Six years ago, amateur historian John Richter rocked the world of
Civil War scholars when he downloaded a series of digital photos showing
the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863, at
In the sea of pixelated faces, Richter found a
blur that looked like President Abraham Lincoln on horseback, saluting
the troops as he arrived to deliver his famed Gettysburg Address.
Historians celebrated the find, calling it only the second photo ever of
Lincoln at Gettysburg.
On the cusp of the speech's 150th
anniversary, historians are again talking about the photos: Another
amateur, aided by improved technology, says he, too, has spotted Lincoln
in the crowd - only he's a few yards to the right, in front of the
speakers' stand, Christopher Oakley says.
The figure on horseback? Probably just a local official with a beard and stovepipe hat.
even Abraham Lincoln could be in two places at once, so Oakley's find
has divided scholars, including a few who vouched for Richter in 2007
and who now say Oakley has gotten it right.
"For everyone who is
seriously interested in that day and in Lincoln at Gettysburg - and
there are thousands who are - this merits a very close look," says T.A.
Frail, a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine, which is publishing an annotated version of the disputed image in its October issue (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Will-the-Real-Abraham-Lincoln-Please-Stand-Up-224911272.html), alongside a history of the controversy.
far, at least, the debate has been "mostly friendly," says Oakley, a
former Disney and DreamWorks animator who teaches animation at the
University of North Carolina-Asheville. He stumbled upon Richter's find
while helping students recreate the 1863 ceremony for the university's
Virtual Lincoln Project, a planned interactive digital 3D animation.
was intended as a two-semester project has stretched to three years,
says Oakley, 51, a lifelong "Lincoln freak." He began staring at the
disputed image - part of a pair of stereoscopic images by Alexander
Gardner - in a bid to help a student identify faces in the wide crowd
shot. He soon found William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of State, and
remembered that accounts of the ceremony placed Seward close to Lincoln.
concluded that Lincoln had to be nearby. A closer look revealed the
16th president, or at least a blurry figure that many scholars say is
Oakley's advantage may come down not only to his visual
skills as an animator but also to dumb luck. In 2007, Richter tried
unsuccessfully to get the Library of Congress to grant him access to an
improved digital scan of the left-hand negative of Gardner's original
On a lark, Oakley surfed over to the library's
website, clicked its "Ask a Librarian" button and asked if they'd ever
produced a high-resolution image of the negative. They hadn't, a
librarian replied, but for $73 they would.
"It's the best $73 I
ever spent," Oakley says. A week later, he got the file. "As soon as I
had that in my hands, I was able to look at it much more clearly."
the end, "everything just fit," he says. The figure on horseback had
hair that was too long, a beard that was too full and epaulets on his
shoulders. Lincoln would have worn a plain overcoat. And he wouldn't
have been saluting the troops - that practice wasn't taken up by
presidents until more than 100 years later, when Ronald Reagan started
Smithsonian's Frail admits that the new
scholarship "doesn't change our understanding" of what happened at
Gettysburg, "but it may change our feeling of proximity."
says the find "clarifies the record just a bit," adding that he also
discovered what appears to be Gardner himself posing in his own photo
"like Alfred Hitchcock. He's standing very near the camera and is
That means Gardner's assistant, not Gardner himself, took the photo - which may be the biggest find of all.