The Demise of Handwriting: It’s a Shame in Many Ways

Handwriting, and cursive in particular, is almost extinct in our modern society; that is good in some respects, but bad in most others. For me and many others like me from engineering and scientific professions, the word-processor is a God-send. For many others – and I immediately think of schoolteachers – writing in cursive is almost as easy as typing on a keyboard as opposed to being a chore and challenge.

 Penmanship BookSecond-grade penmanship exercise book from St. Williams in Chicago

My writing skills were never great; I could print very well, and my cursive was not ugly, but it has never been easy on the eyes. Writing gets harder as I grow older. My wife and older daughter are both schoolteachers with beautiful, flowing handwriting. I think women generally have better fine-motor skills than men, but there is also the influence of teacher training which in past years has always emphasized handwriting. Those of you who have ever written a book appreciate the huge advantage word-processing represents, even over the venerable typewriter – no more “white-out” to erase mistakes! As for authors of old who wrote their manuscripts by hand: My hat is off to you! Yes, it is true: In the professional arena, we are blessed to be set free from the terrible tyranny of unforgiving pen and ink.

In the social realm, we are poorer for the advent of technology in one specific aspect: The personal touch conveyed by a brief note, a birthday greeting, or a letter handwritten in cursive is a thing of the past. Autograph and manuscript collectors understand the situation perfectly well, and they chafe at the realization that very few collectable documents are being generated today in this age of mechanization. Sadly, even “personal” presidential notes from the White House to our citizens are, more often than not, realistically signed in ink by an “autopen” machine which precisely duplicates the president’s (one-time) signature – time after time after time.

George Washington: His Personal Correspondence Was
Huge in Volume, Yet Always Meticulously Written!

Washington DiaryA page from Washington’s personal diary in his ever-immaculate script

Washington Sig

Abraham Lincoln Personally Penned
 Much of His Civil War Correspondence

Here is an autograph endorsement as president in the opening months of the Civil War approving the recommendations written on the backside for promotion to Brigadier General and other ranks in the Union Army – The Army of the Potomac.

Lincoln Endorsement

The letter on the backside is from the Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac, George McClellan, addressed to Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Secretary of War. This example is very typical and illustrates Lincoln’s hands-on involvement in even the more mundane aspects of wartime machinations. Correspondence of this sort was ubiquitous during the war and, via pen and ink, reflects the personal involvement of all concerned. The letter was “Respectfully submitted to the President U. S.” by the Assistant Secretary of War, Thomas A. Scott who signs, “Thomas A. Scott, AssSecWar; War Dept. Nov 8, ’61.” On the left-hand side, the document is neatly docketed by an unidentified clerk: “Washington D.C. Nov 7, 1861; Army Headquarters, Major Genl. McClellan; Recommending certain promotions and appointments in the Army.”

The beauty and precision of the clerk’s cursive script reveals a skill which is virtually extinct, today. Such “ink-stains,” applied by a writer’s hand and pen to the paper upon which they reside, lend a charisma and persona to documents which yesterday’s typewriters and today’s computer keyboards cannot begin to match.

The latent power of handwriting turns a routine, personal thank-you note into something special: An authentic emotional bond between the person holding the ink-stained paper conveying the message and the writer who created it. A handwritten note signed by the sender is so much more personal than the efficient, but somewhat sterile message received in one’s E-mail inbox.

I increasingly miss personal, handwritten letters which are being forced into extinction to the extent that one rarely encounters them anymore. It is especially sad that one must carefully preserve any handwritten notes from today’s young set as they increasingly forget how to write cursive in the face of today’s technology seduction. As always, technology is a double-edged sword which cuts both ways – for the good and the bad, depending on how judiciously it is used.

For more on the subject, see my post titled, Word Shadows of the Great in the blog archive for June 2, 2013.

General U.S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs: The Mark Twain Connection

Few people have left so indelible a mark on the United States of America as did Ulysses S. Grant. Like George Washington, Grant led the people of this land both in time of war and, subsequently, as president of the country. His two presidential terms (1869-1877) were marred by widespread charges of corruption within his administrations. In stark contrast to his record as president, Grant’s accomplishments as Lieutenant General and leader of the Army of the Potomac in the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) assured his fame.

