published Friday, August 19th, 2011

Washington: 'Remarkable document' signed by Lincoln recovered by National Archives

WASHINGTON — Abe Lincoln is still making news.

The National Archives announced Thursday that it had recovered a handwritten document signed by Lincoln that had been filched from the government.

"It's a remarkable document," Bill Panagopulos, a Stamford, Conn., auctioneer, says in a video describing the document's return. He turned over the paper to the archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, in Washington.

The document features Lincoln's Nov. 12, 1862, endorsement of the Rev. Henry Edwards as chaplain of a military hospital in Hagerstown, Md. It was returned to the Archives along with a letter from military surgeons requesting that the president appoint a chaplain to hospitals treating the wounded from the Battle of Antietam.

That Maryland battle on Sept. 17, 1862, remains the bloodiest in American history. An estimated 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing during the 12 hours of fighting, which repelled the South's first invasion of the North and forced Gen. Robert E. Lee to retreat.

A government archivist spotted the documents in a New York autograph dealer's catalogue in 2009, the Archives said in a statement.

Two items were listed, the Archives said: the surgeons' letter to Lincoln and the wrapper, or cover sheet, of Edwards' military file, on which Lincoln had endorsed the appointment.

The archivist contacted the dealer, who purchased the documents for $9,600 from Panagopulos. Panagopulos, of Alexander Autographs Inc. and Alexander Historical Auctions, had received them on consignment from a Rhode Island family. He refunded the dealer's purchase price and spoke with the family about returning the items to the Archives. The family will receive a tax deduction.

"I know that the family is not involved in the theft of this document," Panagopulos says in the video about the documents' return. "It could have been stolen 50 years ago. ... It may have changed hands five times before we got it."

Retired National Archives Civil War archivist Michael Musick was quoted by the Archives as saying that government files "apparently at one point were hit rather hard, by a thief interested in Lincoln documents, perhaps when these records were still in the custody of the War Department," before the Archives was created in 1934.

An Archives spokeswoman declined to offer a dollar value for the documents. "All of our things are invaluable," she said.

But Panagopulos told the Los Angeles Times: "Lincoln signed thousands of commissions and wrote probably thousands of letters. But he is probably the most collected and most desired of all presidents. ... His material is still highly sought after. Because of that, he sells at a premium price.

"The important thing to get across is that people pilfering historical societies and archives are going to get caught sooner or later," he said.

In 2007, a National Archives intern in Philadelphia was sentenced to 15 months in prison for stealing 164 Civil War documents, including the War Department's announcement of Lincoln's death — and selling many of them on eBay. The intern had told a psychiatrist he was angry that he wasn't being paid for his internship.

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