GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Four score and 79 years ago this Saturday, Abraham Lincoln stood up in the newly dedicated cemetery for Union soldiers who fell at Gettysburg and delivered one of the most famous speeches in American history.
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.
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.
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.
In an interview before the presentation, Harold Holzer, the group’s chairman, called Oakley’s research “ingenious,” and catnip for members, for whom discovering the exact location “is as crucial as discovering where Moses got the Ten Commandments.”
And it’s not just important to the experts. Christopher Gwinn, the supervisory ranger for interpretation and education at Gettysburg National Military Park, said that where Lincoln stood was “the No. 1 question” visitors to the cemetery asked.
“In a certain sense, it’s inconsequential, but on the other hand it’s incredibly consequential,” he said. “When visitors come, they want to stand in the spot where Lincoln stood. It takes him from being that marble god at the memorial in Washington, D.C., and makes him flesh and blood.”
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Gwinn, who previewed Oakley’s research last month, called it “very compelling” but stopped short of endorsing it, saying he would wait for the sometimes fractious Civil War community to weigh in.
“I can already see them sharpening their knives,” he said.
Oakley, who teaches at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, standing in Gettysburg National Cemetery, in the spot where he believes that Lincoln stood.Credit…Andrew Mangum for The New York Times
Oakley, a former Disney animator who is now a professor of new media at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, has been “a Lincoln freak” since age 5. In high school, his first animation project was a Super 8 stop-motion re-enactment of the Lincoln assassination, starring G.I. Joe as the president and the Lone Ranger as John Wilkes Booth.
In 2013, Oakley drew headlines with the claim that he had discovered a previously unknown image of Lincoln at Gettysburg in a stereograph by Alexander Gardner — a tiny, blurred top-hatted profile, nearly lost in the crowd. That discovery (which is still debated) came about as part of the Virtual Lincoln Project, a continuing classroom effort to create a digital, photo-real animation of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address.
Talking about the effort, Oakley can exude a kind of grassy-knollish intensity. In fact, he said, he had been partly inspired by “Cold Case JFK,” a 2013 “Nova” documentary which used cutting-edge forensics, including a 3-D digital model of Dealey Plaza, to investigate different theories.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I could do the same thing!’” he said of Gettysburg. “The photos all triangulate with each other. Once you have three or four angles, you’ve got it.”
Lincoln wasn’t the main draw on Nov. 19, 1863, when the burial ground for more than 3,500 Union soldiers who had fallen in battle four months earlier was dedicated in front of a crowd of about 15,000. The headliner was Edward Everett, one of the nation’s most famous orators, who spoke for two hours. (The white tent near the speaker’s platform, visible in photographs and a key point in Oakley’s triangulation, was a comfort station for Everett, who had bladder issues.)
Originally, Lincoln’s address “was seen as a political speech,” Gwinn, the park service historian, said. “If you were a Democrat, you hated it. If you were a Republican, you loved it.”
The Democrat-aligned Illinois State Register, detecting arguments for Black equality in Lincoln’s proclamation of “a new birth of freedom,” was among the haters, declaring: “Nothing could have been more inappropriate than to have invited the prince of jokers, Old Abe, to be present at the consecration of the Gettysburg Cemetery.”
But by the 1890s, the words Lincoln predicted that posterity “would little note, nor long remember” had become American scripture, embraced by Northerners and Southerners alike. The Lincoln Address Memorial, dedicated in 1912, claimed that he had delivered it on the spot occupied by the Soldiers’ National Monument, an imposing 1869 neo-Classical pile topped by a figure representing Liberty.
Over the years, researchers have proposed alternate locations. In 1995, William C. Frassanito placed the speaker’s platform a few yards over the fence, in Evergreen, a claim that has been broadly accepted. Today, a plaque in the national cemetery, installed in 2020, keeps things vague, stating only that the location “is believed to be in Evergreen Cemetery, on the other side of the iron fence.”
For many in the tightknit world of Civil War photography, Frassanito, a self-taught scholar whose work has forced the revision of plenty of Gettysburg lore, is the last word. Reached by phone this week during his regular late-night office hours at the Reliance Mine Saloon, a local hangout across from the cemetery, he said he had “great faith” in Oakley’s research.
“His technology is very sophisticated,” Frassanito said. “I have no serious reason to challenge his conclusions.”
To pinpoint the location, Oakley merged analysis of 19th-century wet-plate photography — an innovative technology in Lincoln’s time — with Maya, a computer graphics software program widely used in the film industry.
He started with the six known photographs of the dedication ceremony, taken by three photographers, from four different vantage points. Then, by lining up landmarks visible in different shots — a flagpole, a poplar tree, the tent, the speaker’s platform (a tiny hump packed with people) — he established the precise location of the photographers’ cameras, which then allowed him to triangulate the location of the platform.
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 Library of Congress, 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.
Oakley’s research had its snarls, starting with the Bachrach photo. “That one took me three years to figure out,” he said.
For one thing, when he lined up the tops of people’s heads in his 3-D rendering, their feet were buried ankle-deep in the ground. Then, last month, he found a National Park Service report confirming than in 1934, the ground had been regraded, raising it about eight inches.
Oakley was also puzzled by a second shot by Weaver, taken from a since-demolished structure called the Duttera House. It was previously believed that Weaver’s camera had been in a second-floor window. But Oakley’s model suggested it had to have been three stories up.
A historic marker on the former site of the Duttera House showed a drawing of a two-story house. But was that the right house? Oakley tracked down a photograph from around 1900 that included the Duttera House. “Sure enough,” he said, “there was an attic window.”
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.
This sequence from Oakley’s model moves between a photograph taken that day by Alexander Gardner and Oakley’s 3-D re-creation, showing how the figures and details line up precisely. Credit: Library of Congress; Christopher Oakley.
According to his triangulation, the speaker’s platform was about 20 yards from Frassanito’s position, straddling the border between the national cemetery and Evergreen, where a fence was later erected. And instead of being a 12-by-20-foot rectangle as previously believed, Oakley determined that it was a larger trapezoid.
“There was no way in hell all those people were standing on a 12-by-20 platform,” he said of the dense crowd on the raised hump visible in photographs.
The 39 dignitaries known to have been there, he argues, were seated orchestra-style, in semicircular rows. And crucially, the spot where the speakers — including Lincoln — would have stood was on the national cemetery side of the fence.
Not everyone is sold on all his arguments about the platform. “I wasn’t quite as convinced on the shape,” said Garry Adelman, vice president of the Center for Civil War Photography and the chief historian of the American Battlefield Trust. “That’s a somewhat more radical suggestion.”
On Saturday afternoon, after the official commemoration of the 159th anniversary of the address, Oakley will lead a walking tour of both cemeteries, ending in the place where he thinks Lincoln stood. Then, as usual, he’ll bunk down in the Evergreen gatehouse, near the room where Weaver set up his camera.
Is he still welcome now that his research seems to have moved Lincoln back into the national cemetery?
Oakley laughed, noting that the caretaker is a good friend. “He’s fine with it,” Oakley said. “What matters is the truth.”