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 Lt. General U.S. Grant at Cold Harbor, Virginia, 1864

The appointment by President Abraham Lincoln of Grant as Commanding General of the entire Union Army in March of 1864 signaled the end of the president’s White House horrors with previous commanding generals who refused to carry the battlefield fight to Robert E. Lee and his confederate army. The list of  prior commanders whose reticence and caution so vexed Lincoln numbers four, beginning with George McClellan and moving rapidly through Burnside, Hooker, and Meade. In Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln finally found his general, one “who would fight.”

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  The personal memoirs of Gen. Grant (1885) and Gen. Sheridan (1888)

Grant’s personal memoirs, published in 1885 by Mark Twain and his publishing company, Charles L. Webster & Co., tell the story of his later military career while revealing the qualities as military commander which so endeared him to Lincoln. Anyone who has seen Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Lincoln,” will appreciate the extent to which Lincoln not only intently followed the detailed progress of the war, but also personally “steered” its conduct during the long leadership vacuum prior to Grant’s arrival as commanding general. Lincoln would often don his shawl and amble out of the White House into the cold darkness of late night, headed for the nearby army telegraph office to monitor the latest news from the front. With Grant firmly in command, Lincoln was finally able to see hope for the outcome of the war and the union cause.

The Gettysburg address of 1863 spotlights Lincoln’s masterful talent for brevity and directness in his communications. Grant was that way, as well, as evidenced by his memoirs. None of the flowery prose, so prevalent at the time, is found, within. Instead, one finds tautly written, detailed accounts of what happened during Grant’s participation in the Mexican-American War of 1846 and the momentous battles of the U.S. Civil War – the costliest, bloodiest war in our nation’s history. Despite his ultimate success as Commanding General of the Union Army, Grant had some terrible moments.

On page 276 of volume 2 of his memoirs, Grant confesses:

“I have always regretted that the last assault on Cold Harbor [Virginia] was ever made….At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy losses we sustained.”

Indeed, seven thousand union soldiers were killed in one hour on June 3, 1864, during the frontal assault on Lee’s fortified positions. The soldiers, viewing the entrenched enemy they were about to storm and recognizing their dim prospects, wrote their names on slips of paper and pinned them to their uniforms.

Although Lincoln’s confidence in Grant never wavered, others were not so worshipful. Mary Lincoln, the president’s wife, called Grant a “butcher,” but who is to judge such a man placed in such a difficult circumstance. No successful military commander can yield to timidity in battle resulting from excessive concern about his troops, it seems. I suppose this old adage applies to would-be military commanders: “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” One might add: “If you do go in, be prepared to be badly burned…and severely criticized.”

Lincoln and Grant understood each other. When Grant refused a request from his command chain within the administration to displace a portion of his entrenched troops during a critical siege, Lincoln backed him writing:

“I have seen your despatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bulldog grip and chew and choke as much as possible.”

While Lincoln was careful to let Grant “run the Army,” he was clear and direct as Commander-in-Chief when necessary. In the final days of the war when Grant and General Phil Sheridan were chasing Lee toward his surrender at Appomattox Court House, Lincoln telegraphed Grant in the field while the president was staying at Grant’s City Point, Virginia, army headquarters:

Lieut. Gen. Grant.                                       City Point, April 7, 11 AM  1865

 “Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed, I think Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.” A. Lincoln

And press it, Grant and Sheridan did. Lee surrendered his confederate army two days later, on April 9.

Grant Hears From General Sheridan on March 12, 1865

Here is a letter, hand-written and signed by General Grant on “Headquarters Armies of the United States” stationery just three weeks before Lee’s surrender. It is marked “Cipher” (meaning to be sent by telegraph) and addressed to Lincoln’s Secretary of War, E.M. Stanton, in Washington. In it, Grant reports to the War Department on the condition of Sheridan’s mounted command as they chase Lee and his army to the final encounter at Appomattox. It is an important “war letter,” one with the latent power to transport its reader back to the dramatic, closing days of our nation’s worst war. A typewritten transcript follows.

GrantLetter

I purchased this letter many years ago from a well-known dealer in such manuscripts, or “autographs,” at a time when I was gainfully employed and the value/price of significant documents such as this was much lower than on today’s collecting market.

Here is a legible transcript of the above letter. Note that the “White House” reference is a location along the James River, not the presidential residence.

