Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Book Review: Lincoln for President

Lincoln for President: An Unlikely Candidate, An Audacious Strategy, and the Victory No One Saw Coming by Bruce Chadwick (Soucebooks, 2010), paperback, 416 pages

Prolific author Bruce Chadwick turns his attention to the climactic 1860 election in "Lincoln for President." As the title suggests, Abraham Lincoln is the primary focus, although the book offers a fairly comprehensive look at that decisive campaign which featured four main candidates. Like modern movie trailers that give away most of a film's surprises, Chadwick does not conceal his argument, succinctly given in the book's subtitle, "an unlikely candidate, an audacious strategy, and the victory no one saw coming."

Still, Chadwick offers an engaging narrative of the dramatic campaign, particularly relishing some of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering. He especially enjoys the wheeling and dealing, and even outright fraud, engaged in by Lincoln's unofficial campaign managers. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding the Republican convention draw much of Chadwick's attention, from the stacks of counterfeit entry tickets given to Lincoln supporters to the apparent promises made in return for the support of various delegations. In stark contrast to Doris Kearns Goodwin's famous argument, Chadwick believes that Lincoln's cabinet was the direct result of these convention deals, rather than the result of a governing philosophy. Although Goodwin is probably more correct, there is certain compelling evidence to support this alternate claim, such as Lincoln's ability to list his likely cabinet officers on election night.

The story of the general election in 1860 is perhaps less exciting than that summer's Republican convention, in part because of the anti-climactic conclusion. Despite Chadwick's attempts to contextualize the uncertainty of the fall campaign, Lincoln's election never seems in doubt. Still, the account is worth reading, particularly for those unfamiliar with the consequential election. Aside from offering a clear retelling, Chadwick excels at offering portraits of the four main candidates and, notably, the motivations of those voters most likely to support them. As such, the Constitutional Union Party, usually an afterthought, has a compelling, if somewhat melancholic, presence in this narrative. On the other hand, the story of the split in the Democratic Party is only adequately told here.

As the title suggests, though, the ascendancy of Abraham Lincoln is the focus. Much as Harold Holzer in "Lincoln President-Elect," Chadwick describes candidate Lincoln as engaged and quietly active behind-the-scenes. In particular, Lincoln seems consistently worried about maintaining cohesion among the disparate parts of the Republican Party and responding to any perceived threats, which is largely why the Constitutional Union Party has a larger role in this book. He writes letters and, more importantly, dispatches personal confidants to deal with key Republicans throughout the North. Further, the political animal in Lincoln possesses an intimate knowledge of the electoral calculus necessary for victory, which is apparent in some of his correspondence.

This book is a pleasant addition to the bulging Lincoln library. Engagingly written, with a wonderful appreciation for the personalities of several of the key players, it will enlighten and entertain those seeking to learn more about the 1860 election than is covered in a history class. On the other hand, Chadwick hardly breaks new ground in any of the narrative, which is regrettable because he hints at potential analyses, such as a social history that focuses as much on the voters as on the candidates in the history-changing election.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book Review: Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails

Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War by Tom Wheeler (Harper, 2008), paperback, 256 pages

Abraham Lincoln's supreme political skill is an issue, if not the guiding theme, of countless biographies of the 16th president. His deft and usually compact style of language in his speeches and writings is well known, and has been the focus of renewed study in the last several years. All but unknown, and rarely mentioned, is Lincoln's fascination with science and technology throughout his lifetime. These three significant aspects of Lincoln's life overlap in Tom Wheeler's thought-provoking, if cheekily titled, "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War."

The telegraph, invented about a quarter-century before the start of the American Civil War, was just beginning to revolutionize communication in the late 1850s. Particularly useful to coordinate train traffic on railroads, newspapers began using the telegraph to share and print news even faster than railroads allowed. The government was slower to adopt the technology, but the onset of war encouraged its use by the War Department to facilitate troop and supply movements.

Wheeler contends that it was the young commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln, who best harnessed the capabilities of the telegraph. In the early months of the war, Lincoln was more prone to read telegraph traffic in the war office than to send and receive his own telegrams. When Stonewall Jackson's 1862 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley threatened Washington, however, Lincoln sent and received messages to ascertain the real threat to the capitol and to direct the military response.

