may have been dying of? A bloodstained strip of pillowcase— the subject of passionate debate earlier this year—could hold the answer.
Research conducted by cardiologist John Sotos suggests Lincoln might have been suffering from a rare genetic cancer known as multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B at the time of his assassination. This spring, Sotos sought to perform DNA testing on a fragment of blood-stained pillowcase from Lincoln’s death bed, now stored in Philadelphia’s Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library, to see whether his theory holds true. The debate whether this priceless artifact should be loaned for such an investigation heated up immediately.
In May, the museum’s board of directors turned down Sotos’ request but agreed to work with the National Muse – um of Health and Medi cine in Washington, D.C., to possibly perform the testing and analysis, which could be concluded by year’s end. Sotos has agreed to serve as an adviser during the process, along with other scholars and scientists such as James McPherson, Ed Bearss and Gary Grove.
“We want to perform the investigation in a laboratory that we feel would be unbiased, open and neutral about obtaining the information,” said Dr. Anthony Waskie, a Temple University professor and longtime member of the GAR museum’s board of directors. “We’re interested in whether Lincoln was suffering from any ailments that may have affected his decision-making and that may have some impact on our understanding of history.”
Some observers questioned whether the analysis is worth the potential risk to the pillowcase fragment. “The bottom line is that history’s interest in preserving this assassination relic outweighs the question about Lincoln’s genetic status at the time of his death,” blogger Geoff Elliott wrote recently. Two online polls, however, showed overwhelming support for the testing.
“Our primary concern,” Waskie said, “is preserving the integrity of this artifact.”
—Kim A. O’Connell
Examining the Jewish experience in the Civil War
Although he is usually hailed as a Union hero, Ulysses S. Grant was responsible for an infamous case of anti-Semitism during the Civil War. In his General Order No. 11, Grant sought to bar Jews from the Department of the Tennessee, arguing that “Jews as a class [had violated] every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department.” Following an outcry in Congress and in the press, President Lincoln overturned Grant’s order less than a month after it was issued.
This difficult aspect of the war’s history is just one of many subjects covered in a new exhibit examining the Jewish wartime experience in the nation’s capital.
“Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln’s City” is sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washing – ton. The show covers several prominent Jewish personalities, ranging from Isachar Zacharie, who served as President Abraham Lincoln’s podiatrist, to Eugenia Levy Phillips, a spy who was married to an Alabama Unionist but smuggled documents and battle plans out of Washing – ton to the Confederacy.
Other sections will look at Jewish soldiers on both sides, as well as “Life Across the River”—the thriving Jewish community in the port city of Alexandria, Va. The exhibit also chronicles the Jewish community’s reactions to Lincoln’s assassination.
After displays at two other locations in the nation’s capital, “Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln’s City” will be on view at the Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria from September 11 through December.
In Richmond, historians present a Civil War prequel
In 1859, a single slave merchant in Richmond earned $2.6 million, the equivalent of more than $50 million today. That was just one of several juicy nuggets revealed during the first signature conference of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission, held in April at the University of Richmond.
The conference, titled “America on the Eve of the Civil War,” drew about 2,000 participants. It featured four primary sessions on a single track, focusing on the state of the nation in 1859, the future of Virginia and the South (from an 1859 perspective), John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry that year, and “predictions” for the 1860 presidential election.
“The Civil War forged our national identity, and World War II cemented our place as a dynamic force on the world scene and in bringing peace to the world, and these are related events,” said Virginia Governor Tim Kaine in his welcoming remarks. “This conflict 150 years ago is not even past. We are still wrestling with it today as a commonwealth and as a country, and that’s as it should be.”
A diverse group of experts, hailing primarily from academia and representing a number of institutions, spoke at the conference. University of Richmond President Edward Ayers, a published historian, opened and closed the conference and also moderated all the sessions. He imposed a rule that speakers could discuss only the known facts in 1859 and could not mention or consider the coming war, to give attendees a true sense of the country as it existed in the antebellum years.
The opening session tackled the nation’s burgeoning technological rise at mid-century, including the growth of the railroads and the effect of immigration on labor and race relations. Abolitionists, though they technically constituted only a small fraction of the Northern population, were gaining currency. As historian Gary Gallagher noted, “In 1859, Bleeding Kansas is still bleeding.”
Those tensions led to John Brown’s raid in October, which the experts were quick to point out should never be considered an isolated event by a terrorist, but rather an inexorable boiling point in an escalating “undeclared war” against African-Americans. Had Brown been killed outright during the raid, they said, he would not have been able to foment the antislavery cause in his jailhouse writings in the months leading up to his execution that December.