 GrantLetter_APS

It is fascinating to find direct reference in Grant’s memoirs to the incident and “the scouts” which brought news of Sheridan’s location and condition to Grant – as detailed in Grant’s letter on the 12th of March.

On page 427 of Volume 2, Grant wrote:

“The other consideration was that General Sheridan with the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was operating on the north side of the James River, having come down from the Shenandoah. It was necessary that I should have his cavalry with me, and I was therefore obliged to wait until he could join me south of the James River.”

“Let us now take account of what he was doing. On the 5th of March I had heard from Sheridan. He had met [Jubal] Early between Staunton and Charlottesville and defeated him, capturing nearly his entire command. Early and some of his officers escaped by finding refuge in the neighboring houses or in the woods.”

“On the 12th I heard from him again. He had turned east, to come to White House. ….I had supplies sent around to White House for him and kept the depot there open until he arrived….Sheridan had about ten thousand cavalry with him, divided into two divisions commanded respectively by [General George] Custer and Devin….His cavalry was in as fine a condition as when he started, because he had been able to find plenty of forage. He had captured most of Early’s horses and picked up a good many others on the road.”

It is quite clear that General Grant had my letter of his in hand as he wrote his memoirs in 1884/85. The details of the letter are clearly set forth in that section. The very fine condition of the letter itself (written for cipher transmission to Stanton) supports the contention that the letter, along with many others, was carefully filed away for years after the war. The quality of Grant’s recollections reflects the likelihood that he had a large cache of important documents at his disposal.

In General Sheridan’s 1888 personal memoirs, also published in identical format by Mark Twain’s company, Charles L.Webster & Co., Sheridan highlights the incident, as well and stresses its importance.

On page 120 of Volume 2, Sheridan recalls:

“I made Columbia [Virginia] on the 10th [of March, 1865], and from there sent a communication to General Grant reporting what had occurred, informing him of my condition and intention, asking him to send forage and rations to meet me at the White House…”

“It was of the utmost importance that General Grant should receive these despatches without chance of failure, in order that I might depend absolutely on securing supplies at the White House; therefore, I sent the message in duplicate, one copy overland directly to City Point by two scouts, Campbell and Rowan, and the other by Fannin and Moore, who were to go down the James River in a small boat to Richmond, join the troops in the trenches in front of Petersburg, and, deserting to the Union lines, deliver their tidings into General Grant’s hands. Each set of messengers got through, but the copy confided to Campbell and Rowan was first at Grant’s headquarters.”

This is history as it is meant to be learned and experienced. Could we not find a way to incorporate such an approach to teaching U.S. history in the schools? Youngsters would enthusiastically embrace learning our history if we could!

The Ultimate Tragedy of Ulysses S. Grant

Grant and his wife Julia embarked on an extended around-the-world adventure after leaving office at the end of his second presidential term, in 1877.  The trip was costly, requiring Grant to start an investment business with his son, Ulysses S. Grant, Jr. and a young partner named Ferdinand Ward. Grant essentially did little more than lend his famous name to the new enterprise called “Grant and Ward,” and he remained distant from business details, often signing papers without reading them. By 1884, Grant found himself penniless thanks to the shady business practices of his partner and his own detached attitude. Grant and Ward had failed in May of 1884, and Grant found himself headed for financial ruin. That fall, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer, a fatal diagnosis in those days. Likely, the years of cigar smoking coupled with his affection for whiskey took their toll.

Under the most adverse conditions imaginable, Grant heroically embarked on a plan in the fall of 1884 to provide for his wife and family after he was gone. His friend, Mark Twain was to publish the general’s wartime memoirs in return for a handsome royalty for Grant’s family. Grant worked feverishly and heroically on this project under the most severe deadline of all, his soon-to-come death. He was assisted by a former aide on his staff, Adam Badeau, who helped with many of the tasks required to organize and research materials. Friends and even former battlefield foes stopped by to pay their respects as he raced the calendar. Now confined to his wicker chair and writing up to fifty pages a day despite constant pain and discomfort, Grant finished his memoirs on July 18, 1885. Five days later, he was gone. He had won his final battle.

