Christopher Oakley, an assistant professor of new media at UNC-Asheville, has been fascinated by Lincoln since age 5, when his kindergarten class had a portrait of the 16th president hanging from the wall. “I can remember sitting at my tiny little desk [with a] feeling that I knew him and that he was a nice man,” Oakley said. “From that point on, all you had to do is wave anything Lincoln in front of me, and I’m like the dog in the movie ‘Up,’” which instantly becomes distracted by a squirrel. Following many years as an animator for such companies as Disney and DreamWorks, Oakley began working with his students to digitally re-create the Gettysburg Address in 3-D. In order to make this “Virtual Lincoln Project” as realistic as possible, they used life casts of Lincoln’s face, took a fieldtrip to the battlefield, researched what the area used to look like and closely examined the few images of the event.
On March 5, well past midnight, Oakley recognized Secretary of State Seward in a stereoscopic photo—the 19th century equivalent of 3-D—that Alexander Gardner had taken of the Gettysburg ceremony. “He was a very peculiar looking man,” Oakley said of Seward. “He looked like a bird with a great big nose.” Knowing that Seward sat near Lincoln on the day of the speech, Oakley then examined a second, very similar Gardner photo. Though the right side of the negative was in bad condition, he saw a blurry new face upon enlarging the frame that he immediately identified as Lincoln’s. “I did a happy dance around my studio in disbelief,” Oakley said, laughing. To confirm his theory, he clicked the Library of Congress’ “Ask a Librarian” icon and requested a high-resolution scan of the left side of the negative. For $73, he was able to get it within about a week-and-a-half. When he compared this clearer image of Lincoln with a famous portrait taken 11 days before the Gettysburg Address, “the nose, the heavy brow, the high cheek bones, the eyes, the ears, the hair line, everything was matching,” Oakley said.
One problem: Back in 2007 fellow amateur historian John J. Richter had already fingered a different Lincoln in the two Gardner photos. Richter, who had asked for but never received the high-resolution scan, believed that the president could be seen atop a horse wearing white gloves and a top hat. In one of the shots, Richter’s Lincoln appears to be saluting. But until Ronald Reagan, no commander in chief is thought to have greeted the troops in that way. Oakley furthermore argued that the man on horseback wore military epaulets on his shoulders, something the real Lincoln never would have done; that he lacked a mourning band on his hat, which the real Lincoln donned in remembrance of a dead son; and that his hair was too long, his neck was too short and his beard was too full. “My personal belief is Alexander Gardner was not trying to photograph Lincoln at that time,” Oakley explained. “He was just trying to get a crowd shot and show the pageantry of the event.”
Oakley brought his findings to Smithsonian magazine, which first reported on the discovery this week. He also consulted a number of top experts. Many, including at least one who had previously endorsed Richter’s claim, now think Oakley is correct. Yet Richter retains a group of supporters. In an interview, he stated his belief that Gardner had specifically targeted the president in that day’s shoot. “It’s unusual in Civil War photography to have 2 photographs so close together,” said Richter, director of imaging at the Center for Civil War Photography. “Why would he [do that] if he was just taking generic crowd shots?” He added that the man on horseback was not wearing either a marshal’s sash or a military hat, and was therefore a civilian. Rather that saluting, he might be tipping his cap or waving, Richter asserted. “You take it in context, and in my mind the circumstantial evidence points to Lincoln,” he said.
The debate is not likely to conclude any time soon. “Bottom line: Neither one can be proven conclusively, with 100 percent ironclad documentation,” Bob Zeller, president of the Center for Civil War Photography and co-author of a book with Richter, wrote in an email. “So it will always be a matter of opinion.”