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Researcher earns spotlight

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Date published: 11/27/2012




--The archivists at the Library of Congress know well the ruddy face and tenacious mind of researcher Michael Hill.

The Fredericksburg-area resident might arrive looking for the U.S. Senate records of Harry Truman, or a newspaper clipping about boxer Jack Johnson, or background on Gen. George Armstrong Custer. He might show up alone, or with a famous historian, perhaps David McCullough or Ken Burns.

If there were a category for "popular researchers," the list would have to begin with Hill, who can be found in the credits of so many books and documentaries, from McCullough's "John Adams" to Nathaniel Philbrick's "Mayflower" to Burns' baseball series.

The general public may look past his name, but historians regard him as almost a second mind and body, the one who finds the fact no one else can come up with, the one who not only assists on a project, but at times helps change its direction.

"I love him like a brother," Burns says. "He's super smart and super modest and super diligent. If you want to be in a foxhole with anybody, it's Mike Hill."

His gifts for assisting others helped place Hill's name on the cover of a book this fall.

"Elihu Washburne" is a collection of private journals and correspondence by the 19th-century politician and diplomat. The book was edited and annotated by Hill, and McCullough wrote a foreword, in part an expression of gratitude for what was an essential part of the historian's best-selling "The Greater Journey," which tells of American artists in Paris in the 19th century.

McCullough asked Hill to look through the papers of Washburne, who was an adviser to President Lincoln, the American minister to France during the Franco-Prussian War and an eyewitness to the siege of Paris in the early 1870s.

The Washburne archive at the Library of Congress did not mention a diary, but an addendum referred to a diary at the Washburne homestead in Livermore, Maine. A trip there and hours of searching turned up a box with the original diary.

The New York Times' Janet Maslin gave "The Greater Journey" a mixed review in 2011, but cited the diary as the "book's single best research discovery."

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