These recently released photos show Abe Lincoln like you’ve never seen him before
Abraham Lincoln may be your favorite President, and perhaps you think you know him well. But new photos of the Great Emancipator have surfaced from the National Archives that show us a different side of Lincoln. In honor of his 210th birthday, we’ve also included his first photograph ever and his last known photograph among other rare images. These finds offer a new look into the untold life of America’s favorite President.
Can you see President Lincoln in this photo?
The below photograph is what researchers have to work with. Believe it or not, President Lincoln is in this photograph. Given the state of the photograph, the dense crowd, and it barely being in focus, you can probably understand why it took 150 years to find him in this picture!
Charles Oakley – a former animator for Disney – was studying this photograph, looking for dignitaries when he made a startling discovery. This photograph was taken on November 19, 1863, when Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address. There wasn’t much time to snap a photograph of him because his speech was about two minutes, and there was only one known photograph of him speaking – until now.
Finding the needle in a haystack
No way!” Oakley yelled as he magnified the bearded man with the stovepipe hat, “that’s him!” First, Oakley was able to find Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, who was known to have stood next to the President during the speech. Using facial recognition technology he was able to confirm the Secretary, then set his sites on the tall drink of water beside him.
Thanks to dedicated photographers like Oakley, we’re getting a fresh glimpse into the life of Lincoln. The first photograph of him was taken less than 20-years after the first photograph ever was taken. More and more photos were taken of him as he grew up and the field of photography grew as well.
Lincoln’s log cabin
This photograph was taken 119 years ago in the year 1900, and Getty, along with the Library of Congress, say that this is the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. But the cabin pictured here, which can still be visited today at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Park, was actually built in the 1840s.
Lincoln was the first President to be born outside the original 13 states, and given that he came into this world in a one-room home we can count his origins as humble. By the time this cabin was built Lincoln was in his early 30s, and as of 1842, he had finished up his eight-year stint in the Illinois House of Representatives.
First known photograph of Abraham Lincoln
Nicholas H. Shepard took this photograph of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois in 1846, and historians have generally agreed that it’s the first photograph ever taken of him. By this time in his life, Lincoln was 37-years-old and it was taken after he won a seat in the United States Congress.
Lincoln was a self-taught lawyer and already had the nickname “Honest Abe” when this photograph was taken. This first stint in national politics didn’t agree with him, as he only served one term as the representative of Illinois’ 7th District. He vowed to only serve one-term because of his stance against the Mexican War, which made him widely unpopular.
Lincoln comes back and has his photo taken
This photograph by J.C.F. Polycarpus von Schneidau of Abraham Lincoln shows a clean-shaven, still young-looking 45-year-old man. It was taken in 1854, which was the year Lincoln was dragged back into national politics. That year the Kansas-Nebraska Act was signed into law, allowing citizens of the two new states to vote for themselves if they wanted to allow slavery.
Lincoln, who was always an enemy of slavery, debated his political rival – Democrat Stephen Douglas – in front of a large crowd in Illinois over this issue. It was the first of several debates between the two men, who never got along. That was probably because they both courted the Kentucky belle, Mary Todd, but it was Lincoln who won her heart.
Photographer Alexander Hesler tried to straighten up Lincoln’s hair before it was taken, but after repeated attempts, Lincoln ruffled it up again like a small child. Lincoln was known for his sense of humor, and it was noted at some point by nearly everyone that came into contact with him.
“Mr. Lincoln abounded in anecdotes,” said James C. Conkling, a longtime colleague of Lincoln’s. “Of which he seemed to possess an inexhaustible fund… His stories, though rude, were full of wit… He generally laughed as loudly as others at his own witticisms, and provoked laughter as much by the quizzical expression of his homely features…”
Lincoln gave his ‘house divided’ speech
His hair may have changed for this photograph by Preston Butler in 1858, but those are definitely Abraham Lincoln’s chiseled cheekbones. He looks a bit more somber in this photograph, and that may be because 1858 is when Abraham Lincoln finally got his chance on the national stage.
After trying for three years, Lincoln finally secured the Republican nomination for Senator of Illinois, which pitted him against his old rival Stephen Douglas. On June 16, 1858, Lincoln gave a speech that said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” The speech would go to live in infamy, but Lincoln lost the election to Douglas.
