Discoveries from the Vault


Mother’s Day, 1919: “may you never get another letter from France as long as you live!”

Lawrence Hopkins to Mrs. A.W. Hopkins, May 7, 1919. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

What would be a better Mother’s Day present than learning that your child would be returning home from war? In 1919, thirty-year-old Lawrence Hopkins of the 305th Engineers was at the Forwarding Camp in Le Mans, France, awaiting orders to return home. On Wednesday, May 7, he wrote his mother in Ashtabula, Ohio, an early Mother’s Day letter in hopes he would be at sea by Sunday. With great excitement he announced the possibility of being home by Decoration Day (Memorial Day):



Abraham Lincoln, Mary Owens, and the accidental engagement

Abraham Lincoln to Mary Owens, May 7, 1837 (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

In 1836, Abraham Lincoln found himself in a tenuous situation. He was engaged to a woman he barely knew and didn’t want to marry. Mrs. Elizabeth Abell had been pushing for a romance between Lincoln and her sister, Mary Owens, whom Lincoln had met briefly in 1833. When Elizabeth went home to visit her family in Kentucky three years later, she said she would bring Mary back to Illinois if Lincoln would agree to marry her. Lincoln jokingly agreed. He realized the consequences of his rash statement when Mary came to New Salem and considered herself engaged.



Washington Dodge: Titanic Survivor, April, 1912

Washington Dodge, Eyewitness account of sinking of the Titanic, April 15, 1912.

One hundred years ago this weekend, the RMS Titanic sank, claiming the lives over 1,500 passengers and crew. In this account, Dr. Washington Dodge recounts his tale of survival. Written on board the RMS Carpathia during the three-day journey back to New York, this eyewitness account is one of the earliest and most compelling accounts of the disaster. Dodge’s handwriting and sentence phrasing offer a glimpse into his state of mind as he penned his testimony.



A Civil War soldier’s letters: “Save them if it cost the farm”

Ambrotype of Libby, Leon, Georgina and Lucy Tillotson, ca. 1862 (The Gilder Lehr

George Tillotson from Greene, New York, enlisted with the 89th New York Infantry in November of 1861. This ambrotype (photograph made on glass) and a series of letters from the summer of 1862 remind us that soldiers and their families faced hardships on the home front as well as on the battlefield. George had been in the army for five months and was stationed at Roanoke Island, North Carolina, when his wife, Libby, sent him the photograph featured here. The photograph was damaged in the mail and began a heartbreaking series of correspondence. 



Women in the Civil War: Vivandieres

Vivandiere from the 12th Regiment, ca. 1861-1865. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

Vivandieres, sometimes known as cantinieres, were women who followed the army to provide support for the troops. Ideally, a vivandiere would have been a young woman—the daughter of an officer or wife of a non-commissioned officer—who wore a uniform and braved battles to provide care for wounded soldiers on the battlefield. 



Romeo Smith: Slave, Soldier, Freeman

Henry Knox, Certification of Romeo Smith as a freeman, January 9,1784. (Gilder L

Born a slave, Romeo Smith of Windham, Maine, entered the Continental Army with the promise of freedom in exchange for military service. He served in the 7th Massachusetts for three years and was supposedly manumitted. Yet in January 1784, the threat of being reclaimed as a slave surfaced and Romeo sought the assistance of General Henry Knox. The document featured here is Knox’s retained draft certifying Smith’s freedom.


Syndicate content