Published Thursday, November 08, 2012
By W. WINSTON SKINNER
As voters took one last moment for reflection before heading out to elect a president, about 125 Cowetans took an opportunity to hear a renowned scholar talk about one of America's most iconic chief executives.
Dr. Daniel W. Stowell, director and editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, talked about Lincoln, the continuing search for his papers and how modern technology is transforming that process on Monday. He spoke to students at Newnan High School, his alma mater, and at East Coweta High School and Northgate High School during the day.
Monday evening, he was the speaker at a ticketed event at the Wadsworth Auditorium in downtown Newnan. Stowell's visit was sponsored by the Coweta County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee.
Several of Stowell's teachers from his Newnan years were at the Wadsworth presentation, and a row of his 1982 NHS classmates came to hear his presentation.
The Lincoln papers project is funded with state, federal and private dollars and has its headquarters – and a state-of-the-art museum – in the Illinois capital of Springfield. The goal of the program is "to locate and transcribe and annotate all documents written by or to Abraham Lincoln," Stowell said.
The "to" has meant the ongoing project continues to expand. "You would be amazed what people wrote to Lincoln about," Stowell said. The collection includes missives dealing with both "important and trivial concerns," he said.
Lincoln's papers have been examined in several time frames. The legal papers date from 1836-1861, and the Illinois papers from 1824-1861. The final set is the presidential papers starting in 1861 until Lincoln's assassination in 1865.
"A team of researchers went to many courthouses around Illinois and many repositories around the country," Stowell said of the legal papers effort.
The papers project has published in book form and on disc, but the project more and more is doing its work online. The papers project website includes the Lincoln Log which tells what Lincoln was doing on a particular day and year.
Stowell explained the project seeks anything in Lincoln's hand – letters he wrote and telegrams, orders and commissions he signed. In the 19th century, documents were copied by hand by clerks, and those items may also be included.
"Where are Lincoln documents? Well, they're everywhere," Stowell observed.
Lincoln papers have been found in every state except Alaska, North Dakota and Mississippi. "There probably are Lincoln documents in all of those places, but we haven't been able to find them," Stowell said.
Stowell and his wife, Miriam, traveled to Japan last year where they found several new documents at Meisei University.
The Stowells also traveled to Australia last year. Following his visit there, Stowell received images of ship's passports signed by Lincoln for the Jireh Swift. The ship, built by a black builder who had escaped slavery, was involved in what was likely the last altercation of the Civil War.
There are seven Lincoln documents in the Portuguese national archives. "They literally are scattered all over the world," he said.
He said new documents continue to be discovered. "If you see one somewhere and you think it's in an odd place, call us and let us know," he said.
There is an ongoing effort to find and record all the Lincoln papers in the National Archives. From 2006-2011, 29,000 items were catalogued at the facility in College Park, Md. The work at the Washington, D.C., building began in 2008 and has yielded 26,000 documents so far. "We expect the number will exceed 100,000 eventually," Stowell said.
Transcribing can sometimes be a challenge. "Abraham Lincoln's handwriting is quite good. I can read it probably better than I can read my own now," Stowell said.
Some of the people who wrote to Lincoln, however, had poor handwriting. Many were uneducated and spelled phonetically.
The oldest item written by Lincoln is a page of mathemetics equations he copied from a book and solved as a teen. The top part of the piece belongs to Brown University, and the bottom is in the University of Chicago's collection. Using digital technology, Stowell was able to show the piece whole on Monday.
Another piece in Lincoln's hand but without his signature did bear the signature of James Rutledge, the New Salem tavern keeper whose daughter, Ann, is thought by some to have been Lincoln's first love.
Stowell also showed a slide of a document Lincoln wrote while serving on the post office department committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. The paper refers to a route that runs from Pike County to Coweta through Newnan – though Lincoln apparently spelled the town "Newman."
When Lincoln became president, thousands of people wrote him. Many sought appointment to a federal post for themselves or others. Some wrote hoping to retrieve the body of a relative from a war zone.
"Every document tells a story. Some document don't tell a very interesting story, but many of them do," Stowell said.