Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relicby David Howard
Near the close of the Civil War, as General Sherman blazed his path to the sea, an unknown infantryman rifled through the North Carolina state house.The soldier was hunting for simple Confederate mementos—maps, flags, official correspondence—but he wound up discovering something far more valuable. He headed home to Ohio with one of the touchstones of
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Near the close of the Civil War, as General Sherman blazed his path to the sea, an unknown infantryman rifled through the North Carolina state house.The soldier was hunting for simple Confederate mementos—maps, flags, official correspondence—but he wound up discovering something far more valuable. He headed home to Ohio with one of the touchstones of our republic: one of the fourteen original copies of the Bill of Rights.
Lost Rights follows that document’s singular passage over the course of 138 years, beginning with the Indiana businessman who purchased the looted parchment for five dollars, then wending its way through the exclusive and shadowy world of high-end antiquities—a world populated by obsessive archivists, oddball collectors, forgers, and thieves— and ending dramatically with the FBI sting that brought the parchment back into the hands of the government.
For fans of The Billionaire’s Vinegar and The Lost Painting, Lost Rights is “a tour de force of antiquarian sleuthing” (Hampton Sides).
“David Howard’s Lost Rights is an epic ride through American history, a colorful page-turner in which the hero is a 220-year-old piece of parchment coveted by an eccentric cast of fast-talking antiquarians and innocent patriots, nerdy record-keepers and special agents in a cinematic showdown. Howard goes deep, creating an astounding narrative weave that captures not just the strange journey of the Bill of Rights, but the modern-day country of hucksters and heroes it has wrought. A truly wonderful read!”
– Michael Paterniti, author of Driving Mr. Albert
"It would be difficult to find a more astonishing journey than the one David Howard traces in LOST RIGHTS. From a defeated and terrified Southern town at the end of the Civil War to a gleaming high rise in Philadelphia nearly 150 years later, Howard explains in riveting detail how one of our most treasured historical artifacts miraculously survived the avarice of men."
—Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt
"In this tour de force of antiquarian sleuthing, David Howard gamely follows a circuitous trail through distant centuries and rarefied subcultures. LOST RIGHTS not only entertains and enlightens us; it challenges our rockbed assumptions about what we think we have, and what we think we know."
—Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers
"LOST RIGHTS has it all—a historic heist, hidden treasure, deception, skullduggery, lawyers, guns, money, cheap picture frames and one very valuable piece of parchment. David Howard’s true-life tale of an original Bill of Rights stolen, lost, found and scammed reads like a thriller set backstage at Antiques Roadshow."
—Bruce Barcott, author of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw
"David Howard's LOST RIGHTS reveals—and untangles—a fascinating web of secrets and lies. At the story¹s heart lies nothing less than the best intentions and the worst impulses of all humanity. With his compelling narrative, larger-than-life characters, and sharp reporting, Howard lights the darkest corners of this twisted journey of one of America's most sacred relics."
—Susan Casey, author of The Devil's Teeth
“Here's a detective story of the ages, and for the ages. Dave Howard's investigation is almost as remarkable as the story it uncovers!”
—Bill McKibben, author Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
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NO ONE WILL EVER know exactly what happened on the morning of Thursday, April 13, 1865, just after General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army marched into Raleigh, North Carolina. The citizens of the state capital were well aware of the mayhem that Sherman had inflicted on the cities and towns of Georgia and South Carolina, and officials in Raleigh, keen to avoid that fate, had surrendered the previous day. Still, Raleigh’s residents were wary. They locked doors and blockaded windows against his arrival.
Sherman’s troops, by contrast, felt hopeful about the coming day. When reveille sounded at 4:00 a.m., the soldiers of the Ninety-fourth Ohio Volunteer Infantry quickly broke camp and fell in. After years of war, their early-morning movements were rote, and on this day their steps felt lighter despite the chill and the patter of light rain. They hoped to be the first into Raleigh. The troops strode down muddy, eerily silent streets, past shuttered homes.
