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Lincoln’s mail included advice, warnings and a call to shoot deserters

The Library of Congress’s massive ‘Letters to Lincoln’ transcription project shows what filled the president’s mailbox.

In this image from the U.S. Library of Congress, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln sits for a portrait Feb. 5, 1865. (Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress/Getty Images)

A disgraced Army officer begged to be let out of Sing Sing prison. A Navy officer wanted to get married. A general sent a list of privates who were to be shot for desertion.

A 65-year-old New York man addressed the president as “Father Abraham” and offered to serve in the Army without pay. A friend would serve, too. “We have Faith in God and dry Powder,” the writer said.

An Italian opera singer expressed anger that the president had not replied to her: “How [can] a Great Personnage like your Excellency surrounded of glory and ornamented of fine education … not answer a Lady letters?”

Complaints, advice, congratulations, introductions, pleas, job requests and military reports poured into Abraham Lincoln’s mailbox before and during his presidency.

Last month, the Library of Congress completed a two-year, crowdsourced project to transcribe 10,000 documents in its vast collection of Abraham Lincoln’s papers and make them legible.

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The effort rendered into print the scribbling of legions of correspondents, who wrote with a variety of spelling, grammar and punctuation skills.

It was finished July 8 and augments a prior Lincoln transcription project that ran at the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, in Galesburg, Ill., from 1999 to 2002.

The library had asked the college “to transcribe and annotate all of its Lincoln autograph manuscripts and a substantial portion of Lincoln’s incoming correspondence” when the items first went online, the college says on its website.

“They did roughly half of what was online,” said Michelle A. Krowl, a Civil War specialist in the library’s manuscript division. “They chose, obviously, to transcribe all of the things that Abraham Lincoln had written” as well as other important items.

The latest project aimed to transcribe what Knox College had not, as well as new material, she said.

The project used two teams of thousands of volunteer transcribers — one to do the initial transcriptions, and the second to double-check the work of the first.

The transcriptions are not designed to be official, said Trevor Owens, the head of the library’s digital content management. But they can “get that search and discovery capability enhanced, which, even having some mistakes, is still going to be okay.”

The mistakes seem minor.

In one letter, what appears to be “few days” is transcribed as “fun day.” In another, what appears to be “N.Y.S.M.” — for New York State Militia — is transcribed “N.Y. Sill.” In another, what looks like “Genisee” is transcribed “Genisu.”

But “the volunteers … take this incredibly seriously,” Owens said.

They select an item on the library’s website, and go to work, said Carlyn Osborn, digital collections specialist and crowdsourcing community manager at the library. “We really encourage our users to find materials in the site that speak to them,” she said.

Krowl said: “Every generation has a different sort of questions they ask of these materials. … These collections continue to be dynamic, and they continue to answer new questions."

“We’re providing people with a way to become engaged with the material and explore questions and interests that they might have,” she said.

Dozens of letters to Lincoln have previously been transcribed and published in two books — “Dear Mr. Lincoln” and “The Lincoln Mailbag” — by the Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer.

But this is the first time that many transcriptions will be available online.

(The bulk of Lincoln’s writings appeared in the Abraham Lincoln Association’s “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,” published in 1953.)

Most items in the library’s Lincoln collection are in English, but some are in German, French or Italian.

A New York woman writing in German asked “Linkoln” to help a bereft family that had apparently given up a daughter for adoption and wanted to recover the child. “Seiner Exelenz der Vereinigten Staaten,” his excellency of the United States, she began.

One item, thought to be in Arabic, turned out to be in neo-Aramaic, the library said. (Experts are still not sure what it says.)

In 1861, a band of anti-slavery militants — “the Army of Freedom in Kansas” — wrote, offering to bring volunteers to Washington and guard Lincoln’s inauguration.

An 1862 note came from the president’s friend Sen. Ira Harris, whose daughter, Clara, and her fiance would be seated beside Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre the night of his assassination three years later.

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A Brooklyn infantry regiment had complained that its name was being changed from the 14th New York State Militia, under which it had earned fame, to the 84th New York State Volunteers. The governor wrote to Lincoln for advice.

Members of another regiment wanted out of the Army, claiming that its members’ enlistments were up.

The men’s lawyer wrote that they had been tricked into signing up for longer than they realized. “These men [believed] that justice would be done them when their Case reached the President,” he wrote.

(Lincoln’s response appears in the collected works: “The Secretary of War says this attempt, if successful, would reach forty thousand of the Army.”)

On March 31, 1864, Cornelia MacKay, of Stanwich, Conn., who described herself as the “daughter of a staunch Republican,” wrote to Lincoln requesting the autograph of “our beloved president.”

On April 18, she got a note from the president’s trusted aide, John Hay, enclosing the autograph, “A. Lincoln.”

When the desire of the Navy officer to marry came to Lincoln’s attention, the president wrote to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles:

Executive Mansion. Washington, Aug. 2, 1862

Hon. Sec. of Navy

My dear Sir

Lieutenant Commanding James W.A. Nicholson, now commanding the Isaac Smith, wishes to be married, and from evidence now before me, I believe there is a young lady who sympathizes with him in that wish under these circumstances, please allow him the requisite leave of absence, if the public service can safely endure it.

Yours truly

A. Lincoln

(Two weeks later a newspaper notice confirmed that the marriage took place in St. John’s Episcopal Church next to Lafayette Square across from the White House.)

The would-be Army volunteer from western New York wrote in March, 1864:

Father Abraham

I am 65 years old am able to do a fair days work (not the hardest kind of work) day after day am willing to go to the army, or rather into some fort or Garison, where there will be no long marches, was never a good traveler but worker will help you work out our national salvation will go free of any charge to Government except travel and rations Avery Coon is a stout man of about my age will go too to a Fort or Garison he may need the usual pay will be a good hand

We have Faith in God and dry Powder

Truly Yours Daniel Edwards

On Jan. 7, 1864, Lincoln received a court-martial report that included a list of nine soldiers who had been found guilty of desertion. They were sentenced to be “shot to death with musketry” — five of them in front of the men of their division on Jan. 29.

On Jan. 26, 1864, Lincoln ordered the executions suspended.

Also in January 1864, a former colonel, Frederick G. d’Utassy, wrote in, begging to be freed from Sing Sing prison, where he was serving a term for defrauding the government.

D’Utassy was a dashing Hungarian officer who had commanded the 39th New York Infantry Regiment, known as the Garibaldi Guards. But he had been convicted of padding his expense account, selling government horses and keeping the proceeds, and putting soldiers on the rolls of two outfits so they could draw two paychecks.

He wrote to Lincoln:

“I have a dearly beloved and aged mother whose honored head is bowed down and whose heart is almost broken on the verge of the grave. Shall my appeal for mercy not to say justice be in vain? Shall I have to add to the infamy heaped upon me and my family the gnawing worm of conscience that tho’ involuntarily I have become a matricide?”

It is not clear whether Lincoln intervened.

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