Family, college feud over fate of Civil War diaries

September 05, 1994|By Peter Landry | Peter Landry,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

By the time he took control of the prisoners, Brevet Maj. Gen. John Frederick Hartranft had put his Norristown, Pa., youth behind him, along with the Civil War battles of Antietam and Vicksburg and the years it had taken to restore his reputation after his men backed out of the first battle of Bull Run.

By the summer of 1865, he was provost marshal of Washington, D.C., and charged with the care of four of the most hated people in America:

The three men and a woman who would die for conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

A man of letters as well as maneuvers, Hartranft kept a diary of those troubling times, a "day book" of the treatment and trial of the 16 people charged in the conspiracy.

And 129 years later, that diary has become the center of a contentious dispute between his great-granddaughter, her mother and historians at Gettysburg College.

The diary is part of a cache of the general's papers his grandson turned over to the college for use by historians and students during the 1965 centennial of Lincoln's death.

The family wants them back, so they can be published along with other records left in the Hartranft collection.

The college refuses to give them up, contending that the papers were a gift.

A county judge will have to decide.

Maj. Gen. Hartranft, whose memorial obelisk overlooking the Schuylkill is the largest in Norristown's Montgomery Cemetery, was at the heart of the heated conspiracy debate after John Wilkes Booth's assassination of President Lincoln.

In the frenzy following the president's death, 16 people were rounded up and charged with plotting to kidnap or kill Lincoln, including Mary Surratt, who ran a Washington boarding house where plans were allegedly hatched, David Herold, George Atzerodt and Lewis Paine.

In addition to the boarding house, Surratt, a widow, owned a tavern in the southern Maryland town that bore her family's name, Surrattsville (now known as Clinton). Booth, a native of Maryland, and Herold are said to have stopped at the house as they fled through southern Maryland after the assassination.

Booth died on April 26, 1865, shot inside a burning barn near Bowling Green, Va.

On July 7, 1865, Surratt, Herold, Atzerodt and Paine, having been found guilty by a military court, were dropped through the floor of a hastily made scaffold in the yard of Washington's old Capital Prison (now Fort Lesley McNair).

Hartranft couldn't have been closer to the case.

As provost marshal of the city, he had been assigned a brigade of infantry, a squadron of cavalry and a battery of artillery to protect the prisoners from angry mobs. He answered to Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, a fellow Norristown native, and had a direct line to President Andrew Johnson.

A photograph shot on execution day by Alexander Gardner -- the only photographer allowed in -- shows Hartranft standing at the center of the scaffold reading the orders of execution to the four, who had been sentenced to death by a military commission.

The accused sat in chairs in 100-degree heat. Black umbrellas provided scant relief for Hartranft and others. When the traps opened, according to the hangman, the bodies bounced like balls on a string, then hung still.

Hartranft "played an important role in the Lincoln conspiracy trial," said Judith Meier, librarian at the Montgomery County Historical Society.

"From a historical standpoint, his papers are really priceless," added Norristown native Al Gambone, author of a Hartranft biography due out at Christmas. "The day book is especially important, since it dispels a lot of the myth historians have gathered over the years about the harsh treatment of these defendants.

"There is also a letter directly from Winfield Scott Hancock directing him to proceed with the execution," Mr. Gambone said. ". . . And one from Mary Surratt's daughter thanking him for his kindness to her mother."

In 1965, as Gettysburg and the nation prepared to celebrate the centennial of Lincoln's death, Hartranft Stockham of New Oxford, Pa., near Gettysburg, turned over about 50 Civil War-era papers to Gettysburg College for use by scholars.

His widow, Lillian, and their daughter, Helen Shireman, have a letter from the president of the college at the time, promising careful stewardship.

President C.A. Hanson wrote them that "a review of these documents . . . indicates they are of great importance as a previously unknown primary source material."

More significantly, the heirs note, the letter declares, "Since these items were lent to the college, you should be aware that they will be properly released to you at any time should this be your wish."

Hartranft Stockham died 11 years ago. In October, Helen Shireman asked the college to return the materials so she could restore the collection of the general's papers to its entirety and publish it.

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