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On the hunt for Lincoln’s Last Written Words: Discovering a gem while transcribing

Written by Ward Barnes, Digital Library Team, Falvey Memorial Library.

I’m new to the transcription profession, having just commenced work in March as a part-time assignment with the Villanova Digital Library group. I suspect most transcribers look on their work much as the archaeologist looks at his: hours of tedium with the main reward being the pleasure one gets from deciphering and solving puzzles. But I suspect that both transcribers and archaeologists secretly harbor a belief that they will occasionally uncover a treasure, something really valuable. I was lucky enough to stumble upon such a gem–or so it seemed–just a few weeks after I began my labors.

I was working with the Nagy Collection, some documents given to the library by the family of a library employee, Andrew Nagy. The particular document was a letter written by one Henry O. Nightingale, a wounded Civil War soldier, residing in a hospital in Washington, D.C. The letter was dated April 30th, 1865, and contained a lengthy eulogy to the recently departed President Lincoln. Well into the document I deciphered these words: “I, the afternoon of the fatal day, had the pleasure of seeing the departed one. My object in going to see him was to get his autograph in my album. He, the President, took it and wrote with his own hand several lines.” My eyes popped out of my head. I suppose the moment was enhanced by the fact that I taught American History for 25 years and was a specialist in the 19th century period and a big Lincoln fan. These might be the last words Lincoln wrote! They might be profound! (In a Nightingale letter dated May 12th I found the further comment, “I do indeed prize the lines written in my book by the late President.”) This “album” could be of great historical value and public interest. All I had to do was contact the Nagy family, they would hunt out the album, and the world would receive the gift of Lincoln’s last written message.

Life should be so simple. As it turns out, Nightingale is not a relative of the Nagys. The person he was writing to is a relative, but she apparently never met Nightingale, and certainly did not have his album. Andrew Nagy’s father took considerable interest in the Lincoln news, and said he might try to find the Nightingale descendents, but neither of us hold out much hope of finding the Lincoln document. Still I derive some kind of vicarious pleasure in having transcribed the words of a man who met Lincoln hours before he was killed, and who may have possessed Lincoln’s last written words.


Images of the original letter can be seen as part of the Digital Library’s Nagy Collection. Here follows the transcription of the Nagy letter, transcribed and with annotations by Ward, and edited by Andrea Reed, Father Middleton Digital Library Intern:

[p. 1]

No 2

P.S.1 I hope to have the

pleasure of receiving another

good letter from you before

I return to my home. please

write soon.

H.O.N.

Stanton U.S. General Hospital

Washington City, D.C.

April 30th, 1865

My gentle unknown friend:

‘Tis the afternoon of a very beautiful Sabbath day. Nature seems smiling & refreshed by a beautiful rain. Birds are singing, Bells chiming, all seems gladness except the heart of Man. And why do we mourn? because we have lost our friend our chieftian. never did a Nation lose a truer friend. his Sun set doubtless. his name will be immortal. his virtues, which I ever respected, will live to influence men in public and private life till time shall be no more. he was given us by God when we needed him most. he guided our national ship so far through the storm and dangers which surrounded and beat upon her, that he was permitted to behold a smoother sea and rejoice in sight of the port she was about to enter. then like Moses of old he fell in sight of the promised land his hearts desire. He has gone, my gentle friend to join that list of mar-

[p. 2]

2

tyrs, whose blood and forms2 as they mingle with the3 dust throughout our land shall yet find a purer and holier people in all that shall strengthen our great and growing Republic.

He is dead in body but “still” as the poet says “his spirit walks abroad.”

“They never fail who die in a great cause # #

# # # # # # though years

Elapse, and others share as dark a doom,

They but augment the deep and sweeping thoughts4

Which overpower all others, and conduct

The world at last to freedom”

My friend, he who we mourn as dead only sleepth, how grand will be his name in all future time. He will be hailed with joy when he enters those5 portals of eternal rest, happiness and love, as all who earned the crown given to those who “love their fellow men,” when we look upon his tomb in the far west we can with sacred reverence say Here lies, under God, the nations martyr, the nations deliverer.

But my friend pardon me for neglecting your letter. I honor you for your words when you say, “I find

[p. 3]

3

that I have been loving him all the time.

and now that he is gone I love him far

more,” tis even so. we know not the virtues of a friend, or do not prize them as we should until that friend is gone. I agree with you entirely. I had learned to love him for he was eminently the Soldiers friend. so just, for giving, unsuspecting. When the sad news of his assassination reached us, we had all retired. It seemed like an the sudden opening of a musket battery, we could not believe it. but morning came, bells sounded forth the solemn toll for his departed spirit & sadness, grief, frenzy, seized us all. Men who had stood before the enemy, their comrades falling around them without shedding a tear wept. great tears coursed down the cheeks of all. Then for the first time did I understand my comrades. Then I knew who were true. Then I discovered the great affection for “good Old Abe” concealed in the hearts of my fellow Soldiers. Terrible, fearful and tenfold more6 w7 will be the retribution. “Justice” is wide awake.

