From Lincoln's Pen to Your Hands

5, October 2016
Cabinet card of Abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln cabinet card, 1863. Missouri History Museum.

I started at the Missouri History Museum as an intern in 1997, right after graduating from college with a degree in history. My first task was to help Dennis Northcott, one of the archivists, compile a guide to the Civil War manuscripts in the Archives. Previously I had viewed the 19th century as boring, but the more I read the letters and diaries of soldiers who fought in the Civil War, the more my perspective changed. I realized that learning history by reading the writings of people who lived through historic events and everyday activities was completely different from reading about history in a book. I also realized I was meant to be an archivist and soon enrolled in the Museum Studies program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis to fulfill my calling.

I believe archival collections are unique for two reasons: You can read the thoughts and feelings of famous and everyday citizens, and—more important—you can use and touch the documents while doing research. Truly nothing compares to holding an original manuscript in your hands.

Scan of letter written by Abraham LincolnClick to view this 1861 letter from Abraham Lincoln to Hamilton Gamble. It's written entirely in Lincoln's handwriting, including the Executive Mansion heading in the upper-right corner. Hamilton R. Gamble Papers, Missouri History Museum.

One of the documents I always show people is a letter written by Abraham Lincoln on November 4, 1861. This letter, written to Missouri governor Hamilton Gamble in reply to his request to raise a militia in the early months of the Civil War, isn’t particularly interesting in terms of content. However, it’s one of few letters in our Archives written entirely by Lincoln himself. (We have many documents signed by Lincoln, but the main text of the letter was clearly written by his clerk or secretary.)

When I show this letter to people, I always tell them to hold it while I talk about it. Often people are hesitant or even scared, but I insist they hold the letter because that's the joy of using our Archives collections. As they hold the letter, I remind them that it was a blank piece of paper until Abraham Lincoln sat down at his desk in the White House in 1861 to write it. I remind them that they’re holding a piece of paper Lincoln held all those years ago. I ask them to imagine what his office looked like at that time. Was he writing by candlelight or next to an open window that provided natural light? If he paused to look out the window, what did the world outside look like? A simple piece of paper can lead to so many questions, not only about the content of the text but also about the document itself.

Scan of letter signed by Abraham LincolnClick to view this 1863 letter from Abraham Lincoln to Hamilton Gamble. It's clearly written by someone else but signed by Lincoln. Hamilton R. Gamble Papers, Missouri History Museum.

Without fail, each person who holds this letter gets excited. Each one experiences the joy and thrill of what it’s like to work with archival collections. I still get that thrill most of the time, whether I’m working with a document written by a famous historical figure or one written by an everyday, unknown citizen. However, I must admit that after working with our collections for so many years, I sometimes forget what a unique opportunity and privilege it is to work with these documents. So it’s nice to share the collections with researchers and be reminded why I chose to become an archivist in the first place.

—Molly Kodner, Head Archivist

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