Lexington, Virginia • April 15, 2009
What qualifies as perhaps the longest overdue library book in history found its way back to Washington and Lee University’s Leyburn Library in February, when the first volume of W.F.P. Napier’s four-volume set, History of the War in the Peninsula and in the South of France, was returned to the shelves after an absence of 52,858 days.
A Union soldier named C.S. Gates took the book from Washington College, as it was then called, on June 11, 1864, when General David Hunter and his army of West Virginia raided the area and looted the college’s buildings.
Gates, however, thought he was exacting revenge on Washington College’s next-door neighbor, the Virginia Military Institute, which was set on fire by the raiding party.
A note signed by Gates and inscribed in the book reads: “This book was taken from the Military Institute at Lexington Virginia in June 1864 when General Hunter was on his Lynchburg raid. The Institution was burned by the order of Gen Hunter. The remains of Gen. Stonewall Jackson rest in the cemetery at this place.”
“It’s a remarkable story,” said Laura Turner, technical services director for W&L’s library. “Although the soldier’s note refers to VMI, it’s clearly our book, since it has '‘Washington College’ handwritten on the title page that other volumes of that era have, and also matches perfectly Volume Two in that series, which is still in our possession.
“If I were to guess, I think the soldier who took the book thought he was taking it from the VMI library, but this was in the midst of what had to be a fairly chaotic series of events, and our campuses are now, as they were then, side by side.” The Union troops, in fact, burned down the VMI library during the raid.
Soldier Gates passed the purloined book down through his family, and eventually it came into the possession of Mike Dau, of Lake Forest, Ill. Dau inherited it from a Lake Forest couple, Myron and Isabel Gates.
“Mrs. Gates had shown me the book many years before she died,” said Dau, the head handball and assistant football coach at Lake Forest College. “I knew that this was a very special book, and remember telling Mrs. Gates even then that it really belonged back with its rightful owner.”
Dau contacted a book dealer in North Carolina, Harry Goodheart, a Washington and Lee alumnus from the class of 1966. Goodheart put Dau in touch with the Leyburn Library at W&L.
In February, Dau and his wife, Paula, traveled from their home in Lake Forest, a Chicago suburb, to visit relatives in the Washington area. They made a special trip to Lexington, book safely in hand, to deliver it in person.
“Given all the history that is wrapped up in this book, I certainly wasn’t going to just send it off,” Dau said. “I wanted to see where it was going.”
When the Daus visited Leyburn Library, Turner showed them the surviving volume.
“It was neat to see the consecutive numbers and realize that the book really did belong in the Washington and Lee library,” Dau said.
Dau had only one, tongue-in-cheek stipulation about returning the volume: that W&L exempt him from any fines. At the current rate of $1 a day, he would have been on the hook for $52,858.
But then again, C.S. Gates didn’t exactly check out the book back in 1864.