Lincoln Urgent in Lost Letter to General

Officials at the National Archives display a long-lost letter from President Abraham lincoln to Gen. Henry W. Halleck.
Officials at the National Archives display a long-lost letter from President Abraham lincoln to Gen. Henry W. Halleck. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

Vicksburg had just fallen to Union forces. The Confederates were trapped north of the Potomac River after their defeat at Gettysburg. And after two years of civil war and battlefield calamity, Abraham Lincoln thought he saw the glimmer of victory.

On July 7, 1863, three days after Vicksburg's surrender and four days after Gettysburg, Lincoln took out a sheet of blue-lined paper and wrote to his general in chief, urging that the fleeing rebels be destroyed. If they were, Lincoln wrote, "the rebellion will be over."

But the Confederates escaped over the flooded river seven days later, the war went on for almost two more blood-soaked years, and Lincoln's six-line, handwritten note of optimism vanished into the crumbling files of history.

Yesterday, the National Archives announced that the long-lost note, complete with a misspelled word and Lincoln's neat schoolboy signature, had been found last month in the downtown stacks by an archivist doing research for a Discovery Channel documentary.

Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein said in an interview that it was the biggest such find since the discovery in 2003 of a diary written by President Harry S. Truman.

"It's incredibly exciting," Weinstein said.

The note, on yellowed stationery and headed "War Department Washington City" was written to Gen. Henry W. Halleck. The besieged Confederate city of Vicksburg, Miss., had fallen July 4 to the forces of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, and Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had just been defeated at Gettysburg by union forces under Gen. George G. Meade.

The war-weary Lincoln sensed the possibilities.

"Now, if Gen. Meade can complete his work so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the litteral or substantial destruction of Lee's army," Lincoln wrote, "the rebellion will be over."

Archives officials said the text of the note was known to historians because Halleck forwarded it to Meade in a telegram that was preserved in the official war records. But the handwritten note had been lost for decades.

Weinstein pointed out that the Archives has a billion documents in its historic building downtown, and 9 billion systemwide. Asked if there could be other lost documents of note, he said, "There must be."

On May 14, archivist Trevor Plante, who specializes in 19th-century military history, was in the stacks searching for material for the upcoming documentary on Gettysburg, according to Plante and Weinstein.

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