In a phone interview Tuesday, Lowry recanted his confession and said he offered repeated denials to Archives investigators over the course of a two-hour interview but eventually wore down when they refused to believe him.
“I foolishly signed a statement saying I had done it,” Lowry said. “Now they’re portraying me as a fool, a liar and a criminal. I screwed myself by signing it.”
The Inspector General for the Archives was not impressed.
“He voluntarily provided a statement, written in his own hand, in which he elaborated on his actions and provided specific details on how he committed this act,” said Ross Weiland, the Archives’ assistant inspector general for investigations. “He subsequently swore to the statement’s accuracy and signed the statement. No threats, rewards, or promises of any kind were made to Mr. Lowry in return for his sworn statement.”
Sometimes the urge to make a story just a little bit better than it really was overwhelms ethics and good sense, and if caught doing it you may find yourself making an instant transition from famous to notorious. Recent examples include former history professor Ward Churchill, who fabricated sources purporting to show a smallpox epidemic deliberately started by the US Army, and former history professor Michael Bellesiles, who found information about gun ownership in documents that did not exist, not to mention plagiarism charges against historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose, who was also credibly accused of fabricating interviews. Still, all this pales compared to actually falsifying an original document, presumably to give it (and the author) a greater historical import. Lincoln signed many pardons, but changing the date made that particular one one of his last official acts before his assassination.
Acts like this (even if you give Lowry the benefit of the doubt, someone falsified it) are crimes against history and hurt everyone—his publisher, his colleagues, and the rest of the community of Civil War scholars, who will now have to deal with increased restrictions at the Archives. Lowry has done some good, ground-breaking work in the past, all of which will now be called into question.
What a shame, and all the more reason to remember that when a historical revelation seems too good to be true—it probably is.