A Few Final Thoughts About Thomas Lowry

Altered Lincoln Pardon

This morning I lectured about Benjamin Butler and slave contraband in the comforts of my classroom in Charlottesville.  By the middle of the afternoon I was walking around Fortress Monroe for the first time.  Now I am ensconced in my comfortable hotel room getting ready to give a talk tomorrow morning.  Before I do so, however, I’ve got a few thoughts to share about the Lowry scandal.

Thomas Lowry will now take his place on the wall of shame next to Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Bellesiles, and Joseph Ellis.  [I highly recommend Peter Charles Hoffer's Past Imperfect for a thoughtful analysis of these recent examples of unethical behavior.] It’s an impressive list of some of the strangest transgressions in the field and yet there is something about Lowry’s deed that up til now I’ve had trouble coming to terms with.  It’s that feeling in the pit of your stomach that somehow won’t go away and that begs for explanation.

One the one hand the decision to alter the historical record makes little sense.  As my wife pointed out to me yesterday, it’s not as if it changes anything we can claim to know about Lincoln’s attitude toward military justice.  And even if the date was correct it’s not as if Lincoln knew that he would be dead by the next morning.  It’s a cheap and meaningless thrill at best.

I actually have less trouble coming to terms (even sympathizing) with the list of characters mentioned above.  Yes, they deceived their families, friends, as well as the general public, but the damage was corrected and the guilty parties were punished and forced to come to terms with the consequences of their actions.  Lowry will have to face all of this, but his actions went further down that moral road that is clearly marked, “No Return.”  In tampering with this piece of history Lowry treated the document itself and the parties involved as a means to an end.  As historians we have a moral responsibility to do our best to get the story right because in practicing our craft we establish a moral relationship with those who came before us.  That’s right, we have a moral obligation to treat historical figures as ends in themselves and not as a means to an end.  Whatever biases we bring to the table and regardless of whether we get it right we intend to tell a true story about the past.  When Lowry altered this document he wasn’t thinking about Lincoln or Murphy.  He was thinking about himself.

This is what the slightly darkened number five represents to me.

30 comments… add one

  • Will Hickox Jan 25, 2011

    In a surreal irony, Lowry’s Index Project website: http://www.theindexproject.com/, features a photo of him at the NA with a caption indicating he is “following all the rules”–including “pencil only, no pen.”

    • Kevin Levin Jan 25, 2011

      I noticed it as well.

  • Don Shaffer Jan 25, 2011

    Dear Kevin: Lowry is essentially an antiquarian. He altered the document in question to impress other antiquarians. Lowry wanted his ego stroked. He also is on a much, much smaller scale similar to Mark Hofmann, who back in the 1980s, forged Mormon history documents in part to rewrite the history of that faith in a manner of his own choosing. Hofmann also enjoyed fooling Mormons leaders and the LDS faithful. I think Lowry also enjoyed putting one over on his fellow antiquarians, as well as Civil War buffs and historians. In the end for both men it was an ego trip. Civil War historians should be glad that Lowry didn’t defraud financially and murder some of his victims, as Hofmann did in the end.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 25, 2011

      Hi Don,

      Thanks for the comment and congratulations on getting your blog up and running. I’ve added it to the blogroll. I haven’t forgotten that I still owe you a post. Best of luck.

  • John Coski Jan 25, 2011

    Hi, Kevin. As you know, I often visit your fabulous site, but rarely comment (because I’m just not a Facebook/blogger kind of guy). I feel compelled, however, to throw myself in front of the wheels that are rolling over Tom Lowry. To me he has proven himself a man of honor and integrity. If he insists — as he does in the Washington Post story — that he did not alter the document, I will give him the benefit of doubt because I believe he has earned it. I realize that the others who have commented do not have the long personal and professional relationship with Tom that I have enjoyed, but I think it’s not unreasonable to ask for a little forbearance before assuming him guilty. For those who think that banishment from the National Archives is an insignificant punishment, please realize that Tom and Bev sacrificed comfortable lives in California when they relocated to northern Virginia to conduct their work in the court-martial records. The National Archives are – were – their home. The punishment, which I believe undeserved, is like that which befell “the man without a country.” I hope that further revelations will vindicate what I have written and give everyone reason to retract their harsh judgments of Tom Lowry.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 25, 2011

      Hi John,

      I know how difficult it must have been for you to leave this comment and it clearly reflects your interest in Mr. Lowry’s well-being. Thank you for choosing to share your thoughts on Civil War Memory. It goes without saying that I hold no ill will toward Mr. and Mrs. Lowry. I am appalled at some of the comments on other blogs. One person talked about throwing his books in the trash, which is unnecessary. That said, I agree pretty much with everything Brooks Simpson has written here: http://cwcrossroads.wordpress.com/2011/01/25/more-on-the-lowry-scandal/

      I met Mr. Lowry and his wife only once back in 1997 when I hosted a day-long Civil War authors event at a Borders Books in Rockville, Maryland. He was incredibly nice and I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with him. During the research for a project on Confederate military executions Professor Lowry steered me in the direction of some important archival collections. I trust that Mr. Lowry’s friends are reaching out to him during what must be a difficult time. Regardless of how this turns out I wish him all the best.

