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The original painting (left) next to the Mary Todd fake. (images courtesy of Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum)The Lady and the scamp

Is she or isn’t she? That question has been answered with a resounding “no”: The portrait purported to be of Mary Todd Lincoln that hung in the governor’s mansion in Springfield, Ill., for 32 years is a fake.

Attributed to famed painter Francis Bicknell Carpenter, the portrait was supposedly made in secret as a surprise gift from Mrs. Lincoln to the president. After his assassination in April 1865, the story went, the distraught Mrs. Lincoln ordered Carpenter to dispose of the work; it passed through other hands until the Lincoln family acquired it in 1929. It was donated in 1976 to the Illinois State Historical Library (since renamed the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum) and wound up in the governor’s mansion. Conservators had noted overpainting of the canvas but apparently suspected no fraud: The changes were thought to be the work of earlier, “heavy-handed” restorers.

Enter Barry Bauman, an independent conservator and discoverer of the hoax. Bauman pieced together the story of how one Ludwig Pflum (a.k.a. Lew Bloom) in the late 1920s recast a painting of an unknown woman by an unknown artist to that of Mary Lincoln and created a credible provenance of the touching tale. Bauman told the New York Times that he believed Pflum altered the subject’s facial features, painted over some accessories—including a necklace with a cross—and added a brooch with the president’s picture.


Huntington Library buys Lincoln’s war telegrams

Adding to its already substantial Civil War holdings, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif., has purchased a collection of Abraham Lincoln’s telegrams to and from Union generals and the code books used to keep the contents secret from Confederates who may have intercepted them. The collection comprises some 40 cardboard-covered albums of handwritten messages taken by telegraph operators and small leather-bound books containing the code keys.

The materials were originally collected by Thomas Eckert (1825-1910), a telegraph operator who served as telegraph chief for General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac and later in the U.S. military’s telegraph office in Washington, D.C.

“This opens up some new windows that we haven’t really been able to look at,” Princeton University historian James M. McPherson told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s a major find.” The Huntington declined to reveal the purchase price. The first public display of some of the ledgers and code books is planned for this autumn.


The Intrepid rises again

In 1861, Virginia residents were shocked to see a manned balloon rise on the horizon, directing Union Army artillery against Confederate positions. This summer, a one-of-a-kind replica of the Intrepid—the first type of aerial vehicle used for combat in the United States—will take flight at the Genesee Country Village & Museum. Rising 400 feet (32 stories) above the 700-acre museum grounds in suburban Rochester, N.Y., the Intrepid will carry up to four passengers at a time in addition to the pilot.

“Our launch of the Intrepid brings to life one of the most unique elements of American history in a manner never before attempted,” said Peter Arnold, GCVM’s chief executive officer and president. Visitors will have the opportunity to book 15-minute flights for a nominal cost in addition to their museum entry fee. The first flights are planned for July 4.


Battlefield visitors bring big bucks

Recreation is big business, and now the National Park Service has some specific numbers to demonstrate how big. The NPS’ Economic Benefits Report concludes that parks received 281 million visits in 2010, and that those visitors spent more than $12 billion in the parks’ localities. Civil War battlefields were well represented. Some highlights: At Antietam, 394,000 visitors spent $19 million and supported 250 local jobs. The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania battlefields are credited with 900,000 visitors who spent $45 million and supported about 600 jobs. Gettysburg topped the 1 million visitor mark, with $64 million in spending supporting more than 1,000 workers. The full report and statistics for all parks can be found at


Preservationists scratch away at soldier graffiti

Sources don’t get much more primitive than this: Soldiers laid up at make-shift hospitals would grab a pencil or a cold cinder and scratch desultory, real-time thoughts on the wall. They’d write their names, draw pictures and scribble threats, both idle and specific, against the enemy. When the church or public building was returned to its original purpose, job one usually involved covering up the unsightly graffiti with a good coat of whitewash.

But now preservationists in at least two locations are in the process of uncovering it. At Morgan’s Chapel in Bunker Hill, W.Va., church leaders and the local landmarks commission hope to expose more graffiti left by soldiers in a balcony originally reserved for slaves, in an effort that has proceeded in fits and starts for more than a decade. The small country chapel had been known for soldier graffiti in a sanctuary anteroom, before it was destroyed by fire in the 1990s. Meanwhile, 80 miles to the south, painstaking efforts continue at the Brandy Station Graffiti House in Culpeper, Va., to uncover soldiers’ random thoughts, which have remained hidden beneath a layer of lime wash.

“Every time we find the true story of a soldier, it’s more exciting than the speculation,” Brandy Station Foundation board member Barry Atchison told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “The more you stare at the wall, the more you find.”


Medal of Honor ignites a family fight

A custody battle of sorts has broken out over possession of one of the nation’s first Medals of Honor. Six medals were awarded to members of a Union raiding party that infiltrated enemy lines in the spring of 1862 and snatched a locomotive—prompting a wild, film-worthy railroad chase eventually won by aggrieved Southerners. One of the medal recipients, Sergeant Wilson W. Brown of the 21st Ohio infantry, was imprisoned but regained his freedom in 1863 and returned to the war.

Today, Brown’s descendants are arguing over who has rightful claim to his possessions, which include the original Medal of Honor, a reissue of the medal and a key to his Southern prison cell. Linda Schwartz of Perrysburg, Ohio, Brown’s great-great-granddaughter, has maintained the artifacts since 2005. Her cousin, Arnold Ward of Timberlake, Brown’s great-grandson, sued Schwartz for not allowing them to be displayed at “family reunions, historical convocations, and other events honoring the memory and valor of Wilson W. Brown.”

Schwartz agreed to a tentative compromise in February, allowing the artifacts to be displayed temporarily at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Ga., the town where the chase began.


Tennessee Web site uncovers war tales

As many as 2.5 million bales of valuable cotton were burned during the Civil War to prevent confiscation by advancing Union soldiers. They included cotton stacked on a plantation that belonged to Colonel John Pope, who farmed 900 acres near Memphis. As Union gunboats approached in June 1862, Confederates torched the bales and today’s equivalent of nearly a half-million dollars worth of cotton went up in smoke. That night was “as lurid as flames could make it, and the day as hazy with the clouds of smoke as a fog on the river,” wrote eyewitness John Hallum.

This descriptive gem comes courtesy of a new Web site, Shades of Blue and Gray. A project of several Tennessee universities, the site is designed to aid scholars and history buffs alike and is the product of a three-year canvass of historic properties throughout the state.

“The objects we found told us two important things: that Tennessee’s division between pro-Confederate and pro-Federal sectors was not a bright line….And we came to understand that the underlying story of the objects, diaries, correspondence, and ephemera that we uncovered was the tale of survival during an unspeakable time,” researchers say. “Some Tennesseans died, some merely survived, and others thrived during the war. The Web site themes reflect their stories.”