Stolen Lincoln Documents Returned to National Archives; Who Captured General G.W. Custis Lee?

Civil War in the News August 2011

An 1862 document endorsing the appointment of a chaplain to a Hagerstown, Maryland military hospital following the Battle of Antietam that had been stolen from the government has been returned to the National Archives. Also returned was a letter addressed to Lincoln requesting the appointment of the chaplain.

An archivist with the National Archives saw the documents in a New York autograph dealer’s catalogue in 2009. The items had been taken from the file of the Reverend Henry Edwards, who was the chaplain appointed to the position at the hospital. The dealer had purchased the documents from Alexander Historical Auctions of Stamford, Connecticut for $9600.
After being alerted to the status of the documents, Alexander’s president Bill Panagopulos refunded the New York dealer’s money. Panagopulos had received the items on consignment from a Rhode Island family. The family refunded what Panagolulos had paid them and agreed to return the documents to the National Archives.

It is not known when the documents were taken from the Henry Edwards File, but it is thought that it was decades ago. Panagolulos says the Rhode Island family had no part in the theft of the documents, and the items changed hands several times over the years before they acquired them.

Army Investigation into Medal of Honor Awarded for
the Capture of Confederate General G.W. Custis Lee

Major General George Washington Custis Lee was General Robert E. Lee’s eldest son, and like his father fought for the Confederacy. At the Battle of Sailor’s Creek in Virginia, Custis Lee was captured by Private Harris S. Hawthorn of the 121st New York Infantry. Hawthorn was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his act.

Now, however, 146 years after the April 6, 1865 battle, Hawthorn’s claim and Medal of Honor, are being investigated by the Army. According to Frank E. White Jr., the soldier who really captured Custis Lee was Private David D. White of the 37th Massachusetts Infantry. Frank White is the great great grandson of David White.

Frank White has been investigating this for quite some time, and presented his evidence in a 2008 book called Sailor s Creek: Major General G. W. Custis Lee, Captured with Controversy. He has members of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation on board, and the Army has agreed to begin the lengthy process of an official  investigation.

Apparently, the controversy as to who captured Custis Lee started immediately after the battle. In his official after action report, Captain Archibald Hopkins of the 37th Massachusetts wrote “General Custis Lee, who commanded their line, surrendered and gave up his sword to Private David D. White of Company E.” In his report, Colonel Egbert Olcott of the 121st New York wrote that “Lee was captured by Private Harris S. Hawthorn, Company F, the proofs of which, there having been some controversy about the matter, accompany this report.”  The “proofs” consisted of a sworn affidavit from Hawthorn that he did indeed capture Lee; also, there was a statement from the  regimental chaplain testifying to Hawthorn’s honesty “by the uniform consistency of his religious life”. The chaplain, however, didn’t state that he actually saw Hawthorn capture Lee.

So, did White lose out on the Medal of Honor because Hawthorn was a better self promoter?

To Frank White, “this is really not bragging rights. This is really just setting the record straight”.  The Army inquiry will attempt to do just that.

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1 Response

  1. September 7, 2011

    […] Here’s a rather notable video segment about a dealer in private documents who, upon being notified that a document he’d sold had been missing from a file held by the National Archives, took active steps to see that it was returned. […]

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