Last Friday evening, Forbes magazine broke a story on their website about the protracted legal battle of several of Gideon Welles heirs over several purported Civil War era artifacts, including hundreds of notes written by President Abraham Lincoln to Welles, his Secretary of the Navy. The eagle-eyed Abraham Lincoln Observer from Lincoln's favorite newspaper caught the story and posted about it that evening.
Since then, I've waited for some media attention. When a nationally recognized news organization, like Forbes, breaks a story on their website at 7:15 pm on a Friday, it's because they are trying to brand the scoop. Since then, only The Hartford Courant has run the story, and evidently no one else. (So evidently Forbes was racing to beat The Courant's Sunday edition. Given the nature of the story, which includes a legal dispute going back several years, the one-upsmanship is a bit farcical, but whatever.)
This would be an obscure, and slightly odd, probate case except that among the described artifacts is a trunk alleged to contain 713 notes sent from Lincoln to Welles. This has several implications. Such a trove of materials, even if it were routine administrative correspondence, would be a major addition to the extant Lincoln papers. Such a trove of materials would also be worth millions of dollars, especially if any had Lincoln's signature or were hand-written in full by Lincoln. Finally, such a trove of materials would also probably belong to the National Archives (and yes, the federal government has assigned an official to investigate this case).
The basic facts are these. Ruth Welles, married to Gideon Welles grandson, died in 1955 without a will. Her house remained in the family, and one daughter (from three children) and then that daughter's son (one of four children) has lived in the house. There are stories of artifacts in the family, not only papers, but a Spencer rifle, a glass decanter, and a cane made from wood from Fort Sumter. Some Welles descendants claim that some of these artifacts have been sold without their knowledge -- and judging from court documents, without paying taxes. They have sued to make their cousins produce a list of artifacts still in hand and an account of those that have been sold. One case was dismissed, however, because none of Ruth Welles' children is alive, and the court ruled that the other descendants didn't have standing to reopen her probate case.
Confused yet? I happily direct you to the stories, but they are not quite in agreement. The Forbes article is here. The Hartford Courant article is here -- it includes a brief video interview with the reporter, which has some additional information. And here is a related item (on page 14 of a .pdf document) of a previous story in the Summer 2004 edition of ASA Professional, the quarterly journal of the American Society of Appraisers.
There seem to be a couple of problems with the notion that there is the wealth of Lincoln correspondence floating around out there, at least in my mind. First, the testimony about the Lincoln letters (as opposed to the other heirlooms) is contradictory. It comes from a single appraiser, Robert J. Connelly. In the 2004 article, he reportedly had several days to catalogue 713 Lincoln letters in the trunk. In the recent Forbes article, which draws from either a new interview or some court documents (the source is unstated), Connelly claims he saw them for 2o minutes when an unknown man arrived at his house and pulled the purported trunk out of his car. Maybe the assessor saw the documents more than one time, but there's still a problem: if I had to speculate, I would guess that Connelly doesn't have a copy of the cataloguing (or maybe he doesn't want to produce it). Either way, it's pretty difficult to substantiate this story.
Despite this, there seems to be a bigger problem with the story. I find it very difficult to imagine that no one would have had access to these papers in the last century. A cursory Internet search does suggest that less attention has been paid to Gideon Welles than others in Lincoln's cabinet -- except, of course, for frequently citing his well-known diary from Lincoln's presidential years. Only a couple of books deal significantly with him. Still, especially with the hoopla over the opening of the Lincoln papers in 1947, and the publication of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln in the 1950s, it seems that anyone with access to these papers would have allowed access to them.
In the Courant article, the lead specialist on the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln collections at the Library of Congress, John Sellers -- mis(?)-identified in the article as Jonathan Sellers -- evidently admits that there is a four-year gap in the currently existing Welles correspondence with Lincoln. So, like the missing 18 pages from Booth's "diary," documents from these years may yet be found. But it seems to me an unusually large collection to have been overlooked for 150 years.
In the past week, I have hoped for some scholars to weigh in on the controversy, especially if they have knowledge of folklore about the existence of such documents. But I'm unaware of any comments. In particular, I hoped that recent Lincoln Prize winner Craig Symonds, author of Lincoln and His Admirals which examines Lincoln's relationship with the Navy, would comment, but apparently not. In the meantime, there may be more Lincoln papers out there, waiting to come to historian's attention. Personally, I imagine this is so -- there likely are some Lincoln documents currently unnoticed or uncatalogued. But 713 of them in one place?