Several years ago, during a 10-day trip to Washington, D.C., James and I took a bus tour to Gettysburg, the most iconic Civil War battlefield. I recall as a teenager reading about the high numbers of battlefield casualties in some of the fighting during the Civil War. I recall my sensations upon learning for the first time about the piles of bodies at Gettysburg, reading journal entries from the townspeople about the stench and the burial trenches. Trying to process the enormity of the number of deaths is something that we all came to terms with during our history classes.
Over 50,000 Americans were killed in those massive battles that spanned for days on a plot of land in Pennsylvania. Over the decades the war, and the cause for it, have become better understood with many books and lectures. When I had the opportunity to walk the battlefield and listen to a Civil War military expert speak of the efforts to secure a victory for the North the weight of the war from those days in 1863 when the heat of the sun and the smell of cannons along with the sound of muskets firing as men groaned in death came very much back to life. It is impossible to stand on that ground and not feel it all.
I had read long ago of the moldering bodies that still were present from the July battle when President Lincoln gave his address in November 19, 1863. (I write this post on the anniversary.) We passed the hotel where he stayed and saw the second-story window of the room where he finished his short speech. But to see the bluffs and hear the stories of battle and grasp how the winds blew that day and carried the smoke of cannon and musket, as bodies lay strewn about was most powerful.
While I have always loved history, my least favorite part of the past is the military engagements that occurred on the battlefield. How the people of the small town felt and reacted, or how the news of the battles was sent to Washington, and of course, the simple short, and exceedingly powerful message from President Lincoln afterward are the aspects of the story that most interested me. But to see the bluffs and hear the stories of battle and grasp how the winds blew that day and carried the smoke of cannon and musket, as bodies lay strewn about was most powerful.
Like everyone else that day as our tour bus moved about and made for stops the question most asked was exactly where did President Lincoln stand when he delivered the Gettysburg Address? The speech, which ran a mere 272 words, took about two minutes. It went so fast that the three photographers in attendance, “with their clunky wet-plate cameras, missed the moment entirely”.
The most famous of the photographs is attributed to David Bachrach, who was positioned in front of the speaker’s platform. Discovered in the 1950s by Josephine Cobb, an archivist at the National Archives, it remains the only undisputed image of Lincoln at Gettysburg — seemingly taking his seat on the platform hatless, his head bowed.
The photographers may have missed Lincoln’s speech, but sometimes they inadvertently captured one another, providing clues to their exact position. During a preview of his research, Oakley pulled up one of Gardner’s shots, zooming in on a window in the Evergreen gatehouse to point out a blurred figure and a box: the photographer Peter Weaver with his camera, he said.
Since the 19th century, scholars and armchair obsessives alike have pored over every aspect of the Gettysburg Address, from the meaning of its soaring rhetoric to the kind of paper Lincoln drafted it on.
Now, a researcher claims to have settled a question that can be seen, quite literally, as foundational: Where exactly did Lincoln stand?
Since the 1990s, visitors to Gettysburg National Cemetery have been told the hallowed spot actually lies just over an iron fence, in Evergreen Cemetery, the town’s burial ground. But Christopher Oakley, a former Disney animator turned Civil War sleuth, has combined intense analysis of 19th-century photographs with 21st-century 3-D modeling software to argue that Lincoln was standing inside the national cemetery after all.
To build his 3-D model, he entered a 3-D map made from geographic information system, or G.I.S., data and a Google satellite map into Maya, and then layered in the historical photographs. After years of trial and error, he said, when he toggled between each photograph and the corresponding camera positions in his model, everything finally lined up.
His research was unveiled on Friday at the Lincoln Forum, a gathering of some 300 scholars and enthusiasts who meet in Gettysburg each year, during the run-up to the official commemoration of Lincoln’s address on Nov. 19. As he clicked through his presentation, there were whispered “Wows,” capped with a standing ovation.
The skillset and determination that Oakley has employed allow for countless history buffs to take another large step forward in better understanding a question that has long been the center of debate in academic circles. There have been more books written about Abe Lincoln than any other president, and something tells me this research and its conclusions will make for yet one more. As it should!