A friend at the Foundation for the National Archives recently invited me on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Archives’ vaults—certainly the best two hours I’ve spent all summer. It was national treasure heaven—George Washington’s handwritten First Inaugural Address, Annie Oakley’s letter to President McKinley volunteering to muster a battalion of lady sharpshooters for the Spanish-American War, the $7.2 million check that bought Alaska in 1868—but the prize by far was a brief note scrawled at the bottom of a sheaf of legal papers.
In 1863, the archivists told us, the Army’s Judge Advocate General sentenced Michael Delaney to death for deserting his Colorado regiment in 1862. Delaney’s case file was passed up to President Abraham Lincoln, who reviewed death sentences from court martials. In the file sent to Lincoln, the judge noted that Delaney had been captured while fighting for a different Colorado regiment: In other words, he had deserted, but then re-enlisted. Seeing this, Lincoln overturned the death sentence. He wrote on Delaney’s file:
“Let him fight instead of being shot. A Lincoln”
I guess it’s not surprising that the author of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address could manage to convey humanity, common sense, and a flash of dark wit in just seven words. Still, it is thrilling, and humbling, to read it.
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