An archived webcast of the conference is available at www.vacivilwar.org. Future signature conferences sponsored by the Virginia commission will examine the African-American experience (2010), American military strategy (2011), leadership and generalship (2012), the home front (2013), the war in a global context (2014) and the Civil War in memory (2015).
—Kim A. O’Connell
Society stakes a claim to Lincoln’s Virginia legacy
Although Abraham Lincoln is more often associated with Kentucky and Illinois, his ancestors did own land and put down roots in Virginia. This spring, the Lincoln Society of Virginia made a $452,000 option agreement to purchase a Federal-style brick house near Harrisonburg that was erected in 1800 by the revered president’s great-uncle. The society hopes to convert the house into a museum. Lincoln had a number of relatives who lived in Virginia and even fought for the Confederacy during the war. The site includes a family cemetery and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The society is now mounting a fundraising effort to purchase the property.
—Kim A. O’Connell
Plans for incinerator near Monocacy go up in smoke
In late April, commissioners in Frederick County, Md., shelved long-held plans to build a garbage incinerator near the Monocacy National Battlefield. The decision came only weeks after a state Senate committee had essentially paved the way for the incinerator to be constructed.
The $527 million project, which had been planned for two years, would have erected the incinerator in an industrial park near the city of Frederick, burning trash from Frederick and Carroll counties and generating electricity in the process. Plans for the 100-foot tall facility included a 350-foot smokestack, which would have been visible from the battlefield, according to the Civil War Preservation Trust. This spring, the CWPT included Monocacy on its annual list of the nation’s most endangered battlefields, citing the incinerator threat.
To prevent the project, state Senator Alex Mooney, R-Frederick, had introduced a bill that would have barred new, largescale incinerators within a mile of national parks. But in early April the state’s Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee voted 6-3 to block the bill, essentially allowing the incinerator project to proceed. By the end of the month, however, the Frederick Board of County Commissioners had effectively killed the project by voting 4-1 to suspend the bidding process for the incinerator. Commissioners cited growing public op – position in their near-unanimous decision.
Although it is unclear when or if the project will be picked up again, CWPT officials feel confident that this particular threat to Monocacy has been defeated. “We and plenty of other conservation groups are thrilled about the decision,” said CWPT Spokeswoman Mary Goundrey Koik. “We’re pleased that the county commission saw the wisdom of not putting an incinerator on the edge of a national park.”
—Kim A. O’Connell
House renovation uncovers Civil War bounty
Historic preservation projects have a way of revealing the past—but rarely so dramatically as in the recent case of one New York couple. Carmen Artache and Balmes Rosa were restoring their 200-yearold house in the Catskills when they stumbled across a hidden closet containing a cache of Civil War-era documents once belonging to newspaper editor S.B. Cham – pion. According to The New York Times, the papers (dating from 1851 to 1871) include more than 200 letters, notices, articles—even a love poem. The couple hopes to donate the documents to a museum.
—Kim A. O’Connell
Will the Pee Dee River surrender its sunken guns?
Some submerged Confederate history might soon see the light. Sometime this fall or next spring, three Confederate cannons from a sunken gunboat are expected to be raised from the murky depths of South Carolina’s Pee Dee River.
The cannons—two Brooke rifles and one captured Union Dahlgren, together weighing more than 15 tons—were dumped into the river after the CSS Pee Dee, a gunboat built at the Mars Bluff Naval Yard, was scuttled and sunk as Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman advanced into the region in March 1865. Over the years, various attempts to locate the cannons have been unsuccessful.
This past May, however, the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology began an archaeological field school project with students from East Carolina University that was expected to do a systematic investigation of the river around the naval yard until the cannons were found. The project, funded in part by a $200,000 grant from the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation of Florence, S.C., was also scheduled to include an investigation of a submerged boat downstream that has always been presumed—but never confirmed—to be the Pee Dee. A search for the original foundations of the naval yard was to be part of the project as well. Once recovered, the cannons and any other artifacts will be conserved through an agreement with Francis Marion University in Florence.
The institute—which helped raise and investigate the Confederate H.L. Hunley submarine a few years back—is working with the foundation and other partners to determine how the cannons will be displayed and interpreted. “The main idea right now is that we protect and preserve the artifacts,” said Christopher Amer, a state underwater archaeologist. “Where they go will be part of an agreement that is being worked out. The important part is to make sure that history is recorded.”
—Kim A. O’Connell
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.