Wrong President, Wrong Time

Wrong President, Wrong Time

Tom Coens knew something didn’t look right with the letter.

Coens, assistant editor for the Andrew Jackson papers at UT Knoxville, spends much of his time perusing letters, memos, speeches, and other communications to and from Jackson. He verifies their authenticity, transcribes them, adds footnotes to clarify their meaning, and then determines whether they are significant enough to be included in the project’s published volumes or simply added to its cumulative index, or “calendar,” of known Jackson documents

This letter–the original is held in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University, Coens’s alma mater–was out of place, though.

The President–

Allow me to give the name of Revd. J. G. Forman of St. Louis, Mo– for the position of Chaplain to the Military Hospitals in that city–I ask this appointment through my knowledge of the fitness and real excellence of the Candidate, and because the visitors, directors, and Medical men connected with the same desire this. Mr. Forman is familiar with the Military Hospitals in St Louis Mo for some months, and is so well known that no doubtful experiment is to be made as to his ability or popularity in the Wards. The employees respect him, the sick welcome him.

With respect,

D L Dix
430 15th St.
February 4th 1830

Dan Feller, Coens, and Laura-Eve Moss are history detectives. They work on the Andrew Jackson papers project, begun in 1971. Feller is the project director; Coens and Moss are research faculty members.

The team recently delivered volume 7 of the Jackson papers to UT Press, 600 pages covering 1829, the first year of Jackson’s presidency. It will be published in 2008, and they have already started work on the next volume.

Their work involves poring over thousands upon thousands of photocopies of presidential correspondence and deciding which are the most historically significant. They index each document, noting where the original is housed and, if necessary, making a microfilm copy. They decipher the 170-year-old handwriting and type it into a manuscript.

Sometimes they’re called upon to check the veracity of a document or prove it a forgery. And sometimes–with their vast knowledge of the era–they are able to catch and correct errors in the historical record.

Such was the case with this letter written by Dorothea Dix, an advocate for the first generation of American mental hospitals. Coens knew it didn’t belong in the Jackson archives, and with a little research, he proved it.

In a letter to a Harvard library archivist, Coens explained that Dix wrote the numerals 1830, but this was almost certainly a mistake. “I believe the letter should be dated February fourth, eighteen-sixty-three, and was addressed to President Abraham Lincoln,” he said.

Coens explained his reasoning: “The subject of the letter is undoubtedly Jacob Gilbert Forman, a Unitarian minister based in Alton, Illinois. During the Civil War, Forman worked in St. Louis as secretary of the Western Sanitary Commission, an agency Dix helped create in eighteen-sixty-one during a trip west in her capacity as Superintendent of Army Nurses.

“The date of eighteen-thirty is easily ruled out,” Coens wrote. Forman would have been only 10 years old.

Also, he noted, in 1830, “Dix was a young and obscure writer living in Massachusetts,” and she would not “have written President Jackson on such a topic and in such a breezy, familiar style.” Coens said he figures the date of the letter to be 1863–something he determined by weighing “a good deal of circumstantial evidence.

“To start with, the position of ‘hospital chaplain’ as a presidentially appointed office did not exist before mid-eighteen-sixty-two,” Coens said, noting the legislation giving the president this authority was enacted on May 20, 1862. “Between December eighteen-sixty-two and late February eighteen-sixty-three, Lincoln sent to Congress the names of dozens of hospital chaplain appointees.

“Forman was not among Lincoln’s nominees, but Forman’s circumstances make his candidacy for the position at that time plausible,” Coens said.

As further evidence that the letter was to Lincoln, not Jackson, Coens noted that Dix and Lincoln corresponded several other times during the war. “The handwriting, format, and tone of those letters are a close match to the letter in question,” Coens said.

Harvard’s library has since corrected its catalog record for the item, and a copy of the letter has been passed on to the editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, a fellow presidential-papers project currently doing prep work for a definitive edition of Lincoln’s incoming and outgoing correspondence, Coens said.