Santa Maria Sun / Art
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 6
Voices of the pastThe Historical Society unearths 'Lincoln Letters' from a corner of its archives
BY JOE PAYNE
The Santa Maria Valley Historical Societies’ archive is brimming with artifacts galore from Santa Maria, the surrounding areas, and beyond; and the recent discovery of three large scrapbooks filled with letters from the Civil War era has put the small nonprofit museum in contact with presidential libraries and other historical organizations across the country.
The astounding discovery was made by the museum’s new executive director, Cindy Ransick, who has been cataloging the backlog in the archive room with the help of volunteers.
“What I saw were things that were dated in the Civil War period,” she said, “and one of the signatures I saw was Custer, and then one by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, just one after another of famous people from the Civil War era.”
Besides Custer and Longfellow, handwritten letters from Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William Seward, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Robert Todd Lincoln were found. The collection was donated in the early 1980s from the estate of Harold and Laura Burnham. Laura Burnham was the granddaughter of Leonard Swett, an Illinois lawyer who knew Lincoln and helped get him nominated and elected president.
“So, they were communicating about how to get Lincoln nominated, elected, and then jockeying for positions in his cabinet,” said Ransick. “Swett actually defeated Lincoln in court, and Lincoln was impressed with him and they became friends.”
Swett wrote one letter in the collection from the battlefield tent of Ulysses S. Grant, before Grant left to take Richmond and end the war.
“He actually had Swett involved with various secret things in the Civil War,” Ransick explained.
The Historical Society will be displaying the artifacts to the public at an open house on April 27, which will certainly attract history buffs for miles. The society plans to erect a re-creation of the tent Ulysses S. Grant had, from which Swett wrote the discovered letter, as well as several other fun features, including an Abraham Lincoln lookalike.
“We are trying to give the feel of that time,” Ransick said. “We are trying to give it some ambiance and [a] statement.”
After the public viewing, the Historical Society has some decisions to make: The president of the Abraham Lincoln Library actually made the trip to Santa Maria to attest to the authenticity of the artifacts with the interest of attaining them for the library.
“Well, the board is still digesting what to do,” Ransick said. “There is the possibility of selling certain pieces to certain museums, and then the possibility of doing it as one package, and the possibility of keeping them.”
Artifacts this rare are truly priceless, but the price that will end up being tagged on the letters will surely be immense. The Civil War is one of the most followed eras in history with Abraham Lincoln being one of the most written about historical figures.
“Whether or not you care for Republicans, everybody likes Lincoln, and these are the men that made him Lincoln,” Ransick said. “I think it’s amazing that over time the more we have learned about Lincoln, it hasn’t diminished him, it’s elevated him.”
Meanwhile, Ransick and volunteers are still cataloguing and making digital scans of the historic materials. The night of the discovery, volunteers, some of whom came just to watch, continually joined Ransick.
“It was very unreal,” she said. “I had one volunteer who—it was her first day—and I had to say to her ‘It’s not like this every day!’ It was a very inspiring atmosphere.”
The museum is used to housing local history, like the recent exhibition for the centennial of the Santa Maria Fire Department, which includes old equipment used by local fire fighters. It seemed imperative, Ransick explained, that the huge, nationally relevant discovery be shared with the local community first.
“We are trying to provide a place where people can really know the history,” she said. “They always say, ‘If you don’t learn from it, you are doomed to repeat it,’ so the more we know, hopefully, the better the decisions we can make."
Arts Editor Joe Payne really likes to know history. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.