Parris Griffith wanted President Lincoln to know that his son was a good and true soldier and should not be executed for mutiny.
Union Sgt. Thomas Griffith, and others in his company, had refused to serve under a lieutenant they had not elected — having been promised on enlistment they could elect their commanders.
The younger Griffith was “as fine a man as lives,” his father wrote the president in 1863. He had voted for Lincoln, and spent eight months as POW. Now, “because he desired a voice in selecting his officers, he must be shot.”
David J. Gerleman, assistant editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, came upon this stark Civil War vignette last week at the National Archives. It is one of thousands of Lincoln-related documents, large and small, that the project has been collecting there since 2006.
But as the country approaches the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in November, the project’s work at the archives might soon end.
Gerleman and Daniel W. Stowell, the Lincoln papers director, said Wednesday that, barring new funding, money for their archives research will run out in June, and their work there could stop well before then.
The overall project, based at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, in Springfield, Ill., would continue. But the digging in the archives, where the vast majority of Lincoln documents are located, would be suspended.
Stowell said a five-year, $1.4 million charitable grant ran out last month, and the project’s Illinois state funding has been more than halved. The Papers, which has an annual budget of $775,000 to gather all things Lincoln, gets funding from federal and other private sources, he said, which make up only about 60 percent of its budget.
“We need to replace that [charitable] funding . . . and the now-missing portion of our state funding,” Stowell said. If not, “we would have to say come June of next year, ‘We can’t go on.’” He said the project would retrench, and focus mainly on its work in Springfield.
And his small Washington staff might not wait until then to hunt for new jobs.
But why search for Lincoln papers at all?
With hundreds of books written about the assassinated president, don’t we know everything?
“No,” Stowell said. A similar project in the 1950s, by historian Roy P. Basler, focused primarily on things Lincoln wrote, he said. This time, researchers are also looking for, among other things, documents Lincoln received.
This “enriches Lincoln so much by giving the full cast of characters, by giving all of the people who are writing to him, giving their voices,” he said.
“Some of them are hilarious, a lot of them are poignant, a lot of them are tragic, some of them are noble. . . . You get this swath of humanity.”
“We’re building a new Lincoln Memorial,” he said. “We’re building it not out of granite and marble, we’re building it out of the words of Abraham Lincoln and all of his contemporaries.”
The file of the Griffith military court proceedings is an example. It contains entries by John Nicolay, one of Lincoln’s personal secretaries; Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton; Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant; and an endorsement by Lincoln.
The case also illustrates the quirky and short-lived wartime custom of soldiers electing their officers. The practice was abandoned after it produced popular but not necessarily competent leaders.
Griffith, of the 11th Illinois infantry regiment, was charged with mutiny. He was arrested and taken before his colonel, where he was “warned of the enormity and danger of his conduct,” Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt reported to Lincoln.
Griffith stated that when his company was recruited, the colonel had promised members the right to elect their officers, according to Holt’s report.
“It was the old American idea that you could elect your officers and everything would be fine,” Gerleman said at the archives last week. “Except elected officers are usually friends, neighbors and family, and they’re not really going to enforce rules and discipline.”
Holt went on to recount that the men also found the new lieutenant to be “a bad man” and his appointment “a disgrace.”
When the colonel threatened to have them all shot, the men became incensed, and “would have suffered themselves to have been shot rather than to have submitted,” Holt reported.
Griffith was sentenced to death.
But a military court recommended clemency, noting that he had been given poor guidance by his officers, and that the other defendants had been exonerated.
Holt reported that Grant agreed with their recommendation. And on a closing page of the file is the simple endorsement: “Pardoned. A. Lincoln Feb. 15, 1864.”
The project began work in 1985 searching for Lincoln’s legal papers. It published them in four volumes and posted them online in 2008. Meanwhile, it expanded its scope in 2001 to include all Lincoln papers.
It is transcribing and annotating Lincoln documents from the years before his presidency. Many of them are online. And it is still searching out papers from his war years.
An estimated 75,000 documents at the archives remain to be examined, Stowell said. Without additional funding, the research might have to wait.
And who knows what gems wait to be seen?
Last year, the project announced that it had found a copy of the medical report written by the doctor who rushed to the president’s side moments after he was shot at Ford’s Theatre.
Project researcher Helena Iles Papaioannou found the apparently unpublished 21 -page report written by Dr. Charles A. Leale, the Army surgeon who was the first to reach the president after he was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865.
Leale wrote his account hours after the president died the next morning, the project said. But this copy, penned by a clerk, had gone undiscovered until Papaioannou found it.
“When I reached the President he was in a state of general paralysis,” Leale wrote. “His eyes were closed and he was in a profoundly comatose condition . . . I placed my finger on his right radial pulse but could perceive no movement of the artery.”
Lincoln rallied slightly, was carried from the theater to a boardinghouse across the street, and Leale, then 23, became part of the vigil.
“At 7.20 A.M. he breathed his last,” Leale wrote. “We all bowed and the Rev. Dr. Gurley supplicated to God in behalf of the bereaved family and our afflicted country.”