**This is, hopefully, the first in a series of guest posts–I’d love to hear about your best, favorite, surprising, provocative and inspiring archive finds. Please email me ([email protected]) if you’d like to share!
In 2008, I received my Masters degree in History from George Washington University (after thirty years working on and around Capitol Hill). Since then, I’ve been working on a manuscript about how the wives of four of Lincoln’s generals influenced their husbands’ Civil War careers. One of them is Ellen Ewing Sherman, and I have spent many hours exploring the William T. Sherman Family Papers Collection in the University of Notre Dame Archives. (http://archives.nd.edu/findaids/ead/xml/shr.xml).
Much of the collection is online – the archivists have done an exceptional job of digitizing originals and transcripts of hundreds of letters between Ellen and her husband. Even though Sherman told his wife (as he was heading to Manassas in July of 1861) that he would tear up her letters because “every ounce on the march tells,” he did not. He saved nearly all of them, and with the hundreds of his she saved, the collection includes one of the most extensive and intimate views of the war.
The collection also includes their diaries, articles they wrote, financial papers, sketches by Sherman, and the papers of their children. In addition, the collection includes the papers of Thomas Ewing and those of several of his sons, Charles Sherman (WT’s father) and some of John Sherman’s papers. It is a treasure. Thanks to the archivists’ work, most all of it is accessible anywhere you have WI-FI. But, of course, some items can be viewed only in the Archives themselves, and I knew I had to go there to see them.
In mid-September of this year, I was able to visit the Archives, thanks to a generous travel grant from the Cushwa Center at Notre Dame (https://cushwa.nd.edu/grant-opportunities/research-travel-grants/
). The major focus of my visit was an item I noted in the finding aid – a box named “Objects” that had not been scanned (nor was there online a list of items in the box). It turned out that there are actually three archival boxes in that category, containing fascinating artifacts owned by Ellen and Sherman. In the third archival box, I found a mystery – a small cardboard box, labeled (in General Sherman’s granddaughter’s handwriting) “Seal of Confederate prison in S.C.”
Opening the box, I was absolutely floored. Inside is a wooden version of a rubber stamp, one that would be used to validate or endorse official papers. In overall shape, the stamp itself is similar to a roughly carved wooden pestle (as in mortar & pestle), about three inches long, cut flat at one end, where the actual stamp area is carved. The shape of the stamp is an oval about two inches at its widest part. The words on the stamp are very finely carved, but in reverse, of course, and that is likely why the label on the box is wrong. Eleanor Sherman Fitch read it read it forwards instead of backwards. “S.C.” is actually “C.S.”
Around the edges, it says:
CAP’T COMD’G – C.S. MILITARY PRISON
Inside those words is carved:
This is the seal of Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville Prison, in Georgia, the only man who was executed for war crimes during the Civil War. In the summer of 1864, Sherman attempted to free prisoners at Andersonville, but the force he sent was defeated. He later wrote, “I don’t think I ever set my heart so strongly on any one thing as I did in attempting to rescue those prisoners.”
There is nothing in the archives to indicate how Wirz’s seal got into the Sherman papers, nor have I ever seen any reference to this item in any biography of Sherman that I’ve read. I’d love to know if anyone else knows about this.
One important footnote – The images appear with the permission of the University of Notre Dame’s Archives.