- Historic Sites
Lincoln’s Lost Love Letters
A cache of letters, discovered in 1928 and published in the Atlantic Monthly, proved that Abraham Lincoln had really loved Ann Rutledge. Or did they?
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
For Barton, the situation had become highly embarrassing. He could no longer hope to preserve both his warm relationship with Miss Minor and his reputation as a Lincoln scholar. On December 5 he wrote to the Atlantic declaring the Lincoln letters forgeries, and he said the same thing in an interview with a Boston Herald reporter on December 9. “I confess I am not happy,” he sighed, “when I think what Miss Minor is likely to say when she learns that I have deserted her.” Not until December 11 did Barton work up enough courage for a letter to California, but then he wrote with brutal frankness and sent a copy to Sedgwick. “I have come to the conviction,” he said, “that the letters which you are sending to the Atlantic … are not genuine. And, my dear, I am afraid you know it. I could omit this last sentence, but it is right that I should be utterly honest with you. I am very sorry, very sorry.”
This communication reached Boston first and caused an uproar in the Atlantic ’s offices. Sedgwick, in acknowledging it, used the phrase “defamation of character.” Miss Fitzpatrick telegraphed Wilma, warning her of what Barton’s letter contained and urging her to seek legal advice. Wilma received the “dastardly document” on December 17 and immediately fired off an indignant letter, the first of several in which she demanded a retraction, threatened a lawsuit, and reminded Barton of his calling. “What sort of Christianity do you follow,” she asked, “that makes you use such methods to undermine a sincere and stainless charactered girl?” Eventually, in desperation, she showed her claws to their full length by writing: “And then there is the very amorous effusion that you dashed off to me after our meeting. I think you will remember it as the one you wrote on the train. I am strongly advised to give it to the Associated Press, and if you persist in this public tirade that is utterly lacking in real foundation, I must in turn be forced to humiliate you by broadcasting that letter, and if your mind serves you well you will remember that each passage when viewed by a coldly critical, dispassionate world will brand the Reverend Barton as a silly old sheik.” Barton refused to be intimidated, however, and Wilma made no move to carry out either of her threats.
By mid-December it was plain that Sedgwick had no scholarly support whatever. Yet he clung stubbornly to his faith. “We must remember,” he wrote bravely to Wilma, “that the greater the excitement now, the greater will be the triumph of the book if we can compel the acquiescence of leading critics.” “Let us gird our armor and fight our way through to victory,” Wilma replied.
On about December 10, proof sheets of the second installment of “Lincoln the Lover” came off the press, and a set of them, obtained from Sandburg, circulated quietly among Barrett, Angle, and Ford. At Angle’s suggestion, the three men prepared a joint statement for release as soon as the January issue appeared. The Boston Herald and The New York Times printed it on December 23.
The second installment, titled “The Courtship,” was richly documented. It contained one or more letters from Lincoln to Ann Rutledge, from Ann to Lincoln, from Ann to her cousin Mat Cameron, and from Lincoln to John Calhoun, together with excerpts from Mat’s diary and passages from the memorandum of Sally Calhoun. When the three sharpshooters opened fire, these documents proved to be pitfully vulnerable. The Cameron family Bible indicated that Matilda (Mat) Cameron never existed. The same was probably true of Sally Calhoun. Mat’s diary, supposedly written in the early 1830’s, mentioned Martha Calhoun, who was not born until 1843. Mat wrote twice of the “boat from Springfield” as though speaking of a regular service, but the Sangamon was only rarely navigable by boats of any size, and besides, Springfield was six miles from the river. Ann at one point mentioned Spencer’s copybook, which did not appear in print until thirteen years after her death. Lincoln, writing to John Calhoun at a time when both men were publicly employed as surveyors, referred to a controversy over “Section 40,” but in the land-survey system, sections were numbered no higher than 36. And, in the same letter, Lincoln spoke of a family as leaving “for some place in Kansas”—this at a time when the region was not called Kansas and was not yet open to white settlement.
It was a devastating attack, and Sedgwick may have been tempted to follow the advice given him earlier in the month by the librarian of Brown University: “Better eat your peck of dirt now before it becomes a bushel.” Instead, he publicly reaffirmed his confidence in the Minor collection, insisting that “noted experts” had studied the material and pronounced it authentic. But at the same time, his letters to California sounded weary and discouraged. “Our own efforts seem to have come up against a stone wall,” he admitted. “It is useless to disguise the fact that we are confronting very serious evidence.” Wilma continued to play the undaunted heroine. “Situation gives no cause for alarm,” she telegraphed on December 26, and in a letter the next day, she declared: “The objectionists die hard, they are now jumping at and clinging to, flimsy straws but the more they bark the more optimistic I become. On January 2 she issued a lengthy defense which appeared in newspapers across the country. Most of it, however, was elaboration of the history of the collection. She said little in direct response to the Angle-Barrett-Ford attack.