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National Archives Gets Lost Lincoln Letter


There are reams of historical documents written by Abraham Lincoln. Papers from his presidency sit in well-known books and collections, so it's rare to find a missing item. But the National Archives has discovered just that, the lost half of a letter that Lincoln wrote.

Today, that letter came home to the archives, as NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: The National Archives tracked down the letter to an Arizona man named Lawrence Cutler. He's a former prosecutor and avid collector of, well, just about everything.

Mr. LAWRENCE CUTLER (Collector, Arizona): I have everything from dinosaur bones to meteorites to documents signed by George Washington.

CORNISH: In fact, he already has items with President Lincoln's signature. So when archive curators came calling, he was willing to give up the letter, which he had bought at auction a few years ago.

Mr. CUTLER: It may sound a little corny but it's true. I believe that I'm just a temporary custodian of every collection that I own.

CORNISH: The letter is dated November 14, 1863, five days before Lincoln would deliver the Gettysburg Address. My Dear Sir, it begins to then-Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. The president asked Chase to allow the chief of the U.S. Mint in San Francisco, Robert Stevens, to see the corruption report that had ended Stevens' career there.

Archivists are excited because it gives insight into the extent of the scandal and Lincoln's interest in West Coast politics at a key moment of the Civil War. The letter is about the size of a steno notebook page, sepia-toned and barely five lines long. Cutler says it's among his favorite finds.

Mr. CUTLER: One of the coolest things is that it's all in Abraham Lincoln's handwriting, that it's on executive mansion stationary or letterhead, and it - to me it shows Abraham Lincoln's compassion that he's trying to help a man understand why he was let go.

CORNISH: The letter was originally bound in Volume 91 of a series of U.S. Treasury documents. Curators say this half of the letter was likely torn from the page long before it became part of their collection, possibly in the late 19th century.

The Archives' James Hastings says they could track it down because one of their investigators is dedicated to monitoring Internet sites such as eBay.

Mr. JAMES HASTINGS (Director, Access Programs; National Archives and Records Administration): This document probably had changed hands many times before the Internet, and before then we really would not likely have known about it.

CORNISH: The letter is not yet available to the public. First, it has to be bathed in purified water. Then Archives specialists will use Japanese paper and paste to rejoin it to the other half in Volume 91.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, The Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.