Lincoln Photo in Focus

New Media Project Gives New Insight into Historic Event at Gettysburg

There are only six known photographs of the events at the Gettysburg cemetery taken on the day Abraham Lincoln delivered his famed address in 1863. So Assistant Professor of New Media Christopher Oakley and his students in their continuing work on The Virtual Lincoln Project expanded their research to look closely at those photos with a goal of setting a more realistic scene for their 3-D animation of the 16th president. 

Oakley obtained a scan of the Alexander Gardner image, which allowed him to zoom in on the fuzzy figure of Lincoln. He overlaid a known image of the president to confirm the identification.  Photo credit: Alexander Gardner, November 19, 1863. Dedication ceremonies at the Soldiers’ National cemetery, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division ID: LC-DIG-ds-04063u. Graphic by 5W infographics.

The photos show the actual setting at Gettysburg, and with his discerning eye, Oakley found an additional rare surprise—what many experts believe is the president himself where he had not been previously identified. Smithsonian magazine says Oakley has made “the most significant, if not the most provocative, Abraham Lincoln photo find of the last 60 years.”

“I was looking at Seward [Lincoln’s Secretary of State] in the picture, and I was not looking for Lincoln at all,” said Oakley. “As an animator, I’m trained to look at and study movement. And in the first of Alexander Gardner’s photos, I could see Seward from the side, and I knew who was around him. And in the second Gardner photo, someone new had entered. My eye drifted to him, and it hit me. I jumped up saying ‘No way—it can’t be!’ I’ve been staring at Lincoln’s face for decades, and that night at 3 a.m., he looked back.”

Oakley’s fascination with Lincoln started in kindergarten and has only grown stronger. He has collected life casts of the late president’s face that his students now use as models for The Virtual Lincoln Project. And he’s visited Gettysburg several times, taking students along for the adventure on a recent trip. 

“It was a unique experience because we were making all these things [virtually] that we hadn’t seen with our own eyes besides the pictures online,” said Hagen Carringer, a senior new media student. “Then when you’re actually there and see how similar it is…when you’re standing right where Lincoln stood, allegedly, it all just comes together.”

Allegedly becomes the key word in their research because of the sometimes inaccurate accounts of the scene. The UNC Asheville researchers recently added a few of their own corrections to the chronicle. They have demonstrated that there were two speaker platforms at Gettysburg, not one, and that the seats were in curved, auditorium-style rows, not straight lines as previously depicted. The new sighting of Lincoln in one of the photographs remains the most contested discovery. 

That’s because other scholars already had claimed to establish that a different man in the same photo was Lincoln, and that claim had landed them on the front page of USA Today only six years ago. After spying Lincoln’s admit-tedly fuzzy profile in the ‘wrong’ place, Oakley did what he calls a “historian’s happy dance.” And in the months that followed, he employed his deep knowledge of Lincoln, and the high-tech tools of new media, computer science and physics to make a case that has convinced many leading scholars of Civil War photography and brought media attention from USA Today, the New York Times and the History Channel.

Students like Carringer believe that Oakley has the real Lincoln, having seen his evidence and based on their own intimacy with Honest Abe. “We’re constantly having to look at him from a 3-D perspective from all angles, and his profile is so distinct,” he said. “It is spot on.” 

But Oakley wants more scientific corroboration. “The next piece is to go back to the cemetery and go old school—to take everything we’ve learned with our new media technology, our science, and go test it with props and sets, the camera equipment of the time and see if we can re-create that moment and those photos,” he said. “That will tell us if we’re right or wrong.”


I read the article in the Smithsonian magazine about professor Oakley's finding Lincoln in the crowd sitting or standing next to Secretary of State, Steward at Gettysburg. It is an interesting article disputing previous observations of Lincoln in the crowd.

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