Aiding Tennessee: An Ordeal in Forgery

By Elaine Grublin

Although the actual letter is no longer extant, it is widely accepted that in early May of 1861 Boston businessman Amos A. Lawrence wrote a letter to Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee suggesting he might provide “material aid” to Johnson to support Johnson’s anti-secession stand in Tennessee.  Why is it assumed that Lawrence, a wealthy textile merchant and member of the Constitutional Union Party, wrote such a letter to Johnson? Primarily because on 15 May 1861 Johnson replied stating “I received your kind favor on yesterday & hasten to reply.”  But did Johnson really write that letter?

It was not entirely unexpected that Lawrence would write to Johnson. In December of 1860, Lawrence wrote Johnson commending him for the “position which you have taken in your patriotic speech in the Senate.”  In this speech, delivered on the eve of South Carolina’s secession, Johnson vociferously declared his opposition to secession as an answer to the national crisis, declaring that it was “no remedy for the evils” currently facing the country.  More to the point, he declared that the people of Tennessee would “stand by the Constitution” and thus would save “the greatest Government on earth.”

Johnson received the 20 December 1860 letter from Lawrence. But he never received the letter written in early May 1861. That letter was intercepted by Knoxville postmaster Charles W. Charlton. Charlton was a supporter of Tennessee’s pro-secession Governor, Isham Harris, and after intercepting Lawrence’s letter Charlton, Harris, and others became embroiled a in conspiracy to embezzle as much as $10,000.00 from Lawrence and his fellow Union men in New England in order to aid Governor Harris in raising and arming regiments to fight for the Confederate army.

There is disagreement as to who actually forged the letters. Some scholars believe Charlton was the forger. Others, including William Brownlow a contemporary that claimed to recognize the handwriting, claim the forger was William G. Swan.  Swan was a lawyer and future confederate congressman from Tennessee. Either way, the conspiracy definitely involved Charlton, who intercepted at least two (perhaps three) of Lawrence’s letters to Johnson, and Governor Harris, who had two of Lawrence’s letters and several incriminating letters from Charlton in his possession when Nashville fell to Union forces in early 1862. The letters in Harris’ possession eventually came to Johnson and are currently part of the Andrew Johnson Papers held by the Library of Congress. 

Lawrence responded immediately to “Johnson’s” 15 May letter stating “if y[ou]r note to me were printed in our newspapers it would be good for Ten Thousand Dollars in three days time.” But Lawrence did not have the letter printed in the newspapers. If he had perhaps the scheme would have been stopped in its tracks, but understanding that he must “use it as a private letter” Lawrence instead called a meeting of like-minded men in Boston and shared the letter privately.  (You can read more about the outcome of that meeting a read Lawrence’s letter of 22 May 1861 describing the meeting here.)

Johnson sends two more letters to Lawrence. On 23 May he writes “If I could command…. Say $10,000 I have no doubt I could hold this State onto the Federal Union” and asks for “assurance that we can get men & guns before the 8th of June”.

The 8th of June being the date set by the Tennessee legislature (which had already voted to approve secession) for the popular vote on the secession issue. On 6 June, too late to allow for any effective assistance from Lawrence before the secession vote, he writes again asking for “ 5 or $10,000 in New England Currency in large bills, by mail via Cincinnati” for the purchase of arms.

Lawrence had no reason to believe he was not corresponding with the actual Andrew Johnson. During the three weeks that the correspondence strung out, Johnson was traveling through East Tennessee making anti-secession speeches in an attempt to impact the 8 June vote, and there is nothing to indicate that Lawrence had ever seen Johnson’s handwriting. It was known throughout the nation that Harris had refused Abraham Lincoln’s call for troop on 15 April, stating “Tennessee will not furnish a single man for purpose of coercion, but 50,000 in necessary for the defense of our rights and those of our Southern brethren.” And that on 8 May Harris, with the approval of the legislature, entered into an alliance of sorts with the Confederate government, placing the entire militia of Tennessee under the control of the Confederate government.  Lawrence would have known that Johnson had little hope of support from within his own state. And would have been happy to lend that needed support to Johnson in order to retain Tennessee for the Union. 