US_Grant_in_1885[1]

Grant’s memoirs were a smash sales success for both Mark Twain’s company and for Grant’s wife and family. Within a few short years, the threat of poverty had been swept aside in light of the reportedly $450,000 of royalty payments his heroic efforts had generated for Julia and the children.

Historians with a literary bent have long lauded Grant’s personal memoirs as perhaps the finest major military account ever written – not only for its candor and its thorough revelations, but for its literary merit, as well.

That is indeed high praise for the former rough, unassuming young West Point cadet, class of 1843, who ranked an undistinguished 21 out of 39 in his class. A point of interest and comparison: Grant’s ultimate foe in the battle between North and South was the regal and supremely competent Robert E. Lee, West Point class of 1829. Young Lee graduated second in his class and accumulated one of the finest records seen at West Point since its inception in 1802. Besides excelling in all academic subjects, he received not one conduct demerit throughout his four years at the Point, a feat rarely duplicated. One who also received no demerits was George Mason, Lee’s extraordinary classmate who just edged out Lee academically for top spot in the class of 1829.

I have a special fondness for my copy of the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. When I reflect upon the grand events of Grant’s life, it strikes me that the most heroic thing he ever did occurred not on any battlefield, but in that wicker chair as he bravely battled those most formidable of foes, the onslaught of father time and our ultimate mortality.

One added postscript: Grant’s friend and benefactor, Mark Twain, was at the peak of his powers after successfully publishing Grant’s memoirs in 1885. Within five years, he, like Grant, would be in danger of losing it all – even his beloved Hartford, Connecticut home – because of foolish investments and bad business decisions.

Word Shadows of the Great

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Have you ever wanted to “get” someone’s autograph? Who hasn’t at one time or another? Holding and viewing a hand-written document, even the simple signature of some interesting or important person, creates a tangible, almost intimate connection with the writer. Celebrities and athletes are besieged constantly by fans asking for their autograph. For athletes, autographs have become an entire industry featuring scheduled signing appearances and significant prices for signed jerseys, helmets, and photos. That is one level of participation within the larger group termed “autograph collectors.”

For those with specialized interests beyond celebrities and athletes, another collecting universe exists. If you love classical music, imagine the thrill of holding in your hand an original score or even a musical fragment penned by Mozart or Chopin. How about perusing a letter of George Washington, written and addressed from Mount Vernon in his graceful and distinct hand – all of his immense correspondence was beautifully penned, works of handwritten art! Maybe a speech-draft, hurriedly scribbled by Martin Luther King would excite your interest! Certainly, the heavily-corrected draft of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (long-since in the J.P. Morgan Library collection) would excite any literary buff.

The moving power of original autograph documents was celebrated in an old book from 1930 titled Word Shadows of the Great / The Lure of Autograph Collecting (Thomas F. Madigan, F.A. Stokes Co.). The book opens with a quote from the popular author of years past, Charles Reade, which beautifully captures the mystique of the handwritten word:

“These ink-stains, which in the imperfection of language we have called words – these WORD SHADOWS then, are latent living powers, which, could they again be uttered by the lips which perished long ago, would subdue, as eloquence ever does, the hearts of all within their reach, and even in their silence still possess a strange charm to penetrate and stir the deepest feelings of those privileged to read them.”

Although significant writings and documents are implied in Reade’s reflection, even a simple autograph fragment from some important person or event qualifies to some extent.

Truly significant autograph items can actually be purchased through a thriving network of autograph/manuscript dealers and auction houses. Collecting important “autographs” (the term encompasses signatures to handwritten documents) is, today, only for the well-heeled participant. Letters of George Washington with important content could be had for less than $75 eighty years ago; today they would fetch four to five figures! But even the rest of us can participate to a much more limited extent by restricting our tastes!

The value of autographs depends on the “two C’s,” content and condition. A dispatch written by Abraham Lincoln directing one of his field generals during the Civil War would be far more desirable than a routine authorization for promotion in the War Department or a letter declining a dinner invitation. A letter which illuminates Lincoln’s personality or his marital problems while president would, on the other hand, also be very desirable to collectors. For a given level of content, the physical condition and attractiveness of the document has a great influence on its value.

