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"Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history," said Abraham Lincoln in his 1862 annual message to Congress. Lincoln warned that history would remember every detail of the "fiery trial," the American Civil War. Lincoln was right. Recollections of events, decisions, and actions of participants during that era - major and minor - continue to be collected, examined, displayed, and debated. Even as we celebrate the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, new stories embedded in records detailing events of the Civil War period are being discovered and rediscovered.
As a case in point, although the events of the president's assassination and the subsequent capture and hanging of the co-conspirators are familiar, less so is the experience of an important eyewitness, the man responsible for the care and, ultimately, the execution of the accused. Readers may now meet John Frederick Hartranft through his "Letterbook," a wartime journal kept while he served as commandant of the Washington Arsenal. The letterbook is a Federal document, in some respects an ordinary daily record of a government official, and one example of the vast holdings of historical documents available through the various archival locations of the National Archives and Records Administration, whose facilities include public research rooms served by records experts. In these facilities and on-line, the National Archives encourages the discovery and illumination of history.
Billions of documents from the birth of this nation to the recent past are available for inspection at the National Archives. Ensuring access to and preservation of historically valuable federal records is our mission. With the publication of this work, the reader's perspective should grow to include an appreciation of John Frederick Hartranft's personal contribution to the Civil War era. Hartranft's life and actions, reflected in the official record of the Lincoln assassins' incarceration, provide a unique window into a crucial moment in our nation's history.
Archivist of the United States