The importance of Lincoln's telegrams in 1862 pales, though, beside what Lincoln learned in those days. After the spring of 1862, he increasingly used the telegraph to keep tabs on the far-flung Union armies. Through his variety of electronic notes -- some simple inquiries, some detailed directives -- he used the communications device to assert his authority as commander-in-chief in a way far beyond previous presidents. Not only were Lincoln's telegrams a persistent reminder to the generals of his desire to be informed about military movements, but also a way to insist that his political and military prerogatives be followed.

While this well-written book may show a different side of Lincoln's political genius to those unaware of his daily trips to the War Department Telegraph Office, the later chapters also offer a reassessment of Lincoln's leadership style. Most historians believe that Lincoln used any necessary means, including the telegraph, to deal with generals who frustrated him by their obstinacy or their lack of movement; once Grant and Sherman emerge as leaders who will act and follow Lincoln's direction, this conventional assessment goes, Lincoln had less need for oversight. Wheeler argues the opposite, showing that Lincoln's telegrams to Grant and Sherman were just as often filled with directives as those to earlier commanding generals. While Lincoln had less reason to attempt to micromanage maneuvers with Grant and Sherman, Lincoln still insisted that they follow his guidance on overall strategy and political matters, frequently using the telegraph to ensure that his wishes were known and followed.

Perhaps Wheeler's argument could have been augmented by a consideration of how Lincoln adapted the new technology and situation to his previous experience in party organizing and leadership in 1850s Illinois -- which would challenge the Marshall McLuhan dictum underlying Wheeler's book, that "the medium is the message." Still, this is a minor quibble with an otherwise strong book that is as informative as it is enjoyable to read. The reader will likely finish the book wondering if Lincoln's use of the telegraph was similar to, and possibly as significant as, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's skillful use of radio as president.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book Review: Tried by War

Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson (The Penguin Press, 2008), hardcover, 384 pages

"Abraham Lincoln was the only president in American history whose entire administration was bounded by war," writes noted Civil War historian James M. McPherson at the outset of "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief." Given that the southern insurrection took shape before Lincoln's inauguration and ended a few weeks after his assassination with a surrender of the last rebel army, this observation is correct. More important, though, is McPherson's implication: too little attention has been paid to Lincoln's military policy and decision-making within the breadth of Lincoln scholarship.

It would be incorrect to state that no attention has been paid; indeed, several books have been written on the very issue, in addition to other articles and the like. However, it is clear that such analysis has had limited impact on, and inclusion in, most biographies of the 16th president. Aside from issues related to generals Winfield Scott, George McClellan, and Ulysses Grant – and such analyses usually revolve more around interpersonal relationships than military policy – Lincoln's involvement in military policy is largely overlooked.

McPherson addresses this omission in a thought-provoking and engaging way in this well-researched and well-written book. With his characteristic ability to explain substantial issues clearly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the great single-volume history of the Civil War, "Battle Cry of Freedom," explores Lincoln's growth in military matters from a neophyte to a superb commander in chief whose approach to this presidential responsibility became a model that other chief executives followed. In fact, McPherson argues that the concept and application of "war powers" was developed by Lincoln, virtually from scratch.

In his analysis, McPherson identifies five key components to presidential leadership of the military; of these, tactics, which Lincoln famously studied through on-the-job reading, is least important, in his assessment, while policy is most important. (Other key functions are national strategy, military strategy, and military operations.) From the beginning, McPherson is clear that being an able commander in chief is foremost, and perhaps necessarily, a political thing. An analysis of Lincoln's dealings with general in chief Winfield Scott at the outset of the war, in which Scott repeatedly advocates political policy under the guise of military strategy, sets the tone for McPherson's study, implying that Lincoln was already an above-average commander-in-chief even at the outset of the war, because of his political skills and his refusal to cow-tow to the military establishment.