Going back home for an old friend
While national politics brought Lincoln back into the fold in 1858, he still had one piece of business he had to attend to. An old friend of his, a man named William “Duff” Armstrong, had been accused of murder and Lincoln took the case on pro bono.
Lincoln successfully cross-examined a witness that said he saw Duff kill the victim at a distance of 150-feet, and at night. Lincoln used an almanac to prove that there wasn’t enough moonlight on the night in question for the witness to have seen the defendant. Duff was acquitted, and this photograph was taken just after the trial’s conclusion.
Lincoln’s smile shows through
Lincoln posed for this portrait in 1858, and given how the encounter went with photographer Samuel Alschuler, historians agree that there is a faint indication of a smirk by Mr. Lincoln. According to reports, Alschuler didn’t think much of Lincoln’s old linen duster jacket, so he lent him his velvet-collared jacket.
The only problem was that Alschuler was about a foot shorter than the abnormally tall, 6’4″ Abraham Lincoln. Evidently, Lincoln had a quite a laugh when he put on the comically small jacket and is said to have commented that his arms ran, “about a quarter of a yard” passed the sleeves.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s favorite photograph
When this photograph was taken in 1859, Lincoln had recently been defeated by Stephen Douglas for a seat in the Senate, but he did so well in the campaign that his stature nationally grew like wildfire. The Republican party was in its infancy, and Lincoln saw an opportunity to rise in the new national party.
On his way to national fame, he paused for a moment to have this portrait taken. It seemed to capture his face perfectly because it became Mary Todd Lincoln’s favorite photo of her husband. One of the photographers that owned the studio where it was taken said, “Mrs. Lincoln pronounced [it] the best likeness she had ever seen of her husband.”
If the previous photograph was Mary Todd’s favorite, it was probably the photo below that was Lincoln’s favorite. It was taken on the same day he delivered a rousing speech to New York City’s Cooper Union (February 27, 1860), which helped him secure the Republican nomination for president three months later.
There’s some evidence to suggest that the photograph may have been altered to make Lincoln appear younger. Whether that’s true or not Lincoln loved this photograph, as it was used during the election of 1860. Lincoln is said to have attributed his victory to the photographer and the speech, saying, “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president.”
Just five years between these photos
Given how young Lincoln looks in the 1860 photo at left, we just had to put it side by side with a photograph of Lincoln just over five years later and taken just days before he was assassinated. Anyone thinking about running for president should take note because the physical toll on Lincoln was horrendous.
Between the time of the two photos, the United States fought its most bloody conflict ever, and 620,000 American soldiers died. That led to a number of sleepless nights, as the president was known to suffer from insomnia. He was also such a workaholic that he frequently skipped meals, which contributed to a rapidly aging state that made him look 20 years older than he was when he died.
Lincoln grew his first beard because of an 11-year-old girl’s letter
The previous photograph, taken in early 1860, may have been the last time Lincoln was photographed without facial hair. Here we see Lincoln in November 1860, the same month that he won the presidency with just 40 percent of the popular vote (though in the Electoral College his victory was much more defined), with what appears to be the beginning of a beard.
In case you hadn’t noticed, Lincoln had never worn facial hair before, and only started growing a beard when he received a letter from an 11-year-old girl named Grace Bedell. She suggested he grow one to hide his “thin-face” and because “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”
“Most valuable Lincoln photo in existence”
The below photograph is believed to have been taken sometime between March and June of 1861 and is widely known as the first photograph taken of Lincoln as president. After a few months, his beard grew in quite nicely, which was a big relief to him.
Lincoln wrote Grace Bedell back to ask, “As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it now?” It wasn’t silly, and this photograph now lives in infamy, as it is known as the “the most valuable Lincoln photo in existence,” having sold at an auction in 2009 for over $200,000.
Lincoln and McClellan did not get along
When Lincoln was inaugurated in January of 1861, conflict was almost inevitable as seven states had already seceded from the Union in protest of the 1860 presidential election results. Three months later, the Civil War began when armies under the newly formed Confederate States of America attacked the Union stronghold, Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor.
This photograph of President Lincoln was taken in 1862 and he’s in the field with his least favorite soldier – General George McClellan. Lincoln pressed McClellan hard to attack and pursue the Confederate army but ended up sacking McClellan on November 5, 1862 for McClellan’s repeated defiance of his orders.
