My travels to Lincoln, Illinois, began with a column published in The Laker/Lutz News on July 11, regarding a document that had been passed down, from one generation — to the next, to the next.
That column pondered: What would it be like to have a large document signed by Abraham Lincoln, and not know its value or its history — or if it really had been signed by the nation’s 16th president?
The document belongs to 84-year-old Martha M. Fountain, a lifelong resident of Zephyrhills.
It is an Executive Order, dated Dec. 15, 1864, and appears to be signed by President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Assistant Adjutant Gen. E.D. Townsend.
The document originally belonged to Martha’s husband of 31 years, Guy Joseph Fountain Jr.
It had hung proudly in his office at Best Way Electric in Dade City.
When he died in 2016 it became Martha’s sole property, because the couple had no children.
However, Martha had no knowledge of the document’s original history.
After months of research involving several military websites and the History Center at the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village, north of Dade City, I tracked down the history of Guy Fountain’s great-great uncle Samuel Warren Fountain, who was 15 years old at the outbreak of the American Civil War on April 12, 1861.
To recap some of that history, Samuel volunteered to join the Ohio National Guard, serving under Maj. Gen. David Hunter, during the Valley Campaigns of 1864. Hunter later achieved his own fame as part of the military commission trying the conspirators involved in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Samuel’s military career also continued, involving at one point military campaigns against Geronimo and Sitting Bull.
In 1904, when Samuel was a lieutenant colonel, he directed security at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
Ironically, Geronimo was also at the fair as a living exhibit intended as a “monument to the progress of civilization.”
Samuel was a brigadier general a year before the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in the nation’s capital, and he gave a speech about Lincoln during an appearance before the Union League Club of Philadelphia on Feb. 9, 1921.
In part, Samuel said: “Other men have reunited a divided nation, or liberated an enslaved race, or carried to conclusion a fratricidal war, or swept immoral institutions from the earth by consummate statesmanship; but no man ever combined and carried through, chiefly by the clarity of his mind and the purity of his character, several such gigantic enterprises in half a decade.”
So, with Samuel’s accomplishments well-documented — and with the permission of Martha and her attorney, John Council, I set out with the document to the Land of Lincoln to see what I could find out about it.
Traveling to find some answers
The trip itself was quite an adventure.
In an attempt to outrun Hurricane Michael, in October, I barely missed a tornado — that was just a mile away in Jacksonville.
Then, I survived a hotel room without power, in Walterboro, South Carolina, and then spent an afternoon with the staff at a Cracker Barrel in Charlotte, because of heavy downpours in North Carolina.
Once I reached the home of Norm and Judi Schmidt, who live in Akron, Ohio, I soon would have a personal guide for the remainder of my trip.
Norm had learned about Martha’s Lincoln document through a copy of my column he received from Donna Swart, a former mayor of San Antonio and former curator of the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village in Dade City.
Donna also was a neighbor who grew up next door to Norm’s family farm in Illinois.
When Norm and I arrived in downtown Springfield, Illinois, on a cold Sunday afternoon, James M. Cornelius and John Paul were there to meet us.
Cornelius is the curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Lincoln Presidential Library, and Paul is a bookseller who owns Prairie Archives in downtown Springfield.
We asked Cornelius to assess the authenticity of the document.
He told us: “The signatures of Lincoln, Stanton and Townsend were engraved by someone using a real signature, so it could be reproduced over and over.
“The fine eagle decoration at the top also began as an engraving,” he said. “Once the printing plate had been set with the text, and the decoration, and the blank lines to be filled in by hand, any number of copies could be run off of a press from that plate. The ink used is darker, more enduring than what would come directly out of a fountain pen.”
Families in Ohio would have more reason to hold onto the documents since the names were handwritten, Cornelius explained.
“Ohio had roughly 15 regiments of these 100-days men in 1864,” he said. “At 1,000 men per regiment, that’s 15,000 copies printed with the engraved signature of Lincoln, Stanton and Townsend.”
The document received by Samuel Warren Fountain is unique in one way, however, Cornelius said.
“Most of the Ohio men who did the 100 days in 1864 were ‘old’ for soldiering, usually 30 to 45 years of age.”
So, it turns out that while the document wasn’t originally signed by Lincoln, it isn’t a forgery.
Paul examined Martha’s document, to estimate a value.
Paul said that Martha’s document dates back to the civil war period. He also noted “some marginal tears and one small marginal loss.”
Paul estimated the document’s value at $400.
“Our value is based largely on the history of this individual soldier, an underage volunteer, with a subsequently successful military career,” Paul explained.
Cornelius agreed that Fountain’s history is compelling. “Rarely would you get a story and career as interesting as Fountain’s from such service.”
Indeed, Fountain was photographed with Douglas MacArthur at West Point, and was good friends with John “Black Jack” Pershing, who later served as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force during World War 1.
After visiting Springfield, Norm and I traveled south to the city of Lincoln, Illinois, where the Lincoln Heritage Museum is located on the campus of Lincoln College.
It was here that an offer was made to display Martha’s document as part of 50,000 items of Lincoln memorabilia at the museum.
Martha and her attorney are delighted that the document will have a permanent home in Illinois.
“This seems to be a perfect place,” Martha said, smiling broadly.
Doug Sanders has a penchant for unearthing interesting stories about local history. His sleuthing skills have been developed through his experiences in newspaper and government work. If you have an idea for a future history column, contact Doug at .
Published December 26, 2018