Published June 09, 2013
WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – In losing a president, Lycoming College found a piece of its history.
Retiring President James Douthat was cleaning out a closet in his office last week when he stumbled on a rather uncommon historical document that had been lost for years -- a certificate signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 that named the college's founder a Civil War chaplain.
Displayed inside a slightly worn black frame, the certificate itself appears to be in good condition. Lincoln's neat signature is clearly visible, just above an ornate, patriotic-themed imprint at the bottom of the commission certificate for Methodist clergy Benjamin Crever.
"In the back of my mind, I remember hearing about it," Douthat said. But he never went looking for it and didn't know what it looked like.
Douthat, who will retire at the end of the month after 24 years, was clearing out boxes from the top shelf when he noticed what he initially thought might be a black-framed access panel -- the kind to get to interior plumbing, for instance.
"When I took it down, of course I recognized Lincoln's signature immediately," he said. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton also signed the document.
"I assume it was in the top of the closet 24 years ago," Douthat said. "I had never seen it."
College officials say they always knew they had it in their possession. Somewhere.
"It was (initially) discovered a while ago," associate dean and library director Janet McNeil Hurlbert said in her office as she proudly displayed the document on a table. "And then it got ... put someplace else for a while."
Word of the document's rediscovery sprouted slightly different theories of how it might have been misplaced.
It could have been in the closet all along during Douthat's tenure. Or maybe someone brought it to his office to show Douthat, but, unbeknownst to him, it got stored away in the back of that shelf.
A preliminary appraisal has valued the certificate at more than $6,000. For Lycoming, a school of about 1,400 students in central Pennslyvania, its added value is its proud connection to founder Crever.
"It was a pleasant surprise just to see it," Douthat said.
John Brinsfield, a U.S. Army Chaplain Corps historian emeritus, said Crever was one of 500 Union hospital chaplains. Crever was assigned to the military hospital in Frederick, Md., and served between July 1862 and August 1865, a period that would have included the major battles in the region at Antietam and Gettysburg.
"Civil War commissions of any type are rare because they were sent to the individual chaplains," Brinsfield wrote in an email. "If any exist, it is only because the families saved them."
In Philadelphia, The Raab Collection recently sold for $11,000 a similar certificate signed by Lincoln that appointed Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's brother-in-law as a hospital chaplain, said Nathan Raab, vice president for the historical document dealer.
The powerful story behind the certificates, Raab said, was that Lincoln approved the chaplains in the first place.
The renewed interest in Lincoln -- including last year's epic film biography by Steven Spielberg -- and the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War have also added allure to such documents.
Until the school decides where to permanently place the document, it will be kept in the college archives in the basement of the library.
But one thing's assured: "We will know exactly where it will be from now on," McNeil Hurlbert said.