Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation–the document that freed the slaves in the rebelling states and allowed them to join the Union Army. The National Archives invites people to come and see the “original” proclamation. Though you can certainly see the official proclamation, neatly handwritten by the engrosser and signed by President Lincoln on New Year’s Day, 1863, at the National Archives, you will not see the manuscript originally written by Abraham Lincoln.
Alas, that original manuscript burned in the Chicago Fire of 1871. I came across this tidbit of information while researching the fire for Plank Road Winter, but no one at the Chicago Historical Society seemed able to explain why the Emancipation Proclamation was in Chicago or why no one saved it.
So, having spent more time than necessary for our novel investigating this mystery, I can now tell you more about Lincoln’s final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation than most people.
Lincoln’s final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which he finished on Dec. 31, 1862, arrived in Chicago in the fall of 1863. The women of Chicago were having a fair to raise money to help the many horribly wounded soldiers coming back from the war. They asked Abraham Lincoln if he would donate his original draft of the Emanicpation Proclamation, with the understanding that a subscription would to opened to purchase it for the Historical Society of Chicago. This was his reply:
“According to the request made in your behalf, the original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation is herewith inclosed. The formal words at the top and the conclusion, except the signature, you perceive, are not in my handwriting. They were written at the State Department. The printed part was cut from the preliminary Proclamation and pasted on merely to save writing.
I had some desire to retain the paper, but if it shall contribute to the relief or comfort of the soldiers, that will be better.
Your obedient servant,
After the fair was over and the money raised, the proclamation was framed and displayed at the Chicago Historical Society, until that fateful October night when a fire started in the O’Leary barn. Samuel Stone, a member and curator of the Society’s collection, was awakened at home at 2 a.m. on Oct. 9, 1871, and told that Chicago was burning. He went to the Historical Society, where he found a number of people bringing boxes and bundles to the Society for safe-keeping. Stone at once took charge of the basement door, refusing to open the door to anymore ignitable items.Soon Stone heard voices calling from outside telling him that he was in danger. He pushed a trunk against the basement door to secure it, then went up stairs. A blast of wind, fire, and smoke filled the street, and an entire casement window was suddenly ablaze. Stone hastened to the Reception Room to get the Society’s record book and the Emancipation Proclamation. He attempted to break the frame–”but the frame was so stout it was not easily done, and just as I was making the attempt, there came another blast of fire and smoke, filling the whole heavens and frightfully dashing firebrands against the reception room window. … Believing that a minute more in trying to save the Proclamation, would make it too late for my escape, I made for the basement door.”
As the smoke outside was suffocating, Stone found a camel’s hair shawl in one of the now-smouldering bundles in the basement, covered his head and sprang out with great speed. He recalled, “Glancing around, I could see the steps overhead, the sidewalks, front fences, Mr. Girard’s cottage, and every building south, one mass of flames, while firebrands were flying in every direction.”
Later, Stone “mounted a some high stone steps on Erie Street in the rear of the Historical Building, to take a last look of the destruction of our fifteen years’ labor of valuable gatherings. The entire building and everything surrounding it was one mass of flame, the fire burning every brick apparently, as there was no woodwork on that side of the building. It was painful to see it.” As the heat became more intense, he continued his escape past flames 150 feet high.
“There were times when I saw buildings melt down in from three to five minutes. Such sights I never saw before. Had I known the speed and the heat of the coming fire, I could have left my post at the basement door earlier and could have secured the records and the Proclamation, but it was beyond all my experience.”
Now you also know the fate of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. And should you wonder how I happen to have an image of it here–photographic copies had been made of it back in the 1860s. This image is from the New York State Library–see all the pages on their website: http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/ep/fep.htm