Lincoln after the Battle of Antietam
Here we see another photograph of President Lincoln and General McClellan not getting along after McClellan failed to pursue the Confederate army, after narrowly defeating them at the Battle of Antietam. Just to give you an idea of what company McClellan kept, consider that George Armstrong Custer – a member of McClellan’s staff, is standing furthest to the right.
The Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, was barely a victory but gave Lincoln the window he needed to present the Emancipation Proclamation three months later. As for McClellan, he tried to oust Lincoln when he became the Democrat nominee for president in 1864, which was an election he lost…by a lot.
Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address
For 150 years, this was believed to be the only photograph of President Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, but Charles Oakley proved that wrong in 2013. For the speech itself, Lincoln had an unusual way of preparing. As he had time to think about his speeches, he would just write little scraps and keep them at his desk.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin later said that “When the time came for the speech, he’d just pick these little thoughts out [and] somehow he managed to get the Gettysburg Address from those scraps.” Lincoln thought the speech was a disaster but he was wrong, and at his funeral Senator Charles Sumner said, “The battle itself was less important than the speech.”
The only photograph of Lincoln and Booth
Lincoln defeated his former general turned rival, George McClellan in the election of 1864, and this photograph captures Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address on March 5, 1865. There he stands in front of the Capitol Building (which didn’t have a dome then, by the way), but there’s someone else in this photograph that historians were shocked to see.
Just above Lincoln in the grandstand over Lincoln’s left shoulder is his future assassin, John Wilkes Booth. In case you’re wondering why he didn’t try to kill him right there, it’s because he was deeply involved in a plot to kidnap the president and bring him to Richmond. When the plot failed, Wilkes chose a more direct approach to getting rid of the president.
An early look at the Secret Service
This photograph taken by Alexander Gardner shows the President flanked to the right by Major General John A. McClernand, while Allan Pinkerton – who created the Pinkerton National Detective Agency – stands on the left. Lincoln was in Pinkerton’s debt already, for having foiled an assassination plot during Lincoln’s first inauguration.
While the US government paid Pinkerton to protect the president, they weren’t exactly 24-hour guards like today’s Secret Service. In fact, it was Lincoln who created the Secret Service, and in a sick sort of irony the day he signed the bill that created the agency, April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated.
“Nicolay and Hay”
According to biographers, Lincoln often entertained friends and guests in the Red Room of the White House after he ate dinner. In this instance, we may be looking at a work meeting, as the man on the left is Lincoln’s personal secretary, John G. Nicolay, and the man on the right is Lincoln’s Assistant Secretary, John Hay.
Nicolay and Hay had been friends since childhood, and were so close to Lincoln that they later published the 10-volume biography, “Abraham Lincoln: A History.” While the title certainly lacks panache, a lot of what we know about Lincoln came from these two men. Lincoln also rubbed off on them, as Hay would become Secretary of State in 1898.
Photography got Abraham Lincoln elected
Alexander Gardner managed to capture many photographs of President Lincoln, including this profile shot, as he was given special access after he opened up a photography studio in Washington DC in 1863. This was Gardner’s chance to go out on his own, having previously been employed by the man who created the most expansive collection of Civil War photos, Matthew Brady.
Not only did Lincoln credit Brady with getting him elected for the 35 portraits he circulated of him, but Brady is the reason why the Civil War became the first war to be captured in photographs. Sadly, Brady would die penniless after investing his entire fortune into producing photos that nobody in the country wanted to see.
Gardner’s finest work
When Gardner opened up his studio in Washington DC, he begged the president to become his first subject. Lincoln agreed, but sneaked in on a Sunday to avoid, “curiosity seekers and other seekers.” This is the photograph he took on that day, as there is just the slightest notion of levity in the president’s face.
Gardner gave up photography at the war’s conclusion. After he died, his Civil War photographs came under intense scrutiny when it was revealed that he had moved soldiers bodies to create more dramatic images. Today, his photographs of Lincoln are considered the finest work he ever produced.
Brady takes more photos of Lincoln for the election of 1864
This portrait of Lincoln was one of the last taken in Matthew Brady’s studio. It was snapped in 1864 and was used for his presidential campaign that year. Though Lincoln won in a landslide, he only secured the victory after General Sherman won a stunning victory for the Union when he captured Atlanta.
