Tom Lowry Vs. the National Archives: An Emailgate Answer?

by Brett Schulte on March 20, 2011 · 3 comments

First, a short primer.  Earlier this year, historian Tom Lowry was accused of altering a Lincoln pardon letter by the National Archives, who claimed Lowry grew “reticent” during what I assumed was a string of emails.  Lowry denied this accusation at a new blog, saying he had never been contacted about the pardon and had never changed his home phone or email address in over a decade.

I wondered aloud at the time where these emails were, as the actual text of such emails would shed some light on this matter.  In a comment on this earlier post, Tom Lowry writes that he has obtained the text of this email string through the Freedom of Information Act.  The contents of the two emails as Dr. Lowry posted them are repeated in full below:

Email #1 (from Mitchell Yockelson, Investigative Archivist, Office of the Inspector General, 9/14/2010): “Tom, Is this your correct e-mail? If so, I have some questions for you about court martial files.”

[Lowry] replied that the address was correct, adding “I hope I can help.”

Email #2 (from Mitchell Yockelson, Investigative Archivist, Office of the Inspector General, 9/14/2010, 64 minutes after the first email): “I am not sure if you are aware, but I no longer work in reference For the past few years I have worked for our Inspector General’s office looking for lost, stolen, or as we call it, alienated records. In any case my partner and I, Dave Berry, have been working on a complaint about a court martial that contains [a] Lincoln signature and the contents of the endorsement appears to have been altered. It is way to[o] complicated to explain by e-mail, but I would love the opportunity to visit you in person to discuss the matter. I have told Dave a lot about you and your books and he is anxious to meet you. Do you still live in Woodbridge?”

[Lowry] confirmed that I still lived in Woodbridge. (Same address, phone, and e-mail for thirteen years.)

In a follow-up comment, I asked Tom to provide the full text of his two replies for the record.  I wonder if the National Archives tried in any other way to contact Dr. Lowry about this matter other than through Mitchell Yockelson.  This one grows stranger and stranger every day.  What do you think?


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Brendan March 22, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Innocent until proven guilty. We have yet to see the proof.

As students of Civil War history, I think we owe this matter the same careful deliberation as we would give a subject of historical research. Would we draw a conclusion without evidence? Would we take an individual’s words at face value without taking context into account?

The burden of proof here belongs to the National Archives. They brought this accusation into the public sphere. They need to either back it up, or retract it, at which point they would owe both Lowry and the public a massive apology.

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Andy Hall March 24, 2011 at 12:24 pm

The burden of proof does indeed belong to the National Archives, but Lowry signed a confession, and that fundamentally changes things. It’s not just an allegation anymore.

Lowry says he was coerced into signing, and I don’t doubt he genuinely feels that way. But it’s hard for me to believe that the investigator in Lowry’s cause were more coercive, more pressuring on him, sitting at his own kitchen table, than they are in interrogations that end in signed confessions that send the suspect to prison for a long, long time. They were, after all, investigating a crime, even if the DoJ subsequently decided not to pursue a criminal prosecution.

The National Archives certainly has behaved badly in this matter, as well. They need to be far more transparent about all of it, including releasing a copy of the document Lowry signed. They are not blameless in any of this, but neither is this an either/or situation. The National Archives may be guilty of all sorts of bungling and mishandling of the case, but none of that eliminates the possibility that Lowry did exactly what the Archives said he did. Lowry argues that he’s been railroaded, but guilty people can be railroaded just as easily as the innocent.

Finally, it doesn’t help that Lowry has changed his story. previously he said he’d had no communication with the Archives about this matter until the investigators showed up at his door. The e-mails above, provided by Lowry, disprove that. I understand the desire to believe Lowry in this case, but he himself makes it hard to put complete trust in his version of events.

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