The forgers’ scheme began to unravel on 11 June when the Richmond Enquirer published one of Lawrence’s letters to Johnson.  Presumably Governor Harris or one of the conspirators provided the letter to the Enquirer in an attempt to humiliate Johnson, but the publication of the letter only drew attention to the fact that forged letters were being exchanged. Although there was question as to the fate of a $1000.00 draft sent by Lawrence sent on 18 May, after the conspiracy was revealed Lawrence and Andrew Johnson engaged in a long personal correspondence which did result in Lawrence provided some monetary aid to Johnson to support the Unionists in East Tennessee. 

For more of the story see Barry A. Couch, “The Merchant and the Senator: An Attempt to Save East Tennessee for the Union,” East Tennessee Historical Society Publications, 46 (1974): 53-75.


This Week @ MHS

By Elaine Grublin

If the unseasonably warm weather inspires you to explore the city a bit this week, be sure to wander by the MHS and attend one of our events.

Thursday, 1 December, at 6:00 PM we are pleased to offer a free public program featuring William M. Fowler Jr., Northeastern University, author of American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM. Registration is required. Read more about the program and register to attend here

Friday, 2 December, at noon author Carla L. Peterson, University of Maryland, presents a lunchtime program related to her recently published volume Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City. Read more about this free program here.

Also on Friday, 2 December, at 2:00 PM Stephen T. Riley Librarian Peter Drummey presents The Purchase by Blood: Gallery Talk. This is the third installment in the gallery talk series associated with our latest exhibition The Purchase by Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862. The exhibition is open Monday through Saturday, 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. 

The Hoosac Tunnel Completed

By Daniel Hinchen

“…to write a history of the Hoosac Tunnel in all its details would be an almost endless task. The legislative bills and hearings, the reports of committees, remonstrances and private pamphlets on the subject, if stacked up in an orderly pile, would rival the size of the mountain itself.” (Orson Dalrymple, History of the Hoosac Tunnel 3.)

One of the benefits of creating these blog posts is the opportunity to gain some background on topics that were previously unfamiliar to me. While the research does not go into a great deal of depth, it is a good way to get some “quick and dirty” facts and to expand familiarity with the great collections here at the MHS.

And today’s topic is no exception. When initially given the assignment, the name itself, the Hoosac Tunnel, was not completely unfamiliar to me, but there was absolutely no background knowledge in my mind to illustrate it.

So, a few specifics: the Hoosac Tunnel is about 4.75 miles long and is located between Florida, Mass. and North Adams, Mass. It cuts through the Hoosac Range, a southern extension of Vermont’s Green Mountains. It was a part of the Boston and Maine Railroad, connecting Boston to Troy, New York by way of Greenfield, Mass. This rail system is now part of the Pan Am Railways network.

While the physical work of creating the tunnel started in 1851, the original planning for a new route across Massachusetts began as early as 1819 with discussion of a canal project, which, even then, proposed a tunnel through the Hoosac Range. Over time, proposals and ideas morphed and the national rail building craze turned the canal project into a tunnel project, with formal fundraising beginning in 1848.

Ambiguous beginnings were matched by indefinite endings, and the completion of the Hoosac Tunnel included many firsts: the first work train passed through on 9 February 1875. In that same year the first freight train passed through on 5 April, and the first passenger train on 13 October. The work was totally finished in 1877 with the completion of the stone facing on the east portal. But the reason that the tunnel gets our attention today is that on 27 November 1873 the center of the tunnel was opened, joining the eastern and western halves. With the final blast, the longest tunnel in the western hemisphere (second in the world) was finally completed. It would hold this title until 1916.

And that is the quick and dirty of the Hoosac Tunnel.

If you would like to find out more about this impressive feat of engineering in Massachusetts History, visit the MHS website to search our online catalog, ABIGAIL, and search for the subject “Hoosac Tunnel” and find out what resources we have available! 

