WASHINGTON—It was July 7, 1863, the middle of the Civil War, and after a series of crushing defeats things were finally starting to look up for the Union. Days earlier, its troops had defeated the Confederates at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.
Buoyed by the twin victories, President Abraham Lincoln dashed off a note in his own hand, optimistically predicting that if Union Gen. George Meade could defeat Robert E. Lee’s retreating Confederate army before it recrossed the Potomac River into Virginia, the war would be over.
On Thursday, the National Archives announced that Lincoln’s handwritten message to Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, then the Army chief of staff, had been discovered—after nearly 150 years—in a collection of generals’ papers.
The existence of the note came as little surprise to historians, who knew of its contents from a telegram that Halleck had sent to Meade, urging him to pursue Lee’s army.
But the newly uncovered document sheds light on how urgent Lincoln and Halleck considered the president’s hopes, according to the National Archives. Lincoln wrote the missive on War Department stationery, an indication that he was with his generals when he did so, and Halleck’s telegram to Meade quoted it verbatim and was sent the same day.
Meade failed, however, to stop Lee’s withdrawal, and the war dragged on for 22 more months.
Such significant finds are made very seldom, said Allen Weinstein, the United States’ official archivist.
“These discoveries remind us that history is a very dynamic field, and new information is always coming to light,” Weinstein said.
While the discovery of the letter adds little to historical knowledge of Lincoln or Gettysburg, “anytime you find anything by Lincoln—especially something intrinsically substantive like this—that’s news,” said Stephen Sears, a Civil War author whose books include “Gettysburg” and “Landscape Turned Red.”
The note offers a glimpse of Lincoln’s optimism in the days after the Gettysburg and Vicksburg victories, said Trevor Plante, the archives employee who made the discovery.
In June of 1863, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, seeking supplies and a victory in the North, left central Virginia and crossed the Potomac into Union territory. Lee’s men initially met little resistance but they were forced to retreat after suffering defeat July 3 in the famous three-day battle at Gettysburg, Pa.
On July 4, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant split the South in two by winning a separate campaign in Vicksburg, Miss., on the Mississippi River.
In the July 7 letter, Lincoln wrote:
“We have certain information that Vicksburg surrendered to General Grant on the 4th of July. Now, if Gen. Meade can complete his work so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the litteral (sic.) or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over.”
“You can kind of feel he’s sensing the end is near,” said Plante, a specialist in Civil War records who found the letter while sifting through documents for an upcoming Discovery Channel program. He said Lincoln often misspelled the word “literal.”
For Harold Holzer, a co-chair of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, that the note was written on July 7 is particularly significant. Later that day, Lincoln gave a speech that Holzer described as a first draft of the Gettysburg Address.
“What we know now is that he puts down this handwritten order, and then he walks back to the White House and delivers a speech in which he actually utters the same sentence he does in the Gettysburg address, but it’s more clumsy,” Holzer said.
Lincoln said this in a speech on July 7, 1863: “How long ago is it—eighty odd years—since on the 4th of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that `all men are created equal.’”
He said in the Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1863: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”