After years of a bloody stalemate, and at a time when the Battle of Gettysburg was not seen as the major turning point in the war (Lincoln was actually furious with his commander for not pursuing Lee and the Confederate Army when they retreated South), the news of the fall of Atlanta, coming just two months before the election, was the boost Lincoln needed to win the campaign of 1864.
Matthew Brady’s collection today
Below is a photograph of a researcher holding what Getty calls, “one of America’s most priceless negatives.” It is the actual glass plate negative Matthew Brady used to produce one of the most famous photographs of Abraham Lincoln. Brady may have died penniless in 1896, but he did manage to find a buyer for his photographs.
Though his photographs were popular in American newspapers during the war, afterward nobody wanted them. That changed in 1875, when the US Congress, recognizing that his collection was an essential historical record of the war, paid him $25,000 for all of it. Today it is stored in the National Archives in Washington DC.
Abraham and “Tad” Lincoln
The below photograph reveals the exclusive access that Andrew Gardner had with the President. Here we see Lincoln and his son “Tad” photographed in February 1865, less than a month before his second inauguration. Sadly, Lincoln lost a son while he was in office, as his 11-year-old boy, Willy, died from typhoid fever exactly three years before this picture was taken.
Tad outlived his father, but not by much, unfortunately. But here we see them having a fun moment, as both seem to be happy. Tad was the playful type, and earned his nickname when he was a baby because he was, “as wiggly as a tadpole.”
Last photographs of Lincoln?
The below photograph was taken on April 9, 1865, by none other than Andrew Gardner. There’s some discrepancy here as some reports indicate the photograph was taken in February. Also, for many decades it was considered one in a series that claimed to be the last-known photos of Lincoln while he was still alive.
If it was indeed taken on April 9th, then Lincoln posed for the photograph just five days before he was killed. On April 14, 1865, a successful actor and disgruntled Southerner named John Wilkes Booth sneaked past lackadaisical security at Ford’s Theater in Washington DC, and assassinated President Lincoln during a production of “Our American Cousin.”
The actual last photograph of Lincoln
Walt Whitman once described Lincoln’s facial expression as, “a deep latent sadness,” and this photograph more than any other seems to capture that mood. It wasn’t until 1894 that it was realized that this is the actual final photograph of Lincoln, as diary entries from “Nicolay and Hay” reveal the truth.
This photograph was taken on April 10, 1865, just four days before he was assassinated. According to Nicolay and Hay, it was taken by photographer Henry F. Warren on the south portico of the White House. The surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse occurred just one day earlier, meaning Lincoln got to enjoy exactly five days without war before he died.
Lincoln’s funeral photograph
The nation was absolutely shocked to learn about the death of their president, as Lincoln was the first to be assassinated. The below image are two photographs side-by-side, that depict Lincoln’s funeral procession down Pennsylvania Avenue on April 19, 1865. The reason why the image appears like a double is the result of what early photographers called, “stereo plate.”
By taking two images, side-by-side (or about the distance between two eyeballs), and then placing them on top of each other photographers were able to create depth. This was most certainly done in this case, as Lincoln was kept in Washington DC for a week before being taken to Springfield, Illinois where he was buried.
Lincoln’s funeral train
On April 21, 1865, a train called, “The Lincoln Special,” loaded with Lincoln’s body departed Washington DC in a two-week trek that would ultimately lead him back to Illinois. This photograph was taken in Philadelphia, as the train snaked its way through the country so citizens in over 180 US cities could say goodbye.
The journey spanned over 1,600 miles and capped off what became a three-week funeral. In Philadelphia, where this photo was taken, Lincoln’s coffin was placed on the east wing of Independence Hall, which was the same place where the Declaration of Independence had been signed nearly a century before.
A lasting tribute
Ground was broken on the Lincoln Memorial in February 1914, and wouldn’t be completed until May 1922. Today, visitors can read his two best speeches, which are engraved in the walls of the surrounding building. His Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Speech are two of his shortest speeches, as the Gettysburg Address is less than 300 words, and his Second Inaugural speech was only six minutes long.
Short and sweet is the lesson there, and probably necessary if you’re compiling your speeches from scraps of paper that capture random thoughts. But as the Great Emancipator and defender of the Constitution, Lincoln somehow managed to use very few words to convey some of the most complex ideas ever thought by man.