Throughout, McPherson describes Lincoln as a very active, and increasingly capable, commander-in-chief. Perhaps the most striking aspect of his analysis, though, is a subtle refutation of conventional wisdom of Lincoln as a military leader. Most historians attribute Lincoln's involvement in military matters to a paucity of able and competent top-level leadership until the emergence of Grant in 1864. Although McPherson recognizes that Lincoln grew to appreciate and admire Grant's approach, he carefully shows that Lincoln very much supervised, and occasionally overruled, Grant after he became general in chief.

It is difficult to name any significant problems or oversights in McPherson's book, though I suppose some might quibble with bits and pieces of the analysis. Instead, the book seems a marvel of excellence, blending learned research, a discerning eye, and felicitous prose into a study certain to inform readers of all backgrounds. The book's accessibility, its consistent focus on its intended subject, and the well-deserved reputation of its author should cause the book to be influential in Lincoln studies for the next generation or two, a status it richly deserves.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Gettysburg National Military Park Receives Lock of Lincoln's Hair

There is an interesting story in today's Washington Post about a donation to the museum at the Gettysburg National Military Park - a lock of Abraham Lincoln's hair cut after his assassination.

Several such clippings of the late president's hair were taken after he died, included one requested by his widow, Mary Lincoln.  

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book Review: Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era

Abraham Lincoln in the Post Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America by Barry Schwartz (University of Chicago Press, 2009), hardcover, 410 pages

More than 140 years since his death, Abraham Lincoln is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Not only is the publishing industry producing several Lincoln-related titles each year, but recent ad campaigns have portrayed the 16th president in a completely new role: television salesman. This recent exposure, however, does not necessarily correspond to a heightened recognition or appreciation of Lincoln, as Barry Schwartz makes clear in "Abraham Lincoln In the Post-Heroic Era." This is the second volume examining the history of Lincoln's legacy, covering the period from the Great Depression to the present. (The previous volume, "Abraham Lincoln and the Forge Of National Memory," surveyed the years from Lincoln's death in 1865 until the 1920s.)

As might be expected, Schwartz studies the portrayal of Lincoln in artwork, editorial cartoons, statuary, and popular written materials, particularly newspaper and magazine articles. More than this, though, Schwartz uses the results of several surveys conducted over more than a half-century and consults dozens of school textbooks in an attempt to determine and trace Lincoln's prestige through this period. By several measures, Lincoln's reputation peaks during the World War II-era and declines thereafter, with a particularly steep drop during the 1960s and 1970s.

Schwartz's argument is compelling, if complex and sophisticated. Partially, he believes there is less need for Lincoln's unifying reputation in this post-modern age as compared with the World War II-era. Beyond that, he agrees with other scholars who see a post-heroic age which began some time between Kennedy's assassination and the Watergate break-in. Schwartz notes that this decline is not only in Lincoln's reputation, but in the reputations of other key historical figures as well. Whether due to postmodern ideas about equality, the probing for and uncovering of gritty details in the lives of historical figures, or a change in focus in the national narrative, the differences between the 1940s Lincoln in the 1980s Lincoln are radically different.

During this period, one particular aspect of Lincoln's legacy has come to the forefront, overshadowing many of the traits that previous generations had celebrated: Lincoln as precursor to racial equality. While this might be expected during the Civil Rights Era, it has developed in the decades since to the point where most of Lincoln's actions are seen through the lens of the Emancipation Proclamation and minority rights – even the Gettysburg Address, which Schwartz promises to discuss at length in a future volume.

In light of an overarching narrative that traces the rise and fall of Lincoln's prestige, the concluding chapter is unexpected and surprising. Having explored Lincoln within the sociological theory of collective memory, which suggests that each generation adapts beliefs and memories of previous generations to its own needs, Schwartz suggests that the person of Abraham Lincoln has developed its own inertia and stands outside of this adaptation process, at least in part. Perhaps only a self-perpetuating memory of Lincoln can withstand the winds that cut heroes down to size in the post-heroic era.

For the most devoted students of Lincoln, though, this may be more disheartening than hopeful. As Schwartz writes about Lincoln's present legacy in American cultural memory:

"As each generation modifies beliefs held by its forebears, an assemblage of old beliefs remains and coexists with the new, including old beliefs about the past itself. Lincoln therefore remains the man of the people and the man above the people, The Savior of the Union and emancipator of its slaves, the embodiment of rugged individualism and the welfare state, the personification of humor and sorrow, iron will and compassion. That is the man we knew yesterday; that is the man we know today.

