Staff Favorites: A Mysterious Dispatch
Each Thursday in October, underbelly staff members will highlight their favorite collections items in honor of American Archives Month.
Choosing a favorite item from a collection of over seven million manuscripts, photographs, maps, rare books, prints, and more can pose a challenge. From the most famous documents, including Francis Scott Key’s original manuscript for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Benjamin Banneker’s astronomical journal, to the personal records of more humble Marylanders, the library staff works with a collection that is almost an embarrassment of riches. Each day, we discover a new unique document or uncover another fascinating tidbit of Maryland history in assisting researchers or preparing archival collections for public use, and we’ve often shared these discoveries on this blog.
I unearthed my favorite document in this way, in the routine course of my work as an archivist. I was searching for my next big project in storage when I came across a lone folder. I grabbed it, thinking inside would be a project easy to check off the to-do list. Instead, I found a long-standing mystery. Within the folder was a dispatch written by Lieutenant General T. J. Jackson (also known as Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson) to General Robert E. Lee at 3 p.m. on May 2, 1863 reporting enemy troop movements “near 6 miles west Chancellorsville.” I had found Jackson’s last dispatch to Lee written mere hours before he was mortally wounded by friendly fire at the Battle of Chancellorsville, a major Confederate victory.
I felt the thrill of excitement that those people on “Pawn Stars” or “Antiques Roadshow” must feel when they think they’re going to get millions for their flea market pick. My deflation came just as quick when reality set in. The archivists who preceded me would have never left such a valuable document to molder in storage. Something was amiss. A little bit of research on the document’s provenance would lead me to the truth.
In 1977, Maryland State Comptroller’s Office auditors discovered the dispatch in their Abandoned Property Division while inventorying property held by their office seized from abandoned safe deposit boxes. The document and a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake signed by Jackson had been removed from the long-forgotten safe deposit box of A. C. Morrison at the Mercantile Bank and Trust Company in 1969. Realizing the items’ historical significance, they were deposited by the state at the Maryland Historical Society.
The Society was delighted to add such a prestigious document to the collection and went to the newspapers to announce the exciting development. The archivists at the Virginia State Archives in Richmond also heard the news and raised questions about the dispatch’s authenticity, as they also held a copy in their collection. A comparison of the two documents was done, and after an in-depth investigation, the Society’s was deemed a forgery or facsimile. The handwriting was not Jackson’s and the wording was incorrect. Some conjectured that it was a copy made by Charles S. Venable, a staff officer for Lee, because of the handwriting. It was also determined that the signature looked traced. The Society was forced to go back to the papers in the wake of this disappointing turn. Richard Cox, curator of manuscripts, said of the matter, “It’s the kind of thing dreams are made of. Everyone hopes to find something valuable in an old safe deposit box. But, it’s usually junk.”(1) Perhaps this disappointment led the former staff to put the dispatch back in storage to be rediscovered by another unsuspecting archivist.
Dissatisfied by this result as well, I kept researching. I wanted to find out more about A. C. Morrison. Particularly tantalizing was the fact that Morrison was Jackson’s wife’s maiden name. However, Mary Anna Morrison Jackson does not appear to have any immediate relative with the initials A. C. or A. E. Even more curious, I discovered that in 1899 an A. E. Morrison of Leesburg, Virginia had made deposit of a document with the exact text at the Mercantile Trust Company, and it had been written up newspapers papers across the country. The safe deposit box had been registered to an A. C., but a typo could have been made by the bank or the newspapers. Morrison claimed in the article that he was the messenger entrusted with taking the dispatch to Lee but was injured on his way. Thus, he was left with the dispatch in his possession. But, his story is difficult to authenticate. He does not appear to be a member of Jackson’s immediate staff. I also cannot conclusively find him in the records of Confederate soldiers, as there are many soldiers with the initials A. C. or A. E. from Virginia.
In the end, I am left with more questions than answers. Did Morrison fabricate the document? He could have lifted the text from a biography of Jackson or the Virginia State Archives’ document as it was exhibited in 1880. Or did he believe that he had the real deal? Many convincing facsimiles have been made over the years for many reasons innocent and nefarious. In 1901, a woman in Hagerstown thought she also had a copy found jumbled in with old papers in her house, which had been used as a hospital during the Civil War. Copies even pop up today on Ebay and other auction websites. The mystery of the Jackson dispatch may never be solved, but it will certainly always hold a special place in this archivist’s heart. (Lara Westwood)
Sources and Further Reading:
(1) “Who Wrote Stonewall’s Last Letter?” Baltimore Sun 16 Dec. 1977: C2.