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    Funds dwindle for Lincoln papers project

    Without money, archival research at risk of ending

    About 75,000 Lincoln papers in the National Archives have still not been examined under the program.
    Katherine Frey/Washington Post
    About 75,000 Lincoln papers in the National Archives have still not been examined under the program.

    WASHINGTON — Parris Griffith wanted President Lincoln to know that his son was a good and true soldier and should not be executed for mutiny.

    Union Sergeant Thomas Griffith, and others in his company, had refused to serve under a lieutenant they had not elected — having been promised on enlistment they could elect their commanders.

    The younger Griffith was ‘‘as fine a man as lives,’’ his father wrote the president in 1863. He had voted for Lincoln and spent eight months as a prisoner of war. Now, ‘‘because he desired a voice in selecting his officers, he must be shot.’’


    David J. Gerleman, assistant editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, came upon this stark Civil War vignette recently at the National Archives. It is one of thousands of Lincoln-related documents, large and small, that the project has been collecting there since 2006.

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    But as the country approaches the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in November, the project’s work at the archives might soon end.

    Gerleman and Daniel W. Stowell, the project’s director, said that, barring new funding, money for their National Archives research will run out next June, and their work there could stop well before then.

    The overall project, based at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., would continue. But the digging in the archives, where the vast majority of Lincoln documents are located, would be suspended.

    Stowell said a five-year, $1.4 million charitable grant ran out recently, and the project’s Illinois state funding has been more than halved. The project, which has an annual budget of $775,000 to gather all things Lincoln, gets funding from federal and other private sources, he said, which make up only about 60 percent of its budget.


    ‘‘We need to replace that [charitable] funding . . . and the now-missing portion of our state funding,’’ Stowell said. If not, he said, the project would retrench and focus mainly on its work in Springfield.

    The project began work in 1985 searching for Lincoln’s legal papers. It published them in four volumes and posted them online in 2008. Meanwhile, it expanded its scope in 2001 to include all Lincoln papers. It is transcribing and annotating Lincoln documents from the years before his presidency. Many of them are online. And it is still searching out papers from his war years.

    An estimated 75,000 documents at the National Archives remain to be examined, Stowell said.

    But why search for Lincoln papers at all?

    With hundreds of books written about the assassinated president, don’t we know everything?


    ‘‘No,’’ Stowell said. A similar project in the 1950s, by historian Roy P. Basler, focused primarily on things Lincoln wrote, he said. This time, researchers are also looking for, among other things, documents Lincoln received.

    This ‘‘enriches Lincoln so much by giving the full cast of characters, by giving all of the people who are writing to him, giving their voices,’’ he said.

    ‘‘Some of them are hilarious, a lot of them are poignant, a lot of them are tragic, some of them are noble. . . . You get this swath of humanity.’’