    • Will Hickox Jan 25, 2011

      Well, I’m no detective, but he *did* originally confess. However, like you I have benefitted from Dr. Lowry’s work and can only hope this is somehow a strange misunderstanding.

  • James F. Epperson Jan 25, 2011

    I’m not sure I can defend this rationally, but I put Lowry’s sin in a much uglier category than Ambrose, Goodwin, et al. To physically alter an historic document is beyond the pale.

  • Michael Robinson Jan 25, 2011

    What I find most curious about the whole story is that apparently for 12 plus years the pardon was exhibited downtown, shown off to visitors etc. as a ‘treasure,’ and yet no one concerned had checked Basler for any other reference(s) to, or other entry(s) concerning, a ‘Patrick Murphy’ and then explored the apparent discrepancy!

    I just used the electronic edition and the document shows up instantly in Volume 7 with an 1864, record pasted below :-

    “To Joseph Holt [2]

    This man is pardoned, and hereby ordered to be discharged from the service. A. LINCOLN

    April 14. 1864

    “1] AES, DNA WR RG 153, Judge Advocate General, MM 761. Lincoln’s endorsement is written on the court-martial record of Private Patrick Murphy, Company E, Second California Volunteers, sentenced to be shot for desertion and violation of the Twenty-Third Article of War. The court asked clemency, as the accused was insane.”

  • Dan Jan 25, 2011

    I think everyone is “burying the lede”: the most interesting (and ironic) angle is that professionally Lowry is a psychiatrist.

  • Dick Stanley Jan 25, 2011

    Heh. The psychiatrist first admits to NARA that he altered the document (which is a criminal as well as dishonorable act), then he denies it in a newspaper. Which is it?

    I never met him, though I enjoyed his book on ACW prostitution. I can see how his friends would be torn about this , especially who to believe. But it hardly seems likely that the NARA is lying.

  • Dick Stanley Jan 25, 2011

    Kevin, I hope you get a chance to go see Jeff Davis’s old cell. I’ve been there several times, the first time when I was in the Army in 1970. It’s quite a place. Just thinking about Poe there as an artillery NCO is stirring enough.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 26, 2011

      I did indeed get to see the cell.

  • Don Stewart Jan 26, 2011

    Thanks so much for this blog. I am a fairly new fan and have enjoyed the various discussions. I hope they will help me as I continue to work with history teachers and others in South Carolina via our TAH grant.

    While I agree with the sentiment shared by Kevin and others (on another page somewhere) that Lincoln’s last official act/signed document is not very significant to most historians (and probably only significant to certain antiquarians out there), I feel I must share something I stumbled upon moments ago while browsing a subscription database of historic newspapers called “Accessible Archives.”

    See below for the following short article copied and pasted from The New York Herald, dated April 16, 1865, with the following tantalizing headline: “THE LAST WORDS FROM MR. LINCOLN’S PEN.” It seems that the editor of that paper felt the need to document what they understood to be Lincoln’s last official act. Who knows (or perhaps who cares) if this account holds up as accurate. In light of the Lowry scandal, I do suppose that some folks might have a greater interest now regarding this tiny nugget of history.

    [Quick Disclaimer: I have no interest in gaining any fame for "discovering" this article, especially since this was found with very little effort and only tangential interest at best. I should make clear that I have not personally seen an original or microfilm copy of this actual issue of the NY Herald, nor can I claim definitively that this was indeed Lincoln’s last official act.]

    Anyway, see below for the full article found on “Accessible Archives”:

    THE LAST WORDS FROM MR. LINCOLN’S PEN.
    At about half-past seven P.M. Hon. George Ashmun called at the White House, and was ushered into the parlor, where Schuyler Colfax was seated, waiting for a short interview with the President on business which had a bearing upon his proposed overland trip. A few moments elapsed, when President Lincoln entered the room, and a short conversation took place, touching upon various matters. The President was in a happy and jovial frame of mind. Mr. Ashmun desiring to see him on special business, and there being no time to attend to it then the President took our card, and, placing it on his knee, wrote on it as follows:-

    Allow Mr. Ashmun and friend to come to me at nine A.M. tomorrow.
    A. LINCOLN.
    April 14, `65.

    These were the last words that he penned. It was the last time that he signed his name to any order, document or message. The last words written by him were thus making an engagement
    for the morrow – an engagement which he was not allowed to meet. Before the hour had arrived he was no more.

    Citation: The New York Herald, 1865-04-16.

