Lincoln photo claim sets off debate among scholars

ASHVILLE, N.C.

Using the latest in computer technology, professor Christopher Oakley and his students at the University of North Carolina at Ashville are creating a virtual Abraham Lincoln.

No photograph has ever been found of Lincoln delivering his most famous speech. Oakley, a former Disney animator, says their mission is to fill that historical gap.

"We are trying to bring him back to life, so he can deliver the Gettysburg Address," Oakley says.

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The man Christopher Oakley has identified as Abraham Lincoln in a photograph taken by Alexander Gardner on Nov. 19, 1863 at Gettysburg.
To re-create the stage, they're studying photos taken just before the speech was delivered. While studying one, Oakley zoomed in and stumbled upon a discovery.

Oakley says when he first saw the image, his reaction was, "No way."

"And I pushed myself away from the desk and did my historian happy dance," he says. "Running around my studio, hyperventilating, going, 'Yeah! No, it can't be. Yeah!'"

To confirm his theory that the image is Lincoln, Oakley superimposed a photograph taken just 11 days before the speech.

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"The ears match, the nose matches, the beard matches, the hairline matches," Oakley points out.

In the insular world of Lincoln scholars, Oakley's claim hit like a cannon ball, because previously, it was widely accepted that another person in the same photograph was Lincoln – a man on a horse, wearing a stove pipe hat, about 40 feet away from Oakley's Lincoln.

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The man Bob Zeller identifies as Abraham Lincoln in the same Nov. 19, 1863 photo taken by Alexander Gardner.

Bob Zeller, president of the Center for Civil War Photography, has seen all of Oakley's evidence and still believes Lincoln is the man on the horse.

"What little we know about Lincoln arriving at the ceremony before the Gettysburg Address was that he was on horseback and that he was wearing white riding gloves and that he paused to accept the salute of the troops," Zeller says.

Both men agree that any debate about Lincoln at Gettysburg is a good thing, if it brings attention to what he said there: "that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."


  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.