Monday, April 14, 2014

History is Found in Surprising Places





Today marks 149 years since Abraham Lincoln got shot at the theater, dying the next day from the head wound. So I thought I'd post about good old Honest Abe and a pretty nifty document that survives from those last fateful days.


The paper, with a design drawn in ink and hand-colored with pencils, was signed by Lincoln and every member of his second cabinet, including Secretary Seward, who was ill at the time. (Sorry it is sideways, I am experiencing human-induced technical difficulties…) This was probably one of the last things Lincoln signed as it is also dated April 1865. The item was to go on sale at the Chicago Northwestern Sanitary Fair in the summer, but it's unknown if it actually did end up there what with the incredible events that happened days after it was signed.

This document currently resides in the privately held Nau Civil War Collection in Houston, Texas. One of the largest private Civil War collections in the country, it contains over 15,000 documents and letters, 2,000 photographic images, and 300 weapons, along with various other military accoutrements, veteran’s memorial souvenirs, and even a tiny metal Jesus statue carried by a soldier in his pocket. The collection has a full-time curator and it continues to grow. The collector, Mr. John L. Nau, III is a lifelong history lover who has given graciously of his time and resources to preserve and share Civil War history. His projects include service on the Texas Historical Commission, the Civil War Trust, and the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; he has also endowed the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the Civil War in the history department at the University of Virginia, his alma mater. Dr. Gary Gallagher currently holds the Nau professorship.

The Nau Civil War Collection is a largely untapped resource filled with fascinating tales from the Civil War. It has been used by fellow TUSH bloggers Drew Bledsoe and Andy Lang in completing their dissertation research, and it is always open to anyone interested in using the resources. The curator has also been known to give collection tours to school groups and historically minded adults. Mr. Nau encourages open access to his collection, and indeed the mission of the collection is to engage the public “with period artifacts and documents” so that people “will feel a bond with the Americans that came before them and be motivated to learn more about the issues for which they were willing to sacrifice their lives.”

Unless you live in Houston, you probably won’t encounter this collection any time soon. Though the document pictured above and others associated with Lincoln have been scanned and will be part of the open access digital archive at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln in Series III once it is finished. But there are collections large and small all over this country, and private collectors who are incredibly interested in sharing their passion for history, objects, and stories can be found in the most unlikely places. Mr. Nau loves to talk with visitors to the collection, showcase some of the objects in his home, and he has even given tours of the Gettysburg battlefield. I encourage you to explore the possibilities of bringing private collectors and their collections into your own research and into your classrooms. Collectors are a great option as guest speakers because they are enthusiastic, and they can talk not only about the objects and archives they collect but also about the practice of collecting and what motivates them. And sometimes a collector might even bring an interesting object along with them…

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