This Week @ MHS

By Elaine Grublin

It will be a quiet week at the MHS. Please note that the library and exhibition areas will be closed Thursday, 24 November through Saturday, 26 November in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday. Regular hours will resume on Monday, 28 November.

If you are roaming the city early in the week and looking for something to do, the exhibition areas will be open Monday through Wednesday 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM . We currently have two shows onview: The Purchase by Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War 1861-1862 and “Like a Wolf for the Prey”: The Massachusestts Historical Society’s Collection Begins.


Isaac Winslow Writes of Pope’s Day, 1765

By Anna J. Cook

Back in 2009 Jeremy Dibbell brought us an account of colonial Boston’s Pope’s Day celebrations of 1745 as witnessed by Rev. James Freeman, a founding member of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Little remembered today, Pope’s Day was an annual festival here in Boston – the New England counterpart to the English Guy Fawkes Day. You can explore the origins of Pope’s Day on the excellent 5th of November in Boston website, sponsored by the Bostonian Society.

Today, I’d like to share with you another account of Pope’s Day as written by Boston merchant and loyalist Isaac Winslow (1743-1793). In a letter on 15 November 1765 and later incorporated into a family history written by his son, also named Isaac. Isaac Winslow, Jr., writes in the Winslow Family Memorial:

Image of manuscript item written by Isaac Winslow of Boston

 [My father] says “The 5th of November happily disappointed ones fears, a union was formed between the South and North, by the mediation of the principal gentlemen of the town” – The Popes (meaning probably, the South end and north end processions) [“] paraded the Streets together, all day, and after burning them at the close of it, all was quiet in the evening. There were no disguises of visages, but the two leaders, M’cIntosh of the South, and Swift of the North, (the same who was so badly wounded last year, were dress’d out in a very gay manner, The authorities[”] he says [“]did not interfere at all in the matter[”] (MacKintosh was one of the most active of the mob which destroyed Governor Hutchinsons  house in North Square 26 August 1765, and was arrested by the Sheriff, but could not be committed on account of the popular interference).

The younger Isaac goes on to write:

On the anniversary of “Pope day” on the 5th of November, there had always existed a bitter rivalry between the South and North parts of the town, which party should capture and destroy each others Pope – the effigies of whom accompanied by others of the Devil and his Imps were carried about in procession on that day & he added by a distinguished fighting character from each Section – the Northern procession going to the South, and vice versa accompanied each other with a vast concourse of people – They usually met each other in or about Dock Square where the contest took place – These conflicts were very severe, but this year (1765) the popular leaders had excited in the minds of the people such a determined opposition to the Stamp act, that they succeeded in making peace, between the two parties who had before always been at swords points with each other.

 A full transcript of the Winslow Family Memorial can be read online (PDF). The account of Pope’s Day is on page 65-66 of the transcript.

North End Historical Society Visits MHS

By Elaine Grublin

On Tuesday, 2 November, a group of 20 members of the North End Historical Society (NEHS) visited the MHS for a tour and document show and tell. The visit was arranged by Alex Goldfeld, the president of the NEHS and Elaine Grublin, the head of reader services at the MHS. 

Peter Drummey addressing seated crowd in Dowse LibraryThe guests arrived promptly at 6:00 PM for brief introductory remarks in the Dowse Library. The group then explored the building, guided by MHS staff. Anne Bentley, curator of art, lead a tour of the art and artifacts on display throughout the building, including portraits of famous North Enders such as Paul Revere. Elaine Grublin offered an introduction to using the MHS library.

Reconvening in the Dowse Library guests were treated to a North End focused document show and tell that included large detailed maps of the North End in 1798 drawn by Samuel Chester Clough, Paul Revere’s deposition recounting his midnight ride, documents related to Father Taylor and the Seamen’s Bethel, an early 19th century engraving of Commercial Wharf, and a number of other treasures from our collections. Librarian Peter Drummey, offered an overview of the items on display (pictured) before the guests had an opportunity to view the materials up close. 

It was a wonderful evening for all that attended. We hope to see many of the North End Historical Society members return to the MHS in the future.