Not anymore. The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, thanks to research by
Associate Editor Stacy Pratt McDermott, has discovered that the
letter was written by Andrew Johnston, a newspaper editor, lawyer
and fan of Lincoln's poetry.
McDermott compared the handwriting on
the letter found in Lincoln's home with another letter Johnston
wrote to Lincoln in 1865 and to a note Johnston wrote in 1872 on an
old letter from Lincoln. The handwriting was a perfect match.
"Discovering the identity of the author and connecting the letter
to a part of Lincoln's life about which we know very little
illustrates the importance of the editing work we are doing at the
Papers of Abraham Lincoln, and it is an example of why I love my
job," McDermott said.
Johnston, a native of Richmond, Va., published the Quincy Whig
and was, like Lincoln, a member of the Whig Party in the 1840s. He
was also an uncle of George Pickett, a young man who got into West
Point with the help of Lincoln's law partner and went on to become a
Confederate general. Today, he is best remembered for leading the
doomed "Pickett's Charge" at the Battle of Gettysburg.
The mystery letter was found in 1987, when the Lincoln Home
National Historic Site underwent a full restoration. Fragments of
Johnston's letter and several others were in an old mouse nest in
the kitchen walls.
The editors of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln scanned the document
in 2006 and transcribed it as best they could in 2007.
What was left in the fragments were passages like this: "... ur
letter, enclosing the poe ... earnest ... th undiminis ... once ...
lson's house, where I happ ... to be ... ter. My auditors were as
much pleased ... ll agreed that the author of su ... poetry ."
The letter's mention of poetry pointed toward Johnston as a
possible author. He and Lincoln exchanged several letters about
poetry and politics.
Lincoln had written to Johnston on Feb. 25, 1846, to send him a
piece of poetry that Johnston had requested. He also asked if
Johnston would like to see a poem he was completing.
The letter found at the Lincoln home is Johnston's response,
dated March 10, 1846. He thanks Lincoln for the poem and asks if
Lincoln was the author.
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Lincoln responded on April 18 that he was not but would "give all I
am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I
think that is." Still, Lincoln's poetry was good enough for
Johnston, who published Lincoln's "My Childhood-Home I See Again"
and "Matthew Gentry" in April of 1847.
Piecing together the exchange between Lincoln and Johnston
required studying documents from three separate sources – Princeton
University, which has the first letter; the Lincoln Home and its
fragments of Johnston's response; and an early collection of Lincoln
documents that transcribes Lincoln's reply. (The original of that
third letter is now in the hands of an unknown private collector.)
"This discovery shows the value of careful examination of
individual documents, the handwriting on them and their relationship
with other documents," said Papers of Abraham Lincoln Director
Daniel W. Stowell.
"Though the document itself is incomplete, it nonetheless gives
us a more complete picture of one of the most remarkable literary
correspondences in Lincoln's life," said Samuel P. Wheeler, research
historian with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
and an authority on Lincoln's poetry.
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln is dedicated to identifying,
imaging, transcribing, annotating and publishing all documents
written by or to Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime (1809-1865).
The project is administered through the Abraham Lincoln Presidential
Library and Museum, and is co-sponsored by the Center for State
Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois Springfield and
by the Abraham Lincoln Association.
The Lincoln Home National Historic Site preserves, protects and
interprets the Abraham Lincoln home for current and future
generations. He and his family lived in the Springfield home from
1844 to 1861. The home and surrounding neighborhood became a part of
the National Park Service in 1972.
Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
file received from the
Illinois Historic Preservation Agency]