National Treasure 3: The Lame Deception

Every day, when I find the time, I really enjoy reading the New York Times Opinionator blog “Disunion.” It’s a collection of essays, historical accounts, etc. on the U.S. Civil War. If you’re a history nerd like me, you’ll love it. The blog was started in honor of the 150th anniversary of the war, which will have commenced 150 years ago this April.  Possibly the coolest thing about the blog is that it chronologically covers its subject matter. Things that were happening in January 1861 are being discussed now in January 2011. I have no idea how long this blog is set to last, but if you want to read about Gettysburg for example, don’t plan on doing it until July 2013.

Every article I have read has been intelligent, interesting, and unique. Until the one I read yesterday.  I will put a disclaimer on this, there was nothing wrong with the article itself.  It was well written, made some interesting observations, etc.  But what they were writing about was freakin’ ridiculous.

The article, entitled “A Blot on Lincoln Historians”, is about a doctored document in which Abraham Lincoln commutes the death sentence for a young Union deserter in California.  It’s not as cool as it sounds. It IS an actual order from Abraham Lincoln.  There was no conspiracy to get this soldier acquitted of his sentence.  Rather a “historian”, well after Lincoln’s death, doctored it to make the document more dramatic than it actually was. Here’s a picture of the document. Can you tell what was doctored?

If you guessed “the date” then you are either trained to handle 19th Century documents and/or you have eyeballs. How clear is it that the date has been changed? It looks like a shitty attempt you’d make in high school to change a D to a B on a paper so your parents wouldn’t get mad.

The literal equivalent to this Lincoln forgery

The best part is that it was doctored by “…Thomas Lowry, a Virginia psychiatrist, who was immediately lauded as a leading Lincoln scholar” according to the article.  What’s better about that? That someone who was at best an amateur Lincoln researcher received almost no scrutiny about the document? Or that after shittily doctoring a historical document with a Bic pen he was immediately regarded as a leading Lincoln scholar by the historical community? I can’t choose, it’s all retardedly awesome.

Here’s a closer look at the doctored date, in case anyone needed a closer look, like the one every historian who looked at it had:

Not surprisingly it becomes even more obvious that someone doctored it, although now it does seem like he was smart enough to use a black Pilot gel pen instead of a Bic, well played sir. We shouldn’t be too hasty to judge the historians though (although I still will).  Apparently it wasn’t so much their lack of expertise with documents of the era, common sense, or knowledge of Lincoln pardons that caused them to overlook the ruse.  It was their gigantic boners for Abraham Lincoln that blinded them to the truth.

You see the reason this document was doctored and received so much attention then and now is the date in question.  April 14th 1865 was the day Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  If the date the order was written was  actually April 14th 1865, that would mean that mere hours before Lincoln was assassinated he had pardoned yet another soldier.  It would show that his compassion and humanity were present right up to his final day on Earth. It wasn’t a huge historical revelation, just a “Cherry Tree” moment for Lincoln if you will, one of many for the legendary president. However the order was actually sent out on April 14th 1864, not 1865, making it nothing more than a minor coincidence.  It’s pretty hilarious that it took 13 years for anyone to figure out that this document was doctored.

If only history scandals were more like “National Treasure” and historians like Nicholas Cage’s Ben Gates. That forgery would have been dismissed in five minutes. Then he would’ve found a secret cipher on it and two acts later we’d be led to an underground store of ancient Egyptian gold buried by the Illuminati so that the Nazis wouldn’t find it. Of course the forger himself would be one of those Nazis, and Nic Cage’s kindly old neighbor played by Donald Sutherland would be the last living member of the Illuminati.

But noooo, we just have a bunch of nerds changing numbers on pieces of paper so other historians will think they’re cool. Apparently being a historian is more similar to “Mean Girls” than “National Treasure.” Reality blows.

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