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Honest Abe meets dishonest Tom: does an altered date make any difference in Lincoln's legacy?

A portrait of President Lincoln taken November 8th, 1863
A portrait of President Lincoln taken November 8th, 1863
Alexander Gardner (1821-1882)/Library of Congress

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In the last hours of his life, President Abraham Lincoln signed an order pardoning a mentally incompetent Army private from the death penalty for desertion. False! It turns out the famous document discovered by amateur historian Thomas Lowry in 1998 was also altered by the very same historian. The National Archives and Records Administration revealed that the date on the document had been erased and changed from 1864 to 1865 probably to make it appear as if it was one of Lincoln's last acts and therefore a historic one. Dr. Lowry published a book the year after the find and was up until now credited with one of the most significant finds of Lincoln artifacts in the 20th Century. Luckily for Lowry, who has allegedly confessed, the statute of limitations on the case has passed, so the government cannot press charges. NARA will remove the document from circulation for the time being, and is looking into reversing the alteration - preservation officials say it will most definitely cause more damage. So even if Lincoln signed the pardon a year earlier, does it take away from the compassion displayed in the act?


Harold Holzer, chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation; author, co-author or editor of 36 books on Lincoln and the Civil War era