Abraham Lincoln aged significantly during the Civil War, unsurprising to those who were close to him. “[H]e was in mind, body and nerves a very different man” in 1865 than in 1861, wrote his secretary, John Hay. The war wasn’t his only burden. He was grappling, politically and morally, with how to eradicate slavery, an issue deeply dividing the nation. And in early 1862, the death of his 11-year-old son Willie in the White House caused the president profound sorrow. Photographs taken of Lincoln between 1859 and 1865 reveal how increasingly careworn he became.
October 4, 1859
Lincoln may have lost the 1858 U.S. Senate race to rival Stephen Douglas, but their famed debates had raised his national profile. So while he went back to his Illinois legal practice in 1859, Lincoln also spent time that year campaigning for fellow Midwest Republicans, growing his political influence as he increasingly decried the expansion of slavery into new territories.
In the fall, Lincoln sat for this photo in a Chicago gallery. His wife thought it was the best likeness she had ever seen of her husband.
“It shows him as he was, previous to his first nomination [as president], and just as his old friends remember him,” said gallery co-owner D.B. Cook after Lincoln’s death.
June 3, 1860
Shortly after winning the Republican presidential nomination as a dark horse candidate, a beardless Lincoln sat for four photographs by Alexander Hesler. The youthful-looking candidate did not grow a beard until after his election in November 1860.
"That picture gives a very fair representation of my homely face," Lincoln told a reporter.
Months later, Lincoln was still youthful in body and spirit. “His hair and whiskers are very dark, likewise his eyebrows, which are heavy,” a New York newspaper wrote. “…He smiles at the least provocation, and discharges a battery of pleasant sayings, in a quaint way, almost incessantly.”
May 16, 1861
In this famous Mathew Brady image—one of six taken of the president that day—Lincoln poses pensively. One month earlier, southern rebels had bombarded Fort Sumter, launching the Civil War. Two months into his presidency, nine states had already seceded to form the Confederacy.
Two days after the bombardment, the president called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the rebellion—a conflict many Americans believed would be over by Christmas. So far, few had died in battle.
But the bloodletting at the first major battle of the war, at Bull Run (4,878 casualties) on July 21, would stun Lincoln and the public. Much worse was to come.
October 3, 1862
Nearly three weeks after the Battle of Antietam—the bloodiest single day of the Civil War—Lincoln visited the western Maryland battlefield. Freshly dug graves and burned bodies of horses presented a ghastly tableau.
Later that day, Lincoln reviewed Union troops and posed for Alexander Gardner for a series of group photographs with his commanders and others near the Antietam battlefield. Nearly 18 months into the war, soldiers were struck by the president’s appearance.
“We could see the deep sadness on his face,” a Union officer recalled, “and feel the burden on his heart.” Not only was the president deeply pained by massive battlefield losses of America’s young men, but in February of that year, he had lost his young son Willie to typhoid fever—his second child to die. For Lincoln, prone to depression his whole life, the anguish of grief had made 1862 a dark year indeed.
The frustrations of commanding the war from inside the White House weighed on Lincoln, who was anxious to end the conflict. When top general George McClellan ignored his directive to aggressively pursue Robert E. Lee’s retreating forces following Antietam, Lincoln fired him.
And if all that wasn’t enough, less than two weeks earlier, Lincoln had issued a preliminary version of his Emancipation Proclamation, which promised freedom for the nearly 4 million enslaved Black Americans. He knew the decree, which reflected his deep moral beliefs, would unleash intense political backlash.
November 8, 1863
Gettysburg Address, Lincoln sat for this portrait by Alexander Gardner. Deep lines creased his forehead and heavy bags appeared underneath his eyes.
The war was dragging on far longer than he had ever anticipated. Although Union forces saw victory at Gettysburg that summer and Ulysses S. Grant’s successful siege at Vicksburg had effectively given the Union control of the Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two, the outcome of the war was far from certain. The Confederate army had laid siege to Knoxville, Tennessee, and Lee's army remained a major threat in the East. Personally, the war hit home that September when Lincoln lost his brother-in-law, a Confederate officer, at Chickamauga.
Walt Whitman, the poet and journalist, often saw the president riding in a carriage through Washington during this period. “I see very plainly Abraham Lincoln's dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression,” he wrote in his journal.
February 9, 1864
At 3 p.m., Lincoln and artist Francis B. Carpenter walked from the White House for a sitting in Mathew Brady’s Pennsylvania Avenue studio. Among the photographs created of the president was this one, later imprinted on the $5 bill.
At the time, Lincoln did not just face military challenges. As the war dragged on, anti-Lincoln sentiment grew in the North and South. The president was not even sure if he would be nominated by his own Republican party for re-election as president in November.
“If it shall be made to appear in any way that the elements upon which the salvation of the country is to depend can be better combined by dismissing me, the country can have no difficulty in getting rid of me,” he said in a February 1864 speech in Philadelphia.
In 1895, Robert Lincoln, the president’s eldest son, called this Brady image the “most satisfactory likeness” of his father.
February 5, 1865
When Lincoln sat for this photograph at Alexander Gardner’s studio on 7th Street in Washington, the Civil War was hurtling toward a conclusion. The immense stress of his job clearly had taken a toll on the president, who had won his second term and would turn 56 in seven days.
“His face was haggard with care and seamed with thought and trouble,” Lincoln friend Horace Greeley, a newspaper publisher, remarked about this period. “It looked care-ploughed, tempest-tossed and weatherbeaten.”
On the battlefields, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman’s army was marching through South Carolina while the forces under Ulysses Grant—the Union Army’s overall commander—threatened Petersburg, Virginia. If it were to fall, the nearby Confederate capital of Richmond would not be far behind.
After Richmond fell on April 3, 1865, Lincoln seemed refreshed, with “neatly combed hair and whiskers.” Twelve days later, the president was dead.