How Overdue Books Caused the Civil War

Did southern congressmen swipe books from the Library of Congress in order to start a library in the Confederacy?

May 18, 2011

I admit that the title is a bit of an exaggeration. For one thing, most of the books were not actually overdue. Also, some people claim there were other causes for the Civil War: slavery, states’ rights, and stuff like that.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that 150 years ago, when this country was debating whether to go to war with itself, one issue on the table was missing library books.

I discovered this odd scandal in the Congressional Serial Set, an endless fountain of primary source data about American history. Volume 1105 contains House Report 90, describing a bizarre incident involving the New York Times, a library with no catalog, and, so help me, the Dred Scott Decision. The report is full of surprises, reminding us that, as novelist L. P. Hartley said: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Setting the scene

Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November 1860. In the months before his April March inauguration, southern states started to secede, and some people in the North argued they should be brought back by force.

Some accused the southern states of playing dirty. One Illinois newspaper complained that they had “suppressed the business of the country, destroyed its credit, robbed its treasury, ruined thousands of business men, and thrown tens of thousands out of employment into want and distress; they have disrupted the Union, seized the federal property, fired into American ships, insulted the National Flag, plundered the National Mint, stolen Government vessels, interrupted commerce, threatened the country with bloodshed and civil war, and are now using the most infamous means to overthrow the Government itself.”

Surely people that nasty wouldn’t hesitate to filch library books. But exactly how did it happen?

The accusation

On February 13, 1861, the day the Electoral College officially picked Lincoln as the next president, this article appeared in the New York Times:

Providing a Library for the Southern Confederacy

It is ascertained that, in addition to the other frauds perpetrated by the seceding Members of Congress, they have taken from the Congressional Library—which is, probably, the best in this country, containing many books which cannot be obtained elsewhere—some of the most valuable volumes in the whole collection. Thousands of dollars’ worth have been thus abstracted and carried off by these members. Among them, a single South Carolina member, I am informed, has more than four hundred dollars’ worth of digests of the most valuable character, and which can never be replaced. Scarcely one of these gentlemen took the trouble to return his books, but, on the contrary, were very cautious to have them carefully packed and sent off. I am further informed that a member from one of the Border States, who favors secession, and thought his State sure to secede, sent orders for upwards of one thousand dollars’ worth of books recently, which, under the rules of the Library, were refused. This is regarded here to be very near akin to what Webster defines as “theft.”

In short, the Times accused southern congressmen of swiping books from the Library of Congress in order to start a library in the Confederacy.

Not a big deal compared to other accusations being made, but this charge was aimed at congressmen.

The House of Representatives took it personally and immediately organized a committee to investigate. (This was the first thing that astonished me. The committee was organized, held hearings, and issued its final report in less than two weeks—about the time I would expect a modern committee to spend choosing its letterhead.)

The committee chairman was Rep. Roger Atkinson Pryor of Virginia. As a southerner and former newspaperman, Pryor had a double interest in the scandal about the Library of Congress.

But wait. That’s the next surprise. The article referred to the “Congressional Library,” but the institution involved was the House of Representatives Library, a collection of some 30,000 newspapers and public documents, stored in what Smithsonian Institution Librarian Charles Coffin Jewett described as “a series of closets, triangular rooms, and attics, near the hall of the House.”

The majestic breadth of this facility is shown by this congressional testimony: “I went up there twice to inquire; the first time I found the door locked, and the next time I found nobody in the library, but a young man away up in the loft, to whom I did not wish to talk about it.”

So, that’s strike one against the story. If somebody was getting ripped off, it wasn’t the nation’s greatest library.

The reporter

The first lucky witness before the committee was Henry H. Pangborn, author of the Times article. Of course, Pangborn, in the best tradition of reporters, refused to reveal his sources.

No, I lie. He sang like Caruso. In fact, all the testifying newspapermen seemed to compete in eagerness to cooperate with Congress. Not quite what we expect nowadays.

But that’s not to say Pangborn was actually helpful. “I wrote the body of [the article];” he told the committee, and then immediately started hedging. “I was probably the original author of it. I am not exactly certain how I did write it. The original copy is probably lost.”

The committee noted that he had referred to “other frauds perpetuated by the seceding Members of Congress.” Pangborn admitted he had no evidence of other fraud—except that he considered secession to be fraud.

Pangborn denied that he had been merely spreading rumors. He had heard from several people in the House Post Office “that there could be no doubt about it; that large quantities of books were missing.” How that differed from rumor, he did not say.

One of my favorite moments came when the reporter nobly explained that he had mentioned no congressmen by name because he had no evidence against any individual.

Pryor replied: “And therefore you cast reflection upon a whole class?”

Pangborn, no doubt with a straight face: “I supposed that their personal character would protect them from that.”

One of his informants, B. T. Hutchins, held two jobs at the same time: he was the clerk of a House committee and a newspaper correspondent. I doubt one person could hold both of those positions today.

The multitasking Hutchins was asked what evidence backed up the accusations he had passed on to the press. “I never inquired,” he said primly. “I regarded it as none of my business.”

