From the outside, it doesn’t look like much -- just a tattered, oversized volume with a simple cloth spine. But the 1864 diary of Albert Nelson See, a U.S. Army soldier and member of Abraham Lincoln’s Presidential Guard, contains a rare, up-close perspective on a pivotal time in U.S. history.
See’s diary and some of his personal artifacts are currently on display in Washington, D.C., at President Lincoln’s Cottage, a Site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, through December 31. The diary ended up at the Cottage through the generosity of Betty Kessler, See’s great-granddaughter. Kessler and her children have a strong interest in education -- many have worked as teachers -- and they all agreed that their ancestor’s experiences should be shared with the public.
“Lincoln’s Cottage was the perfect home for it, because that’s where A.N. See had spent such a long time,” says Brenda Kessler, one of Betty’s daughters.
The Lincolns spent June through November of 1864 at the Cottage, and so did See. He used his impeccable penmanship to record the reactions surrounding the Confederate Army’s sole attack on Washington during the Civil War, in July of that year.
“He recounts that turbulent, chaotic time, and the anticipation, anxiety, and excitement of the city,” says Erin Carlson Mast, executive director of the Cottage.
Many of See’s fellow soldiers (who mostly hailed from a regiment in western Pennsylvania) weren’t necessarily thrilled about being tapped to guard the President. They wanted to be on the front lines of the Civil War, right in the middle of the action. When Lincoln gave a sincere, impromptu, and much-appreciated speech to his guard about the importance of the job they were doing and the gratitude he and his family felt, See was there to write about it.
He also recorded some of the more day-to-day activities of life at the Cottage, such as doing chores, reading, and playing checkers. “See and the others knew they were witnessing important events,” Mast says. “They appreciated the differences between pivotal events and daily life, and they captured both.”
The diary’s pages were in near-perfect condition when Kessler donated the book, but its cover needed stabilization. Conservator Frank Mowery, who was previously head of conservation at the Folger Shakespeare Library, reproduced the original marbled-paper covers. He replaced the original binding to keep the pages from falling out, making it possible for visitors to view the open book.
As Callie Hawkins, associate director for programs at the Cottage, points out, the diary shows visitors of all ages how one witness to history can bring life to long-ago events.
“It’s a great example that you don’t have to be extraordinary for your life to be part of history,” she says. “The idea that we too are living history is especially important for younger visitors.”
And for Mast, the exhibit conveys a larger message about the importance of stepping back and thinking about the events going on around us, as See did. “It’s about taking a moment to stop and reflect,” she says.