There was ample reason for optimism. They’d heard persistent whispers that the war was nearly over, an eventuality that—after all that had transpired—felt both impossible and inevitable. Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox four days earlier, accelerating the death rattle of the Confederacy. An exhausted and bitterly rent nation was tilting toward the uncertain place between all-out war and whatever came after.
There was no way to anticipate the chaos that was coming. The very next day, John Wilkes Booth would fire a pistol ball through Abraham Lincoln’s head, and the North, on the verge of cathartic celebration, would instead convulse in horror. Several thousand of Sherman’s enraged and vengeance-minded troops would gather to torch Raleigh, and the city would be saved only when a Union officer threatened to fire cannons on the blue-clad mob.
The city would be saved, but the South would be doomed to a bleak Reconstruction. But all of that would come later. All that Sherman’s soldiers saw before them that April morning was a clear path to victory. They planned to claim the spoils of the victor and vanish into the fog of a fading war.
Rue P. Hutchins felt the turmoil of that most tumultuous week in United States history. Three years earlier, Hutchins, a loyal supporter of Lincoln and the Union, a schoolteacher turned whiskey distiller, and a decorated major, had led much of his small Ohio town into battle.
No one would have blamed Hutchins for being an unenthusiastic combatant. His ancestors were southerners, from Virginia and North Carolina. They were Quakers, too—people whose religion prohibits violence.
But the Hutchins clan had a defiant streak, an inclination to do things differently. Hutchins’s grandfather, Meredith, joined the great westward movement that accompanied the opening of the Ohio Territory in 1795. He married an Irish woman, Susannah Fitzgerald, from outside the Quaker faith, resulting in his expulsion from the church. On the frontier the couple started over, opening the first inn in Little York, Ohio. One of their sons was also named Meredith. The younger Meredith married and had an only child, Rue, in 1833.
He eventually settled in Tippecanoe, population 949, the town’s name a transliteration of the Native American word for a river rapid.
Western Ohio in the 1860s was a place of tall corn and robust wheat and barley crops and deep Union loyalty. During political rallies leading up to Lincoln’s election two years earlier, there were festive barbecues and torchlight processions with brass bands and fireworks and well-heated oration. But by mid-1862, as the news of the horrors of Bull Run and Shiloh and Fort Donelson filtered back, the festivities ebbed. Talk of quick and decisive victory gradually blinked out. In July, Lincoln issued a call for three hundred thousand more volunteer troops to smother the uprising.
Within weeks, a month shy of his twenty-ninth birthday, Hutchins began enlisting the men of Tippecanoe. Recruiting could not have been pleasant just a month or so short of the stout fall harvests, but there was an air of inevitability to the proceedings. Confederate forces were raiding neighboring Kentucky, only about seventy miles to the south. Hutchins signed up a hundred or so men, including three relatives: Benjamin, Tanzy, and William Hutchins.
The outfit was absorbed into the Ninety-fourth Ohio Volunteer Infantry and named Company D. Rue Hutchins was made captain and commanding officer. He had no military experience, and training was not an option. The 1,010 men of the Ninety-fourth Ohio were sworn in at Camp Piqua, in southwestern Ohio. A few days later they were issued guns and three cartridges each, but no uniforms, backpacks, or canteens. The next morning they marched south in street clothes. That night they were in Kentucky.
The Ninety-fourth fought its first real battle in Perryville less than three weeks later. Colonel Joseph W. Frizell, in his field report, told how “a most murderous and incessant fire from infantry was opened upon me.” At Stones River, near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on New Year’s Eve 1862, the men charged the enemy through a cedar forest during a ferocious daylong battle, Hutchins out in front of Company D. That frigid night the thoroughly spent opposing armies lay down with their weapons in close proximity. The troops of the Ninety-fourth hunkered in the mud and standing water without food or fires. Stones River cost the regiment fifty-four men—including much of Rue Hutchins’s family. Cousin William’s sons, Benjamin, Tanzy, and William, were all injured; all three later died in hospitals.
A photo of Hutchins from that era shows the grim-faced officer in profile wearing a thick, droopy mustache, his wavy hair receding. After Stones River, many of the badly fatigued troops, exposed to wet, frigid nights, contracted typhoid fever and measles. One March day alone, five men of the Ninety-fourth Ohio died in camp.
