Civil War Journal: The Pictorial Transformation of Abraham Lincoln

While we are on the topic of Abraham Lincoln and who will portray him in To Appomattox, I wanted to take a step back to a presentation I had to give in my Art History class this past spring. We were asked to choose any artist from the 19th or 20th century, and due to my interest in the Civil War (and already existing material for the lectures I give on battles for one of the jobs I work), I chose Mathew Brady and his war-time photography. One could argue that the War Between the States gave birth to American photography, as the up-and-coming technology finally had a purpose. Before that, shots were only taken of politicians or anyone wealthy enough to sit for a photograph. Few shots of nature sprung up, but that all changed when the fall of 1862 came around, and the Civil War was reaching the height of its destruction. Mathew Brady took some of the very first pictures in history of dead soldiers on a battlefield, when he arrived in Antietam only a few days after both armies lost a combined total of 22,000 men in just one day (twelve hours) of fighting.

As important as those shots were, I have chosen to focus on something different in this article—the next four years will provide ample opportunity to explore all aspects of the war that divided the nation. Instead, I would like to examine only two pictures taken by Mathew Brady of President Abraham Lincoln, one in 1860 and then one more in 1865. In just those five years, Lincoln underwent a transformation even worse than what modern-day presidents go through in regards to their physical features changing due to the stress. The change was so startling that when I went back and forth between the two slides to show the class I was presenting to, there were even some low, but audible, gasps, as perhaps they had never quite realized how bad Lincoln looked near the end.

Below is a picture taken in 1860, before Lincoln was even elected, and shortly after a debate in February of that year. This one photograph helped to sell Lincoln to the United States, because as you can see, Lincoln looks nothing like a politician. He isn’t particularly good-looking, but there’s no arrogance about him, and he seems rather homely or folksy. But along with all that stands a rather tall man who is no doubt proud of his accomplishments, and someone who is very earnest and honest looking (“Honest Abe” ring a bell?). His hand perched on a book gives away his lawyer profession, but without even speaking a word, we can tell that justice is in his eyes. Lastly, there is still some youthfulness left in this 51-year-old.

Now comes one of the most famous pictures of Lincoln, which chances are you have seen, but maybe never really looked at closely. On its own, it really isn’t that startling, but when compared with a shot taken just five years earlier, it truly is amazing, even saddening. In the picture below, taken on April 10, 1865, just four days before his assassination and one day after the Union finally triumphed over the Confederacy with Robert E. Lee surrendering at Appomattox, Brady was asked to take one more photograph of the victorious president; despite all the rigors the presidency had on him, we can see a look of victory in his face hidden in the wrinkles that formed over time, and the graying of his hair. Here, Lincoln is sitting, some sagging in his once strong and broad shoulders, and once again looking directly into the lens of the camera, but there is no earnest look this time, just one of peace. One could say he looks defeated, which could be true because of his health, but if you look closely, you can see a little grin forming in his mouth (something that was not often captured in pictures of the time), and it is almost as if he knows that his time is up. He looks at the camera as if to say, “I have done my job. It is time for me to go.” Lincoln had ended slavery, and even though he did not set out to do that when the war began, it clearly became prioritized and one of the goals of his presidency. He had saved the Union and ended the scourge of bondage, and now it was time for him to leave this earth.I have heard it said at a lecture on Lincoln’s life in the White House that, “John Wilkes Booth did not assassinate Lincoln, he simply put him out of his misery.” Having to deal with the death of two young children, and his wife, Mary Todd, who was never stable mentally after that, took quite a toll on him. That and the fact that he constantly waited for any bit of news about the war, sometimes staying at the telegraph office all night to hear casualty reports of battle. As I have said earlier, I never was a fan of his politics as president, but as a man, there may not be a more fascinating American than Abraham Lincoln, and these two pictures are just a small part of the legacy he has left us.

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2 Responses to Civil War Journal: The Pictorial Transformation of Abraham Lincoln

  1. The grin is always what draws me to this photo. And it’s on purpose. The reason people didn’t grin in these early photos is the length of time it took to make the exposure. Very impossible to hold a steady smile–a real smile–without twitching for that length of time. I think, however, Abe had a lot to smile about at this particular moment.

  2. Great column , I’m going to spend more time researching this topic

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