Word Shadows001   Word Shadows002    

I have acquired several autograph items over the last few decades having to do with my interest in both the history of science and the Civil War, proving that collecting need not be restricted to the rich and famous. The contemporary carte-de-visite of General William T. Sherman shown here with his signature as “Major General Commanding” cut from an unknown document (as purchased; this practice is not approved!) represent a total investment of only $17.50 at the time, yet they connect me with Sherman the man via  the mystical ties so ably expressed by Charles Reade. It was Sherman who swore that “war is hell” and proceeded to make it so for the South in Georgia. Sometimes a picture is, indeed, worth a thousand words!

 Michael-Faraday[1]PS     Word Shadows005

My very first autograph purchase back in 1971 was an autograph letter written by Michael Faraday, undoubtedly the greatest experimental physicist in history, and one of only two scientists whose portrait hung in Albert Einstein’s study; the other was Isaac Newton! I bought it from a New Jersey dealer’s catalogue for the grand sum of $75…and still have it! Today it would fetch approximately $600, an indication that collecting can be a good investment if properly approached. In the 1844 letter written from the Royal Institution in London, Faraday graciously declines an invitation to join a newly organized science society “being so little of a club man as to have dined I believe only once at the Royal Society club and once at the Athenaeum” (he was a member of both prestigious societies).

Sadly, it is not widely known that Michael Faraday was truly the “father of the electrical age”, the technology foundation for life as we know it today. This, based on his enormous scientific contributions while at the Royal Institution of Great Britain for over fifty years beginning in 1813. In addition, he was a gentle soul, the humble “saint of science,” I call him. Emerging from dire childhood poverty in the London of Charles Dickens and with virtually no formal education, he rose to the highest pinnacle of science strictly on merit – an astounding accomplishment. Einstein’s regard for him was well-founded, and Einstein was not easily impressed! I plan to hold on to Faraday’s letter.

As you can see, autograph collecting is within reach of anyone and does not require a fat bankroll (providing one’s sights are not set too high!).

Certainly the next best thing to actually owning and handling important historical documents, is to see them on display, and there are abundant opportunities. I related my unexpected and moving “close eyeball encounter” with the original draft of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in my earlier blog, Lincoln: His Eloquent Words (March 17, 2013).

I understand and have felt the sentiments expressed by Charles Reade. My other memorable experience with “word shadows of the truly great” came over thirty years ago when my brother-in-law worked as a graduate student, part-time in the Stanford University rare book and manuscript library. As his guests, Linda and I were able to hold and examine several original documents in the hands of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. It was particularly exciting to hold letters written by and signed “Isaac Newton” with his characteristic signature. There were two or three other extensive documents in his hand peppered with strange names and symbols, obvious relics of his intense pre-occupation with alchemy, that mystical forerunner of modern chemistry.

A much more recent experience occurred a few years ago at the Huntington Library in southern California. While viewing the library’s public exhibit of rare science books, I came across the original letter written by Albert Einstein in 1915 to the great astronomer, George Ellery Hale, inquiring if it were possible to measure the possible physical deflection of starlight passing close to the rim of the sun on its assumed “straight” path to earth. Einstein was putting the finishing touches on his general theory of relativity which he published the following year. It predicted such a deflection of light due to the pull of gravity from the mass of the sun. Per Einstein’s suggestion, this deflection was verified during a solar eclipse in 1919 off the coast of Africa by a special expedition organized for the purpose – a conclusive confirmation of Einstein’s 1916 general theory of relativity. The publication of the expedition’s results captured the public’s attention and transformed Einstein from “merely” scientist to “pop-icon,” the most recognizable name and face in the world. The letter is famous, often appearing in books on the history of science, and there it was, in Einstein’s hand – the original item, in person – quite a surprise and, for me, a thrilling experience! Word shadows of the great, indeed!

Many universities and libraries have benefitted from donors who, during their lifetimes, have amassed autograph and book collections which are staggering in scope and historical importance. Generally, these private collections were formed decades ago, during a time when the monetary worth and perceived historical value of such items was far less than today. Great book and manuscript collectors from the past include Henry Huntington, J.P. Morgan, the banking scion, and many industrialists who, bitten by the “bug,” had the money to indulge their fancies. Credit is due them for their early recognition of the ultimate value of the artistic, literary, musical, and scientific treasures they sought and collected. They often left their libraries to large institutions; hopefully these institutions will continue to preserve these treasures while sharing them with the rest of us.