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Exhibitions and Events

Archiving America

By Alex Piazza

Benjamin West. The Death of General Wolfe. 1776.

Picture yourself alongside President Abraham Lincoln during his final hours.

James Tanner found himself in that position 150 years ago as he recorded the moments after John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.

“There was quite a crowd in the room, which was small, but I approached quite near the bed on which so much greatness lay, fast loosing its hold on this world,” Tanner wrote. “In the front room, Mrs. Lincoln was uttering the most heartbroken exclamations all the night long.”

That letter is just one of many rare pieces of early American history housed in the University of Michigan’s William L. Clements Library. The library, founded in 1923 by U-M Regent William L. Clements, features 80,000 books and pamphlets, 30,000 maps, 100,000 images and 1,200 linear feet of manuscript material dating 1492 to 1900.

“If Bill Gates or Warren Buffett wanted to collect American history, they could not recreate this library, no matter how much of their fortunes they were willing to throw at it because you can’t find this stuff nowadays,” said Library Director J. Kevin Graffagnino.

The library recently reopened after a 2.5-year, $17 million renovation and expansion. Since then, historians and researchers across the globe have traveled to Ann Arbor to investigate America’s past through original primary source documents.

“If you’re interested in American history, you could do your research online or through a textbook,” Graffagnino said. “But there’s an authenticity and an emotional connection when you come into the Clements Library and hold a letter written by George Washington. That’s one of the reasons why I believe this library is the most valuable building on this campus.”


Christopher Columbus letter, 1493

Christopher Columbus letter, 1493

Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World in 1492.

Once he arrived, Columbus expressed wonder and awe about America, including his fascination with “trees of the greatest variety, which brush at the stars.”

Columbus later returned to Spain, where he wrote a report in the form of a letter in which he announced the results of his expedition. That letter, dated 1493, is the first printed account of the New World.

Printers republished Columbus’ letter across Europe, and Clements Library is home to one of the rare copies. Only about 80 copies are known to exist, which makes the Columbus letter one of the library’s crown jewels.

William Clements purchased the rare piece of history in 1918 for an “outrageous” price, Graffagnino said, but the letter has certainly held its value.

“We were offered a copy of the letter back in 2008, and the asking price was 850 times what Mr. Clements had paid 90 years ago,” Graffagnino said. “There are lots of things here Mr. Clements purchased that nowadays we could not afford to buy. And there are lots of things we have here that haven’t even come on the market since Mr. Clements bought them a century ago.”


The Bloody Massacre, 1770

The Bloody Massacre, 1770

The American Revolution pitted America against Britain in a war of independence that spanned six years.

And the two documents that capture its beginning and end are housed in the Clements Library.

The library features the military and governmental correspondence of Gen. Thomas Gage, commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America between 1763 and 1775.

Gage feared Americans would rebel, so on April 18, 1775, he wrote a letter to British Lt. Col. Francis Smith, ordering him to seize and destroy all American military stores in Concord, Mass.

“But you will take care that the soldiers do not plunder the inhabitants or hurt private property,” Gage wrote to Smith.

Conflict though ensued once Smith’s troops arrived in Concord, sparking the beginning of the American Revolution.

Six years later, American and French forces surrounded British Gen. Charles Cornwallis and his depleted army at Yorktown, Va. Cornwallis was forced to surrender 8,000 British soldiers and seamen.

Cornwallis wrote a 14-page letter to his commander, British Gen. Henry Clinton, informing him of his surrender. The letter is housed in the Clements Library.

“This is the document that essentially ends the American Revolution,” Graffagnino said.


Benedict Arnold

Benedict Arnold

Benedict Arnold has a firm place in American history, though his reputation is far from heroic.

Arnold joined Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army in 1775, and climbed the ranks as he demonstrated military prowess against British forces. But his standing with the American military soured over time and Arnold eventually sold his services to the British.

His treasonous behavior is captured at the Clements Library through handwritten letters between Arnold and his British contact John André.

In one such letter dated July 15, 1780, Arnold offered to surrender West Point, a valuable American stronghold, to the British for 20,000 pounds. At that time, Arnold commanded West Point for the Americans, and he scattered his troops so British forces could easily overtake the location.

But American troops intercepted one of Arnold’s coded letters to André, thus preventing the British siege and revealing Arnold’s infamous ties to the enemy.

“That’s why Benedict Arnold is one the most hated names in American history because he’s really our first famous traitor,” Graffagnino said.


President Abraham Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln

Moments after John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln, James Tanner received a historic assignment.

Record the testimony of Lincoln’s final hours.

Tanner’s ability to write shorthand earned him a firsthand account into the tragic events of April 14, 1865.

Three days after Lincoln’s death, the disabled veteran wrote a detailed description of what he had seen and heard that night. That historic letter now resides in the Clements Library.

“Mrs. Lincoln was in the front room, weeping as though her heart would break,” he wrote. “In the back room lay His Excellency breathing hard, and with every breath, a groan.”

Tanner sat in silence for two hours as members of Lincoln’s cabinet sobbed and recounted the moments leading up to the president’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre.

“The utmost silence pervaded, broken only by the sounds of strong men’s tears,” he wrote. “It was a solemn time, I assure you. The President breathed heavily until a few minutes before he breathed his last, then his breath came easily, and he passed off very quietly.”

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