Confirming a Chamberlain-related document as the real McCoy

For at least 50-60 years the Brewer (Maine) Public Library has owned a framed document, a copy of the Senate resolution confirming the promotion of “Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, of the Twentieth Maine Volunteers” to brigadier general. The document could be genuine, a facsimile, or a forgery.

After inviting me to speak in October about Chamberlain’s battlefield promotion, Library Director Darren French asked me to examine the document a few weeks prior to my program. I assumed that the document was a reprint, likely dating to a Civil War Centennial-related event held in Brewer.

The Brewer (Maine) Public Library owns a copy of the Senate resolution confirming Joshua L. Chamberlain’s promotion to brigadier general. Is the document genuine or a forgery? (Brian F. Swartz)

Nope: The document is the real McCoy. Let me lay out the evidence.

After a ricocheting bullet punched through Chamberlain’s groin at Petersburg on Saturday, June 18, 1864, examining physicians deemed the wound mortal and Chamberlain destined to die. Telegraphing Maj. Gen. George G. Meade a day later, V Corps commander Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren reported that Chamberlain, already “recommended for promotion [to brigadier general] for gallant and efficient conduct on previous occasions,” had asked for that promotion “before he dies for the gratification of his family and friends.” Ulysses S. Grant promoted Chamberlain in Special Order No. 39, issued on June 20.1

President Abraham Lincoln nominated Chamberlain for promotion. The Senate quickly passed a resolution confirming the appointment.

The Brewer library’s document began its life as a pre-printed, “fill in the blank” presidential form for promoting an officer to a higher rank. Left blank were the nominee’s name, pending rank (three spaces), promotion date, date signed, and signatory. All these spaces but the last were apparently filled in by the same person writing in neat cursive.

Abraham Lincoln’s signature on the Brewer library’s document very closely resembles surviving examples.

First clue: The words are written in that brown-colored ink common to many hand-written Civil War-era documents and letters.

Second clue: Written in brown-colored ink, Abraham Lincoln’s distinctive signature resembles surviving examples and reveals slight ink drops in the opening “A” and the dot above the surname’s “i,” as if the writer applied a bit more pressure at both places.

Third clue: Close visual examination reveals slight wrinkles and ridges in the paper, which I believe is parchment or at least a heavier basis-weight paper. The wrinkles suggest that the document was possibly rolled up at one time.

Fourth clue: Written in brown ink and a la “John Hancock” in size, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s signature closely resembles other existing examples. Close examination reveals a slight ink drop in the “E” of Edwin and the heavy application of brown ink throughout the signature, as if the writer pressed down hard while signing the name.

As with Lincoln’s signature, that of Edwin M. Stanton strikingly resembles surviving examples.

Fifth clue: Printed on the document’s left margin and set right-angled to the original type are four lines confirming that the Senate, while meeting in “Executive Session” on Monday, June 27, did “advise and consent” to Chamberlain’s appointment as brigadier general. The Senate’s decision was attested by “J. W. Forney, Secretary.” He was, of course, John W. Forney, appointed Senate secretary in 1861.

So far, so good: The written words were applied to a master document replete with what appears to be a blue wax seal. But was this a masterful forgery right down to the Lincoln and Stanton signatures?

The clincher exists at upper left, where five lines angled 90 degrees to the original document read:

Recorded Volume 18 – page 18

Adjutant Generals Office

June 29, 1864

E D Townsend

Asst. Adjt. General

Lines 1-3 and 5 were written in neat red cursive, the fourth line (Townsend’s signature) by a different hand writing in brown ink similar to the color of Lincoln’s and Stanton’s signatures. The date (June 29) indicates the five lines were added after the Senate passed the proclamation.

Five lines neatly written in the upper-left corner of the Senate proclamation confirming Chamberlain’s promotion to brigadier general are irrefutable evidence that the document is real.

Initially I assumed these lines indicated that the document had arrived at the Maine Adjutant’s Office on June 29. However, a June 27 passage by the Senate meant the document had traveled from Washington, D.C. to Augusta, Maine in two days. There’s no way that could happen.

Obviously the five lines referred to the document being received by the Army’s adjutant general’s office. Assistant Adjutant General Edward Davis (“E D”) Townsend signed for the document; his handwriting so differs from the exquisitely neat cursive in the other four lines that I suspect a clerk wrote them.

How did this copy of the Senate resolution reach the Brewer Public Library? Via the Chamberlain family.

On July 3-4, the 20th Maine Infantry’s Lt. Col. Charles D. Gilmore arrived at Annapolis to visit Joshua Chamberlain. Gilmore delivered the brigadier’s commission issued by Stanton and “a copy” of the Senate resolution.2 That “copy” probably returned to Brunswick with Chamberlain.

According to Darren French, records indicate the library’s document came from Alice Farrington. She was born in Brewer on December 7, 1869 and died there at age 91 on December 12, 1960. Alice’s parents were Charles Oliver Farrington3 and Sarah Brastow (Chamberlain) Farrington. Sarah was the only sister of the Chamberlain brothers, including Joshua and Tom.

Thus Alice Farrington was their niece. I do not know if the Senate resolution copy that she gave to the Brewer library is the same one that her uncle The General received in 1864 or is a separate copy obtained later from the War Department.

The document is the real McCoy, however.

1 The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, DC, 1880-1901), Series 1, vol. 40, pt. 2, 216-217, 236.

2 Lt. Col. Charles D. Gilmore to Maine Adjutant Gen. John L. Hodsdon, July 5, 1864, Maine State Archives

3 Farrington was a familiar 19th-century Brewer surname.

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