Looking For Lincoln

Former Disney animator and President Lincoln fan Christopher Oakley never thought his project to animate the Gettysburg Address would lead to an important historical discovery. But while researching the project, Oakley used his animation skills and new technology to discover a never-before-seen image of Lincoln at Gettysburg, also revealing that an image everyone thought was of Lincoln, was not.

Kindergarten marks an important milestone in a child’s development. Longer times away from home, learning to work together and play with others, learning and reinforcing basic knowledge of shapes, colors, letters and numbers. It’s an important time.

For Christopher Oakley, kindergarten meant something even more.

"When I was five-years-old, I remember sitting in kindergarten class, looking at pictures of presidents on the wall, and we had Washington and Lincoln back at that time,” says Oakley, looking off in the distance as if looking back in time. “And I remember staring at the painting of Lincoln and thinking I knew him and he was a nice man. And I have no idea where this thought came from.”

It was a life-changing moment, even for a five-year-old. From then on, Oakley was fascinated by the 16th president and tried to learn everything he could about him. That explains why there is a collection of Lincoln memorabilia in his office at UNC-Asheville, where he teaches new media, including life casts of Lincoln’s hands and face as well as photos and books. It also explains why the former animator for Disney, and other studios, is collaborating with his students on what is called the Virtual Lincoln project. It’s an ambitious and innovative effort to animate the Gettysburg Address. The project has taken two years so far.

“It would be a great way to introduce the speech to children,” says Oakley, "but it takes an enormous amount of research, including looking at the historical record, the written record and the photographic record of what happened at that time.”

Only six photos of the day Lincoln delivered his speech are known to exist, and Oakley was looking at one stereoscope image taken from a distance taken by photographer Alexander Gardner. Oakley started to closely examine a man with a beard and wearing a stove-pipe hat, on a horse, saluting the troops. A few years ago, an amateur historian garnered national attention by declaring the person was Lincoln.

“The more I looked at the image, I realized there was no way the person was Lincoln,” Oakley says, pointing out the image on his computer screen. “The man’s hair is too long, his beard is too full and if you look closely, there are epaulets on his shoulders.  Lincoln was wearing a plain overcoat that day.”

So Oakley began searching. He contacted the Library of Congress to see if a high-resolution image had been made of the left side of Gardner’s image. The right side is deteriorating.

“The librarian replied an image had not been scanned, but for $73 they would scan it for me,” Oakley says, laughing. “Best $73 dollars I’d ever spent.”

“With an image in better condition, and offering better contrast, Oakley quickly spotted William Seward, who was Lincoln’s Secretary of State, in the crowd. Seward’s white hair and hawk-like nose are easy to spot.

Oakley remembered that accounts of the ceremony put Seward close to Lincoln on the podium. He kept scanning the image and then began looking at another Gardner photo, taken about 10 minutes after the first. He spotted Seward again. But then he noticed another person had taken the place next to Seward.

“I’m an animator and I’m trained to look for movement,” Oakley explains, pointing to the blurry image on the historic photo. “That’s what we do, we notice movement and change, and reproduce it. And clearly there had been a change from the first photo."

Oakley says he looked, and looked...

“And then I said no way, and I jumped up. I did my historian happy dance. Remember, this was in my studio at 3am, and then I sat down and said no way.”

He points out everything he noticed; the scraggly beard, hairline, collar. Lincoln appears to be looking down.

To further confirm his discovery, Oakley used his animation skills to copy a portrait of Lincoln taken by Gardner 11 days before the speech. He then superimposed it over the photo. It appeared to match perfectly.

The discovery has shaken up the world of Civil War historians. Oakley has captured national attention with his find. While some disagree with his claim, many more are supportive.

“As soon as I saw it I thought, that’s going to make some controversy,” Oakley says, smiling at the image, as if looking at an old friend. “But I was also excited, because I’ve drawn Lincoln, I’ve sculpted him, I’ve animated him, I’ve painted him. I know every pore on this man’s face, and every mole and every scar, and when I saw that, I said that’s him. Now there are those who will disagree, and we can have a debate on that, but there is at least the strong possibility that is him.”

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