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Pair 22: Collective Memories of Abraham Lincoln

Pair 22: Collective Memories of Abraham Lincoln

So much of history is happenstance. You were in the right place at the right time (or maybe the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on your perspective and experience). This letter written by Civil War veteran James Tanner certainly attests to that. Tanner was badly wounded at the Battle of Second Bull Run and pursued training as a clerk to provide himself with professional skills for post-war life. He was staying in the boarding house opposite Ford’s Theatre on the night Abraham Lincoln was shot in April 1865, and he was pulled into the room where Lincoln was being attended simply because they needed someone trained in shorthand to take rapid and accurate notes. Tanner’s letter, item 94 in 101 Treasures, recounts that dramatic and powerful night.
Ja[me]s Tanner autograph shorthand letter to Henry F. Walch, April 17, 1865; Washington, D.C.
Pen and Ink. Abraham Lincoln Collection. Gift of Nellie Strawhecker and Paul O. Strawhecker, 1936. Finding Aid.
In contemporary translation: “There was a crowd in the room, which was small, but I approached quite near the bed on which so much greatness lay, fast losing its hold on this world . . . The utmost silence pervaded, broken only by the sounds of strong mens tears.”
The cultural fascination with Abraham Lincoln, the traumatic national experience of the Civil War, and its aftermath has a lasting hold on Americans. The deepening collections at the Clements Library help reveal that story, perhaps most powerfully in the expansive collection of John E. Boos (1879-1974), which consists of over 1,200 personal manuscript recollections written by people who met or saw Abraham Lincoln and other pivotal Civil War events. Boos solicited, curated, and saved these reminiscences over the course of decades, including the reflections of Walter S. McCulloch, who was 14 years old when he witnessed Lincoln’s funeral procession through Albany, New York. “As the crowd surged forward I was lifted off my feet and carried close to the gate,” which he proceeded to scale to enter the building to see Lincoln’s body lying-in-state.

Between first-hand observances of Lincoln’s final moments and the thousands of smaller ways people experienced Lincoln’s death, the Clements Library’s holdings show how pivotal historical events are experienced by all of us and that our history is made up of all of our stories.

Walter S. McCulloch manuscript reflection signed to John E. Boos, March 1, 1917; Albany, [New York]. With John E. Boos typed notes.
Pen and Ink and Typed. John E. Boos Collection. Finding Aid.