The months unfurled in a blur of hardship. In September 1863 the Ninety-fourth Ohio fought at Chickamauga, the war’s second-bloodiest battle: “So close were the enemy,” Hutchins wrote in his report, “that we could plainly see into the barrels of their muskets at each discharge.”
In October 1863 Hutchins, now a lieutenant colonel, led his men into battle on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, and on the grand charge on Mission Ridge. In 1864 the Ninety-fourth joined Sherman’s elite army for the march into Georgia. The Ohioans were now hardened veterans—survivors of two years of Confederate gunpowder and bayonets, and disease.
Sherman stormed Atlanta and launched his iconic March to the Sea, slicing the Confederacy in half. His army fought at Buzzard’s Roost and Resaca and Kingston and Pumpkin-Vine Creek and Kennesaw Mountain and the Chattahoochee River and Peachtree Creek and Jonesboro. In the first months of 1865 they crossed into North Carolina.
The Ninety-fourth Ohio, like much of Sherman’s army, virtually consumed the South. Sherman adhered to the doctrine of total war—war not just on enemy soldiers, but on the general population. The army stripped the landscape. This was the original shock and awe. “Sherman’s bummers,” as they became known, seized every chicken and pig and vegetable garden and any other object of desire in their path, and they burned and destroyed the rest. Many took Confederate documents—which were light to carry but proof of their far-flung travels—as trophies.
Sherman once watched a soldier march past him carrying a chair on his back, according to a newspaper account. “Yes,” the general said, “I see, but they can carry what they please, just so they carry enough ammunition to fight with.”
One embedded reporter noted that the soldiers had invented a euphemism for their smash-and-grab tactics. “‘Piruting’ is the term employed to note a certain complexion of raid common upon a grand scale in Sherman’s latest march,” he wrote, “and the name ‘Piruter,’ (an eccentric compromise with pirate) vividly describes that wild, erratic, impromptu cavalry who took the lead in the last great expedition.”
They would tear the country apart in order to keep it whole.
Nearly a century earlier another young man had struggled to bind together a fragile union of states.
The year was June 1789. James Madison, with Alexander Hamilton’s help, had just pushed eleven of the thirteen states to agree to a Constitution—enough to create a federal government.
This was a remarkable feat. In the years following the colonies’ rejection of British rule, the euphoria of newfound freedom had given way to pessimism about the Revolution’s success. What emerged post-1776 was a deeply divided infant of a country. The states had little in common and—outside of war operations—no history of working together as a cohesive unit. Slavery was a divisive issue. There was no reason to believe that creating a single republic out of a hodgepodge of states would work.
The Constitution made many new citizens uncomfortable. Anti-Federalists feared the new government would merely create a new form of tyranny. They believed the Constitution was not the answer to any present-day crisis; it was the flash point for a future one. Opponents noted that the document did not explicitly guarantee fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech and of religion. North Carolina and Rhode Island declined to accept it, citing the absence of such pledges.
When the new Congress convened, Madison—under intense pressure back home in Virginia—began agitating for the inclusion of these liberties. Most of his colleagues opposed the idea. They wanted to give the new government a chance to drop roots before they started tinkering, and they bombarded Madison and his constitutional amendments with ridicule. Some accused him of proposing flimsy bromides; others thought his fixes went too far, representing the worst kind of micromanagement.
Summoning all his political heft, Madison dragged the amendments in front of Congress for debate in August 1789. For six days the polemics raged in New York City, the nation’s first capital. Madison delivered impassioned speeches about the need for the new nation to seal its newly built windows and walls against the persistent seep of tyranny. On one blistering-hot Saturday, the vitriol grew so intense that some congressmen challenged their colleagues to -duels.
The argument in favor of the amendments was unmistakably powerful: Humans are inherently flawed. And when power corrupts, people need to be saved from their own darkest impulses.
After days of bruising debate, Congress passed James Madison’s amendments. There were sacrifices: The Senate reduced the number from seventeen to twelve. And Madison couldn’t write the changes directly into the Constitution. The amendments would stand alone in a separate document.
