College finds Lincoln’s signature

More than 150 years old, a document signed by President Abraham Lincoln was unearthed recently at Lycoming College, thereby linking the nation’s 16th commander-in-chief with the school’s founder.

The document, found by outgoing college President James E. Douthat in his office, certified Benjamin H. Crever, who founded the seminary that would go on to become Lycoming College, as a hospital chaplain during the country’s Civil War. The document was signed by Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in 1863.

Crever’s time in the Army came after setting up the Williamsport Dickinson Seminary, which eventually would become Lycoming College, explained John F. Piper Jr., professor of history, dean of the college emeritus and college historian.

“In 1862 he was sent by the bishop to Frederick, Md. … Frederick, Md., is sort of on the route for troops from the North, especially Pennsylvania and parts of Maryland, to go south to become part of the Army of the Potomac,” Piper said.

Wounded soldiers also passed through Frederick, Md., as they were returning north, Piper said, which is how Crever first interacted with Union soldiers.

“He, with support from his wife, began to open their church to wounded soldiers. And he decided to become a chaplain. And in 1863 he received this commission,” Piper said of the document.

Crever served in the Army for three years, from 1863-66. From what Piper has read, he said there were “relatively few” to receive such a document.

John Heiser, historian for the division of visitor services at the Gettysburg National Military Park, agreed that the document is rare. Most chaplains, Heiser said, were appointed at the state level and assigned to a specific regiment.

So for the document to not specify where Crever would serve and to be signed by Lincoln and Stanton, Heiser said, is unique.

“To even receive this type of delegation during the Civil War and to be signed by the War Department, that’s pretty unique,” he said.

During the Civil War, chaplains performed several duties, including holding services in the field, counseling the wounded and retrieving the bodies of wounded soldiers to bring to hospitals.

“They risked their lives just like everyone else, and they were noncombatants,” Heiser said.

Heiser added that Crever, like many, volunteered during the Civil War without looking for any recognition.

“I think that’s a pretty unique commission.” Heiser said. “It also says something about the man for wanting to do that.”

The document has been in the college’s possession since 1959 when it was presented to the school during a commencement ceremony by Crever’s great-grandson, Edwin Crever Dunning.

At some point, the document was transported to the president’s office.

Douthat, who is retiring after 24 years, said he recently was cleaning out his office when he rediscovered the document, of which he had only ever heard. As Douthat was clearing out a closet that he used mostly as storage, he discovered what he thought was a utility access point next to a top shelf. When he removed the panel, he found the framed document.

Originally thinking it was a photograph of some sort, it wasn’t until Douthat brought the frame out of the closet and into the light that he immediately recognized the signature of Lincoln.

Douthat said he isn’t sure how the document made its way into a closet in the president’s office but added that “it was fun” finding it. He added that despite not knowing that it was in his office, it was “a great place” to store it, as it was out of the light, and heated and cooled when needed.

Piper added that he was trying to find the document when he was writing his book on the college’s history but ultimately was unsuccessful.

“I’m now aware of why I couldn’t find it,” Piper said. “But we’re very pleased to have it. In our point of view, it’s very nice to have items of our founder.”

The college plans to keep the document in its archives until further plans are made. A preliminary appraisal of the document put a value of about $6,000 on it.

Heiser said the college was fortunate that the document was able to stay in such good condition. Any document signed by Lincoln in good condition, Heiser said, is “extremely rare.”

The document even is more significant locally as Crever had such an impact on the area, Douthat said.

“It’s important to the college in the sense that it’s one of the most essential figures in moving the college forward,” Douthat said.

As Piper put it: “It’s a very important piece of our history.”