"However, these continuities do not restore the Lincoln of the 1930s and 1940s, the man Americans looked up to and emulated. He is now less the Savior of the Union, less the rugged individualist, less the man of sorrow and humor, less the man of steel and velvet. He is now a smaller man, known by more, adored by fewer, emulated by fewer still." (263)

Such devoted students of Lincoln, however, will need to read Schwartz's book, a towering contribution to the nascent study of Lincoln's legacy. Mixing strong research, well-crafted prose, and a great amount of nuance, this volume describes the complex evolution of the memory of Abraham Lincoln, evident in popular culture and scholarship alike.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Book Review: Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory

Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory by Barry Schwartz (University of Chicago Press, 2000), hardcover, 382 pages

Over ten years ago, while visiting Washington DC, several people and I decided to walk down to the National Mall late at night.   Mostly, the streets were empty, until we arrived at the Lincoln Memorial after 11 pm.  More surprising than the number of people that early March night were the fact that there were two tour buses full of tourists visiting at that late hour.  Even then, I wondered what attracted so many people, at all hours, to climb the marble steps to stand at the foot of the seated, yet imposing, Lincoln.

In the vast amount of Lincoln-related literature, few people have attempted to answer the question of Lincoln's prominence in the almost 150 years after his death.  The most comprehensive attempt, as yet, is a two-volume work mapping Lincoln's legacy from his assassination to the present.  Written by sociologist Barry Schwartz, who previously researched George Washington's legacy, Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory is the first volume.

Focusing on the period between Lincoln's assassination in 1865 and the 1924 dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, Schwartz details the increasing influence and prominence of Lincoln's legacy, particularly during the Progressive Era.  Unlike other assessments, including Merrill Peterson's argument in his 1994 book Lincoln in American Memory that Lincoln's prestige rose sharply in the wake of his assassination and continued upward, Schwartz has a more sophisticated argument.  While there was an initial surge of Lincoln-related material in the months following his assassination, Schwartz argues that Lincoln's legacy didn't really begin to rise until the 20th Century, about two generations after his death.

Schwartz's overall view of the rise, plateau, and the dramatic rise of Lincoln in national memory is persuasive, particularly in the final chapters of his book.  Unfortunately, the narrative is almost crippled by the insistence that Lincoln's prestige was virtually nil until the moment he was cut down by an assassin's bullet.  While it is true that Lincoln was a divisive figure during an highly divisive era, and as such rabidly opposed by legions of people, including many in the North, and only tolerated by others, including many leading Republicans, there were people who admired his leadership and recognized his influence.

Part of this analysis seems to be due to Schwartz working back from the 1920s to 1865 and struggling to comprehend the period from 1870 to 1900.  Citing the work of others, especially Michael Kammon, he argues that the late 19th Century seems an ideal time for Lincoln's prestige to rise dramatically.  Since it does not, he struggles to explain the delay, and implicitly suggests that it stems from greater antipathy toward Lincoln by those of his generation than usually recognized.

One of the prime pieces of evidence Schwartz cites to develop this argument is a comparison between Lincoln's legacy and that of George Washington during the late 1800s.  By most measures, including many quantitative ones like number of articles in newspapers and magazines, Washington is more influential than Lincoln during the last decades of the 19th century.  However, the amazing thing is the frequency with which Lincoln is mentioned compared to Washington.  Even before the Progressive Era, Lincoln's reputation is clearly on the rise in national memory because he stands outside of Washington's shadow in ways that other influential Americans of the period, even Andrew Jackson, do not.   (This is apparent even in 1865, if one compares the image of Washington in eulogies of Lincoln to that in eulogies preached following the deaths in office of William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor.)

