I spent two pleasant days this week at the Sanford Museum in Sanford, Florida, doing research in the papers of Henry Shelton Sanford. Sanford was originally from Connecticut, but after the Civil War bought extensive land in Florida, founding his own town and growing oranges. During and just after the Civil War, Sanford served as America’s minister to Belgium, and as Seward’s roving minister to Europe. Sanford’s story is told in a wonderful little biography by Joseph Fry; he also appears in books about the Belgian Congo, such as King Leopold’s Ghost.
I went to Sanford because I knew, from the index to the papers, that there were more than two hundred letters from Seward. I hoped, because Seward and Sanford were friends, that these letters would include some commentary by Seward. “Just back from Gettysburg, where Lincoln gave a great speech,” that was the sort of thing I hoped to find. “Thank you for your letter of January 21st, which is duly noted,” that was the sort of thing I feared I would find.
I found more of what I feared than what I hoped for. Most of the letters from Seward to Sanford were short thank yous for letters from Sanford. When Seward did comment, his comments tended to be pretty general. His theme was often that the North was doing well in the Civil War, and that northern success would begin to change European views of the Civil War. Often Seward would say that he would not predict results because Sanford would learn, before Seward’s letter arrived, all the details.
(There was no transatlantic telegraph at this time, but there were telegraphs to points near the coast, and news would often cross the Atlantic in very summary (and sometimes garbled) form in this way faster than letters from Washington to Brussels.)
It was not, however, a pointless trip to Sanford. There were some details that I will use in the text, and some letters that I wish I could use. Thurlow Weed, for example, wrote Sanford in May 1865 that “Chase is running for President and prostituting the high office of Chief Justice.” That is a wonderful quote for a Chase biography, or a Weed biography, or perhaps even a history of the Supreme Court, but not I fear for a Seward biography.
In a hundred years, I hope, historians will be able to find little gems like Weed’s comment on Chase more easily. Handwriting recognition will have advanced to the point where it is relatively easy to scan and translate a collection like the Sanford papers into digital form. Search technology will have reached a point where one can search such digital collections remotely for (say) “comments on Chase as chief justice” and find such gems even in remote places like Sanford. Until that day comes, however, we rely on more primitive methods, like yours truly reading ancient letters.
One last note: I must thank Alicia Clarke, head of the Sanford Museum, who was wonderfully welcoming and helpful. Meeting and working with people like Alicia is one of the joys of historical research.