The librarian takes the stand

If this farce has a tragic hero it is the Librarian of the House. Calvin Clifford Chaffee was a physician turned politician, having represented Springfield, Massachusetts, in Congress from 1855 to 1859. He was a pro-abolition Republican until his political career collapsed in 1857 when a shocking fact was revealed to the nation—and apparently to Chaffee himself.

Picture the scene: The congressman is contentedly reading the morning paper. Suddenly one story catches his eye: His wife owns the most famous slave in America.

Irene Emerson Chaffee had inherited several slaves from her first husband. One of them was Dred Scott, and when Scott went to court seeking his freedom she was his official legal opponent.

The southern newspapers had a field day with the abolitionist whose wife owned Dred Scott. Chaffee wisely decided not to run for reelection. I assume a sympathetic colleague got him the job of House librarian, a position where he would be free of embarrassing newspaper stories. What could go wrong?

Dr. Chaffee told the committee that Pangborn had not interviewed him about the article. (In fact, the reporter had buttonholed him on the street one day, but the librarian was too busy to talk.  Not Chaffee’s wisest decision, as it turned out.)

The librarian denied suspecting the seceding members of deliberately swiping books. However, he noted that “there are a certain amount of books missing from the library, that are charged to members of Congress and have not been returned.”

Chaffee said that he had assumed the congressmen “had done as other members had done, left their books in their rooms.” He sent a messenger to the members’ boarding houses to retrieve the volumes, “lest some unauthorized or evil-minded persons should take them.”

The committee didn’t get to meet the messenger, who is only referred to as Evans, because he claimed to be too sick to attend the hearing. They did, however, get to puzzle over his notes. For example, what did it mean when Evans wrote beside Congressman G. L. Hawkins’s name, “Messenger order, old man Lake.” Chaffee admitted: “I cannot explain that.”

But chairman Pryor had a more fundamental question. How could Chaffee be sure the books were really missing? Had he checked the shelves?

And here the modern reader gets the next big surprise. “I could not tell if I did,” said Chaffee. “These books are duplicates.”

It turned out the staff had no idea how many duplicate copies of books the library possessed. Worse, since there was no catalog, they did not actually know which books they owned at all.

This dubious record-keeping was emphasized when Chaffee’s assistant produced a list of missing books that disagreed with his boss’s copy. For example, he claimed one congressman had failed to return 42 volumes of the Annals of Congress, but the official record didn’t mention those books at all.

It was not looking good for the library team.

But wait, there’s more

Let’s go back to the end of that article, where Pangborn said a congressman from a border state “sent orders for upwards of one thousand dollars’ worth of books recently, which, under the rules of the Library, were refused.”

The day before the first hearing, Pangborn published another article identifying the culprit. Rep. Daniel Coleman De Jarnette of Virginia had asked an acquaintance to borrow some books he needed for a speech. The overenthusiastic friend ordered a whopping 115 volumes, and a clerk nixed the request because of its size and because the friend’s handwriting was not that of the congressman.

Eventually Chaffee approved De Jarnette’s request, but the chief clerk of the House, P. Barry Hayes, decided unilaterally not to send the books. All the congressman got for his trouble was Pangborn’s accusation of theft.

Organization review

You can’t blame the committee for investigating the library’s management. But who did they ask for an opinion? None other than Hayes, the chief clerk who had held up De Jarnette’s book order after Chaffee finally approved it.

Hayes was happy to offer his views on the library. He complained that “the head of that department ought to pay more attention to it than he does.” Just in case anyone was slow on the uptake, he went on to praise all the library staff except Chaffee.

To be fair, Hayes also noted that the physical structure of the library was a problem. “It is utterly impossible to do the business properly in a place like that. It is a place winding in and out, with books in every cubby-hole up and down stairs.”

Report card

A week later the committee filed its report, concluding that Pangborn’s article was based on exaggerated rumors passed on by loose-lipped clerks. They called the piece “a fair specimen of the many sensation[al] despatches [sic] sent from this city . . . with little if any inquiry into the correctness of the many rumors that reach their ears; with the most reckless and unwarranted inferences from them.” Thank heavens that sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore.

They concluded with regret, “Your committee, however, are not of the opinion, that this House can provide any remedy for this evil.” The pesky First Amendment blocked progress again.

The committee was gracious enough not to mention Chaffee. Instead they lamented the “present condition of the library of the House, as being such as almost necessarily to render impossible its proper management, and leading to the commission of errors. . . . The library, as many members of this House are well aware, is contained in a room illy adapted for that purpose. There is no catalogue of the books contained in it.”


The House Library didn’t survive very long after the Civil War. Neither did Pangborn, who joined the Navy and died in Florida in 1866, a week after getting married.

Chaffee returned to medicine in 1862, no doubt glad to be free of newspaper coverage.

Other events—the firing on Fort Sumter comes to mind—pushed the library scandal out of the news. In the long run, the ordeal had little effect—except on Chaffee, Pangborn, and the House Library. But it serves as a fascinating warning of what can be accomplished by bureaucratic gossip, shoddy journalism, and truly wretched library management.

ROBERT LOPRESTI is a librarian at Western Washington University. This article is based on “‘Reckless and Unwarranted Inferences’: The U.S. House Library Scandal of 1861” by Robert Lopresti and August A. Imholtz, Library and Information History 27, no. 1 (March 2011): 3–16.



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