William Lambert, Benjamin Bankson, and an unknown third clerk penned copies: one for each of the eleven states, two others for Rhode Island and North Carolina, another for the federal government. They stooped over parchments in Federal Hall, in lower Manhattan, writing fluidly in black iron-gall ink.
Senate President John Adams and House Speaker Frederick Muhlenberg signed each copy. On October 2, 1789, presidential secretary William Jackson penned cover letters to each state’s governor, and George Washington signed them.
North Carolina’s copy arrived in Raleigh on the desk of Pleasant Henderson, engrossing clerk of the general assembly. Henderson was an old hand with such papers, having served previously as private secretary to Governor Alexander Martin, among other posts. Henderson creased the parchment in half, and then in half again, and then trifolded it, so he could slip it into his filing box. Then he scrawled on the back:
PROPOSED AMENDMENTS TO
THE CONSTITUTION OF THE
Back in Virginia, Madison eagerly awaited word on the amendments’ reception. The nation’s leaders wanted North Carolina to join the union. Though the state still harbored a strong anti-Federalist current, the amendments made the Constitution far more palatable. And North Carolinians, already marginalized by remoteness, didn’t want to be isolated, an island of holdouts.
On December 22, 1789, North Carolina joined the United States.
The remainder of the Ninety-fourth Ohio reached Raleigh before 10:00 that morning of April 13, 1865, breaking their marching speed record on the way. They headed straight for the Capitol, a Greek revival building that housed the state government and the Supreme Court and State Archives and Museum, and served as a military supply depot. Former Governor David Swain, a member of the delegation that had surrendered to Sherman the day before, had returned to the Capitol that morning to await the despised general’s arrival. Swain had strolled through the empty building, footsteps echoing in the gloom, until he found a caretaker.
Together they assessed the Capitol’s ravaged state. The process of emptying the building of its secrets and treasures had been a chaotic affair. The floor of the rotunda between the Senate and House of Commons was thick with discarded papers and documents. Glass museum cases had been smashed, their specimens removed. The state’s prized rock collection had been scattered. In the houses of the General Assembly, inkwells were dumped over, papers flung with abandon. Someone had doused a bust of John C. Calhoun in ink. Bound documents coated the floor of the state library.
Union General Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry arrived first, in pursuit of the retreating Confederates, who had set fire to a railroad depot. They paused only to dispatch a rogue Texan and raise the flag over the Capitol, and then left the town in the hands of the Fifth Ohio Cavalry. The men of the Ninety-fourth Ohio rolled in shortly thereafter, the headwaters of a dark blue torrent of Union infantry.
Three days later William Anderson of the Philadelphia Inquirer toured the Capitol building and reported chaotic scenes that resembled what Swain had witnessed. “Curious hands have been busy with the Secession records,” he wrote, “and many of them strew the floor.”
The numbers were too vast—ninety thousand Union troops in Raleigh in the days after the city’s surrender, including twenty thousand from Ohio regiments—to put a name to the thief. Many were camped on Union Square, right near the Capitol. Scores also had business inside the building: work details or social or military meetings. And they were all allowed to do as they pleased when they were off duty.
Sometime soon after arriving, a group of Ohioans walked through the State House, trophy hunting, exploring the building’s north wing. They were Sherman’s bummers. At least one of them was from Tippecanoe—quite possibly one of Rue Hutchins’s recruits. After entering the secretary of state’s office on the first floor, they rifled through files.
The soldier from Tippecanoe found a folded parchment. On the outer surface, for filing purposes, there was a notation:
PROPOSED AMENDMENTS TO
THE CONSTITUTION OF THE
More than a century later, historians and archivists would ponder that moment of discovery. Did the soldier know he had just bagged a magnificent relic—one of the nation’s seminal founding documents?
The answer is almost certainly no. The strange journey of a priceless parchment began with a simple, anonymous act of vandalism and theft—of “piruting”—just like thousands of others committed during the war. Smash and grab. Nothing less, and nothing more.
Meet the Author
DAVID HOWARD is a freelance journalist and writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Backpacker, Outside, Men's Journal, and other publications. He is the executive editor of Bicycling.
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