Entering the 20th century, though, Schwartz's work is almost breath-taking.  After detailing how different parties and social movements tried to appropriate parts of Lincoln's biography to support their cause -- even the socialists -- Schwartz details how the prestige of Lincoln surpassed even Washington's reputation as a model for national unity, especially in the years of World War I and the years thereafter.   In particular, Schwartz takes great care to describe how Lincoln's unifying image was a composite of parts that were not entirely reconcilable, a point vividly displayed in the contrasting memorials to Lincoln in Washington DC and at the site of his Kentucky birthplace.

There is much to admire in this well-researched and well-written book, particularly in the final third of the text.   Using collective memory, a sociological concept that only occasionally appears in books outside that field, Schwartz gamely attempts to see the legacy of Lincoln both from the perspective of the use of the Lincoln image and reputation and from the evident reception of such usage -- the latter being much more challenging.  That he mostly succeeds is a testament to his precision of thought and scholarly craft that he brings to the project.

Many with long-standing assumptions about the rise of Lincoln's reputation in national memory will find their theories significantly challenged, if not contradicted.  And while there are some limitations, overall the book is an important account of the transformation of Lincoln from divisive wartime president to unifying icon.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

2011 Lincoln Prize Announced

Gettysburg College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute have announced that the 2011 Lincoln Prize will be awarded to Eric Foner for his book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Foner, a named professor at Columbia University, has written several books on Lincoln and the Civil War era, including a couple of well-regarded volumes on Reconstruction.

Perhaps just as interesting as this award was the committee's decision to class all of the six other finalists with Honorable Mention status.

Though I have not yet read Foner's book, I imagine that it offers something recently lacking in books about Lincoln's views on race and slavery: a sophisticated consideration of a very complicated subject. Too often, Lincoln's words are judged by today's standards and understandings of race, which usually lead to unnecessarily harsh condemnation or a complete misunderstanding of the context in which they were made.

The Lincoln Prize will be awarded to Foner on May 11.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana

Earlier this week, the Jewish Journal published an article about noted Lincoln collector Alfred Whital Stern, whose 11,000 item collection was donated to the Library of Congress in 1950. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this part of the collection, which alongside the presidential papers given by Abraham Lincoln's son Robert, forms the heart of the extensive catalog of Lincoln-related in the Library of Congress.

Perhaps the most interesting discovery in this article, for me, was the fact that Stern donated over 1400 books to Hebrew University in Jerusalem a few years before he donated the majority of the collection to the Library of Congress.

As Daniel Weinberg of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop says in the article, "Stern was a monumental figure, his name is writ large in my mind of the Lincoln collectors."

Monday, January 24, 2011

National Archives Reveals Altered Lincoln Document

Today, the National Archives announced that it had determined one of the signed Abraham Lincoln items in its collection, a pardon for Private Patrick Murphy (which appears above), had been physically altered. One digit in the original written date was altered, so that Lincoln's endorsement of April 14, 1864 appeared to be signed on April 14, 1865 (closeup below). This implied that the pardon was granted on the day Lincoln was shot, making it one of his final acts in office.

While Lincoln's frequent use of pardons and amnesty to prevent many soldiers from being executed is well documented, the image of Lincoln sparing the life of a poor soldier -- who likely would have been executed by firing squad -- on the very day that Lincoln himself would fall victim to an assassin's bullet is filled with irony and pathos.

The storytelling potential -- and the economic benefit of publishing the story -- appear to be the motive for the alteration. The National Archives announced that Thomas Lowry, who authored a book on Lincoln and cases of military justice featuring this story of an April 14, 1865 pardon of Murphy, has confessed to altering the document with a pen he smuggled into the National Archives during his research. (Lowry is evidently claiming, through newspaper reports, that the confession was given under duress, though the image of National Archives investigators using oppressive techniques to obtain a confession for a crime which cannot be charged seems rather incredible -- the statute of limitations has expired on this crime.)

The news seems to be prompting national attention, with full stories already by The New York Times and The Washington Post (and probably others). It also has been appearing on other blogs, including Kevin Levin's popular Civil War History and The Abraham Lincoln Blog. Across all of them, the tone is one of outrage -- on a spectrum from veiled to blatant -- at Lowry's alleged act. In addition, there is a sense that a false history has been corrected, with a "too good to be true" tale of one final pardon being disproved after over a decade.

