The famous Gettysburg Address speech was so brief, history has no photographs of President Lincoln actually saying those oft-repeated words on November 19, 1863.
Although cameras were still new technology at the time, there was at least one official photographer on-site. After the previous speaker’s two-hour oratory, it is said the cameraman assumed Lincoln would also be addressing the crowd for quite some time. When the President completed his remarks after just about two minutes, the photographer was undoubtedly surprised, as he had completely missed getting a picture of the President on stage. The best we seem to have are the photos shown below.
While the fact that there are no pictures of the man talking, the truth is that America got lucky, as the speech itself almost didn’t even happen. It was just by chance that President Lincoln had the opportunity to make history on that cold November day in Pennsylvania, because he was actually a late addition to the schedule.
An account published in Lincoln at Gettysburg: An Address, by Colonel Clark E. Carr, noted, “It was finally decided to ask President Lincoln ‘after the oration’ (that is to say, after Mr. Everett’s oration), as chief executive of the nation, ‘to set apart formally these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.’ This was done, in the name of the governors of the States, as was the case with others, by Mr. Wills; but the invitation was not settled upon and sent to Mr. Lincoln until the second of November, more than six weeks after Mr. Everett had been invited to speak, and but a little more than two weeks before the exercises were held.”
In reality, the decision to go might have been even closer to the event. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on November 16, 1863, “The President has finally determined to attend the inauguration of the Gettysburg Cemetery, and has made arrangements for a special railroad train, in order to remain away as short a time as possible from Washington.”
The following day, the Inquirer wrote that, after his speech, “Mr Lincoln sat down amid a scene of wild and lengthened excitement,” although there were some people who were less than impressed by Honest Abe’s speech. No matter. While those folks’ names have been mostly forgotten, the Gettysburg Address — as it came to be known — has truly stood the test of time.
This photo shows President Lincoln in the crowd. Scroll down to see cropped versions of this picture!
Can you spot Lincoln?
Here, we have cropped the photo and enlarged it. Lincoln, seen without a hat, is directly just above the blurry hats, looking down — roughly in line with the tree branch just to the left of the center.
And here is the best close-up we can get of the man right around the time of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
This photo caption comes from the US Library of Congress: “Lincoln is pictured in the center of the platform, hatless with his bodyguard, Ward Lamon, and Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania. Lincoln’s private secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, orator Edward Everett, and Gettysburg attorney and organizer David Wills may be among those near the president.”
In a different picture, shown below, red arrows point to two different men theorized to be President Lincoln.
On the left, there is a man in a stovepipe hat, looking to the left and apparently seated on a horse (based on the fact that his head is significantly higher than those of the rest of the audience). On the right, the two arrows point to another man in the crowd, looking down and toward the left. Historians cannot agree which — if either — man is Lincoln.
More photos from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
Thousands of people attended the event, which was formally known as the dedication ceremonies at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.