[p. 4]

they, the leaders, unarmed will find that the fruits of their labor is bitter indeed. as you so truly say “Mercy” has been shown them long enough. I, the afternoon of the fatal day, had the pleasure of seeing the departed one. my object in going to see him was to get his autograph in my album. he, the President took it and wrote with his own hand several lines. I looked with admiration upon the man whose energy had preserved us, little thinking that before morning he would be a bleeding corpse. One week ago Thursday last I looked upon all that remained of him as he lay in State in the Capitol. I will not attempt to describe my feelings. you can imagine what they were. I felt as though my best friend had gone, and turned away to weep.

Booth is dead, but his death does not avenge our loss. his name will be a terror, a shame to this fair country, a shame and curse to his avowed cause, eternal infamy. while he whom the assassin slew has his name nailed by the fatal bullet high upon the Standard of Freedom and the

[p. 5]

rights of Man. I will leave this subject now, thinking as you do that “Language cannot express my words.”

The War is virtually over, and in due time peace will make the blasted fields and ruined cities of this once happy land smile again, but who shall bring comfort to the hearts that bleed for the loved ones gone down in the storm of battle, for the vacant chair, the fireside deserted, the home in mourning! But if in our Northern homes we hear the voice of mourning for the children laid upon the altar of our Country, dying for the flag we love, to bequeath to all time a glorious heritage of freedom, what must be the anguish of those Southern wives, mothers, and sisters, who have given up their loved ones for a criminal cause! While I feel that they are but justly punished, I can but pity them. They deserve our pity, do they not?

I am not at all surprised kind friend that you despise the English, we have cause to. I am ashamed8 of my native land for her perfidy, but

[p. 6]

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my friend allow me to say that ‘tis not the English people who have acted this. tis the Aristocracy, an institution which I abhor, ‘tis the breastplate of slavery. I was a true Englishman, one who loved liberty, but now I have renounced her. America I love now. America’s my home. I hope ere long to see England freed from her curse too. I mean the Aristocrats and when that struggle is being made I hope to lend a helping hand. Yes, friend Gertie I am an American now, proud of the title, proud that I am among Columbia’s sons, brothers to Columbia’s fair daughters. I left a happy home9 in England, now I am alone, no home, no kindred. You ask me to tell you of my adventures. I have not space now but will some other time, please excuse me now.

One word about Gen’l Sherman10. sad indeed did I feel when the rumor of his doings came, but I think he has been much mistakened. it appears however that his Armistice was genuine, but only while awaiting an answer

[p. 7]

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to Johnson’s11 propositions from the Government. Gen’l Grant12 returned last night bringing the joyful intelligence that Johnson had surrendered on the same terms as Lee13, & to use his same language “Sherman was all right, the people judge too hastily in many instances. An order has been issued for the discharge of all men in the Hospitals, this is glorious news to us. We can go14 to our homes feeling that we have done our duty, accomplished our mission, a united country built upon firmer basis with the […]15 the curse of slavery abolished. You must greet the Jersey boys with a hearty welcome, nobly have they done their duty. let them know that their services have been appreciated. Will it not be a happy day when we learn no more the work of war but lay our [..ly]16 to rest to aid in the achievement of the Arts and Sciences of peace! I have a piece of poetry composed by myself just before the Battle of Gettysburg17. perhaps

[p. 8]

you would like it. I claim no merit for it but it agrees so well with the present that I will send it to you enclosed in this letter please preserve it as a momento of your Soldier friend. I should be much pleased to have the opportunity of seeing you. I always like to be perfectly acquainted with my correspondents. I heard a certain Hospital Steward of this Hospital, who I believe resides near Orange speak of your family. he is a native of New Jersey and formerly belonged to the 8th Regt. his name is Bass. another Steward also from N.J. named Jayres belongs to the Medical Staff of the Hospital. there are also many Jersey Boys here but I am acquainted with none.

My health is improving fast. In a few days I intend to go to Mount Vernon and Arlington must visit these hallowed places before I go home. will send you an account if you desire. Thanking you once more for your favors and visiting though unknown to be remembered.

I remain ever

Your Soldier friend

Henry O. Nightingale

  1. Text written vertically at the top of the page, overwriting some words
  2. Best guess
  3. Best guess
  4. Best guess
  5. Best guess
  6. Best guess
  7. Presumably the author started to write “will”
  8. Best guess
  9. Best guess
  10. Sherman, William T. (William Tecumseh), 1820-1891.
  11. Johnson, Andrew, 1808-1875.
  12. Grant, Ulysses S. (Ulysses Simpson), 1822-1885.
  13. Lee, Robert E. (Robert Edward), 1807-1870.
  14. Best guess
  15. Indecipherable word
  16. Indecipherable word
  17. Gettysburg (Pa.), Battle of, 1863.
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Last Modified: June 13, 2008