In Civil War circles, a photo of Abraham Lincoln at the scene of the Gettysburg Address is rarer than a blue moon: only three such photos exist, two of which are in dispute. Smithsonian magazine has the story of Christopher Oakley, a former Disney animator and current University of North Carolina professor, who claims to have recently stumbled upon a fourth possibility.
As Oakley tells it, he was working on a 3D recreation of Gettysburg when his eyes fell on a familiar stovepipe hat (pictured above—spot it?) in this photograph:
To [Secretary of State William] Seward’s left was the vague outline of a bearded figure in a stovepipe hat. Oakley leaned into the flat-screen monitor and murmured, “No way!” Zooming in tight, real tight, he stared, compared and sprang abruptly from his chair. After quickstepping around his studio in disbelief, he exulted, “That’s him!”
Smithsonian has an interactive showing how Oakley made his find. The only problem? In 2007, a Civil War buff named John Richter claimed to have found Lincoln in just the same photo—riding a horse on his way to the speaker's stand. Experts were divided. Here's the top-hatted blur Richter believed to be the President:
For comparison, here's the only confirmed shot of Lincoln at Gettysburg, taken three hours before the speech:
So it's a tale of two Lincolns—one on horseback, the other standing in hatted profile beside his Secretary of State, William Seward—and they can't both be Honest Abe, can they? Naturally, Oakley's claim has sparked a rift among the sorts of Civil War obsessives who spend late nights hunched over 1860s prints, dividing loyalties between Oakley's and Richter's dueling identifications. Oakley claims to spot epaulets on the shoulders of the figure on horseback, meaning he's in uniform and not the president; Richter seethes that Oakley's Lincoln is a mere "ink blot," though you don't have to be Shelby Foote to recognize the shadow of that hat.
The sadder scenario, though, goes unmentioned: maybe neither is the Lincoln we yearn to spot. It's not impossible—Oakley's detective work is convincing, though not foolproof, and both identifications are couched in assumptions and Rorschach-like blurs. (Plus, how many men do you think wore beards and top hats during the 1860s? A lot.) A new Lincoln spotting wouldn't be so remarkable were it not so historically rare.
But we see what we want to see, and who wouldn't want to see Honest Abe in a sea of grainy military shadows? Though barely two minutes in length, that speech—and Lincoln himself—has come to be synonymous with Gettysburg in popular historical memory, so of course we want to put face to text. Christopher Oakley, to his credit, remains almost superstitiously convinced: "I’ve been looking at his face for nearly 50 years," he told Smithsonian, "and last March, at 3 a.m. in my studio, he looked back."
Oakley's photo of Lincoln: Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Divison/Courtesy of Christopher Oakley; Richter's Lincoln interactive: Smithsonian Magazine; confirmed photo of Lincoln: public domain via Wikimedia
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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