Craig Symonds, who won the Lincoln Prize for his book Lincoln and His Admirals, rightly implies in The New York Times that this change is unimportant, given the overwhelming evidence of Lincoln's involvement in granting such pardons. One could go further and state the obvious -- Lincoln still issued this pardon while President, meaning that the only value that has been changed is not historical, but emotional. Lincoln's final day is still filled with plenty of emotional moments -- breakfast with his full family, interactions with many of his favorite staff, a carriage ride with his wife. It also has the issue of pardon and amnesty, given that reconstruction was almost certainly discussed at that day's meeting of the Cabinet.

I find the story unsettling, though in different ways than the initial reports. In a country where many primary source documents are available for viewing by anyone who requests such a privilege, it seems likely that this breach of trust occurs more than we'd like to imagine. If a crude alteration can escape notice for a period of years, what if a skillful forger were involved? Should most of our primary source documents be more suspect?

This signature could have been discovered much sooner if anyone had thought to consult The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, which has annotated transcriptions of most of Lincoln's writings, including almost all of it in the National Archives and Library of Congress. All of the documents are listed chronologically in the Collected Works, so it would have taken a sharp eye to find this specific endorsement, dated April 14, 1864 "To Joseph Holt." Still, someone should have asked the obvious question -- how was this document missed by editor Roy Basler and his team? This question should have raised a red flag, which would have brought closer physical inspection of the document itself. (In recent years, the Collected Works have been fully searchable online, which would have made such cross-checking even quicker, especially given that Pvt. Murphy's name is mentioned in the annotation.)

More troubling is the implicit slur against Lowry's professional standing, or lack thereof, perhaps as a means to explain how this action could occur. Lowry is referred to as an "amateur historian" in both the Post and the Times -- the National Archives refers to him as "a long-time Lincoln researcher." An "amateur historian" is suspect, given that they do not have the academic credentials, or reputation, to back up their research.

In the video embedded in the National Archives' press release, there is a more subtle indictment of Lowry. Trevor Plante, the Acting Chief of Reference at the National Archives, who is credited with raising questions about the pronounced "5" in the document's date, says in an interview, "It's very galling and upsetting to me, as a trained historian, that someone would change a document..." [emphasis mine].

Is it too flippant to admit that I find that comment galling, along with the innuendo in the news articles? Given that the history of the field of history is heavily reliant on non-academically trained historians, the implication that the actions and findings of such "amateur historians" are suspect is ridiculous. (As is the term "amateur historians," given that large numbers of such authors were paid for their writing.) Academic training has little bearing on whether someone is willing to commit forgery or to desecrate an historical artifact -- though one could argue that such training may influence whether the perpetrator of fraud will be caught.

There is no plausible defense for the likely partial destruction of this document (the National Archives says it will attempt to restore the original "4" of the date). But I find it more troubling that trained historians failed to identify the forgery sooner, given their presumed expertise in dealing with primary documents (still as much art as science) and the professional encouragement for peer review and cross referencing. (A questioning of the guild of historians, especially Lincoln historians, will have to wait for another day, except to note that there is occasional evidence that even "trained historians" take shortcuts in completing their work.)

This critique of the professional historical community is not merely an idle act of poking fun -- after all, I could likely be included in such a community given my collegiate and graduate education. This incident -- and others like it -- reminds us of the need for all historians to be critical, even when dealing with documents that are presumed to be authentic originals. As another Lincoln Prize winner, Elizabeth Brown Pryor, proved in her book Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, the wealth of information in primary documents must be contextualized to be understood and appreciated. The context for the pardon, such as the fact that army records should have indicated Lincoln's decision, or even the general observation that Lincoln usually went through several military capital cases at a time, meaning that there should be decisions in multiple such cases on the date of any granted pardon, seems to have been overlooked, or even ignored.

Ignoring context, skipping over cross-referencing, forgetting to be curious whenever a story seems too good to be true -- these are greater threats to historical accuracy than someone sneaking an ink pen into a repository of documents. Bad history began with an unfortunate hoax and a forgery, but it was perpetuated by others who failed to ask the right questions -- and it was unchecked until someone asked the right question.