  • Ed Jan 26, 2011

    I have two of his books, I now wonder if some of the facts in those two were altered to make the story better than it was.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 26, 2011

      Hi Ed,

      I’ve heard others express the same concern, but to be honest I am not really overly concerned about that.

  • John J. Hunter Jan 27, 2011

    Nice article! But why is Doris Kearns Goodwin on the wall of shame? Forgive me for my naivety, but I’ve always been such a huge fan of her work.

    Jack Hunter

    • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2011

      Sections of her biography of the Kennedy family was plagiarized.

    • John Maass Feb 3, 2011

      In January 2002 Goodwin was accused of plagiarism in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, and she also “lied about whether it was plagiarism (and, incidentally, paid hush money to one of the people she plagiarized).” She admitted copying passages, but insisted it was unintentional; she was dropped by PBS’ “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” as media historian. She also was “pulled out of the Pulitzer panel. She seems to have been rehabilitated by her book “Team of Rivals.”

      For more details go to HNN: http://hnn.us/articles/590.html

  • Patrick Brennan Jan 27, 2011

    I’m with John Coski on this one.

    BTW, Kevin, did you re-string that thing when you started playing it upside down?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2011

      Hi Patrick,

      The image is reversed.

  • Jane Singer Jan 28, 2011

    Does anyone know if the NARA has the original Brad ford Hambrick pardon allegedly signed by Lincoln on April 14th 1865? It seems critical to know if it survived as a document. Thomas Lowry cites the Hambrick as well as the Murphy pardon in his 1998 book. If he was writing the book at the time of the Murphy “discovery,” and had discovered the Hambrick pardon of the same date, why did he not tout that discovery as well?

    If anyone has a contact at NARA, it might be a simple query: Where is the Hambrick pardon? Is it only on microfilm thus making it unalterable?

  • John Koster Feb 2, 2011

    NB: Dr. Lowry’s detractors report that he executed the forgery to get his first book published. His signature book, “Stories The Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell” was published by Stackpole in 1994. The forgery (by whoever) wasn’t discovered until 1998. But never let facts interfere with a good lynching.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2011

      Now about a link or some kind of reference to support your comment?

      • Brooks D. Simpson Feb 3, 2011

        I have in fact come across a comment in another blog that suggests (incorrectly) that Lowry’s 1999 book was his first book. Mr. Koster seizes upon that error to offer a far broader charge. He has been bouncing from blog to blog in support of his friend, but has no evidence to offer on Lowry’s behalf.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 4, 2011

          As far as I am concerned Koster has left his last comment on this particular issue. He has failed to cite any relevant evidence for his preferred view of the situation. My blog is not a bulletin board for his conspiracy theories.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Feb 2, 2011

      Huh? You can’t even get your facts straight. Lowry “discovered” the (already known) document in 1998, and reproduced it in his 1999 book (which was not his first book). However, the forgery was not uncovered until recently. You’ll have to explain why he signed a detailed confession, and why his wife claimed that she knew who had done the forgery … which means the Lowrys knew the document had been tampered with. Not a very shrewd admission.

  • Jane Singer Feb 2, 2011

    If I am not mistaken, the Murphy and Hambrick documents appeared in

    Don’t Shoot That Boy
    Publisher: Da Capo Press; 1st Hardcover Ed edition (August 21, 1999)

    Is that correct?

    • Brooks D. Simpson Feb 2, 2011

      Yes.

    • Bob Huddleston Feb 2, 2011

      The two stories are in DSTB, pp. 216 ff.
      Page 217 does have an image of the Hamtrack order— it appears to be from microfilm. At the top is inked the court martial index number LL 2953. The last digit in AL’s date is blurred, but is “April 14, 186x.” Further down the page is a pre-printed slip, a sort of post it note, “Respectfully referred to the Adjutant General, U.S. Army, for the execution of the orders of the President: [signed Jas A Hardie] Inspector General, U.S.A. War Department [date in ink: April 14, 1865] Below that, and below the tab, is written “see letter to C.O. Nashville, Tenn Apl 14, 1865″ and then “Recd AGO Apr 17, 1865 Letter to Maj Gen Thomas April 27, 1865″ . Why did the Lowry’s copy a microfilm image? Every court martial I have seen is in manuscript. As for Hambrick getting a pardon, again only a guess, but the war was ending and he had already served more than the required year in prison.
      The next page has an image of the “other” April 14 pardon for Murphy, with the “corrected” year. Underneath the AL signature, written across the CW transcript is “GO 169 AGO 1864.” The ORs do not carry all the AGO General Orders, including this one, since it probably only mentioned Murphy, but I did find GO 201, dated late in May, 1864. I am guessing that the publication of GO 169 is what led Basler to the Lincoln signature, but no one looking at Lowry’s image thought to check GO 169 and see what it said.

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