“Four score and seven years ago….” those six words, spilling out into the Pennysylvania air in 1863, marked the beginning of one of the greatest speeches in American history and a new era in the life of the nation.
The 160th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address falls on Nov. 19. Thanks to some creative work by researcher Christopher Oakley, historians now have a bit more insight into exactly where the Civil War president stood when he called for a new birth of freedom in the country.
Following a long career in animation — Oakley’s credits include “Dinosaur,” “Stuart Little 2,” “Scooby Doo” and the videogame “Medal of Honor” — he transitioned to a position at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, as a new media studies professor.
There, he has combined a lifelong interest in all things Lincoln with 21st-century digital technology and, for his latest discovery, Library of Congress photographs.
How did your Lincoln Gettysburg Address project come about?
I transitioned from being a digital 3D character animator to an educator in 2009, when I began teaching animation at UNC Asheville.
To challenge advanced students learning Maya, one of the main programs used for digital animation, I created an undergraduate research endeavor in which we would digitally re-create and animate someone everyone knew. I’d always had a fascination with Abraham Lincoln, so I chose him as our subject.
In “The Virtual Lincoln Project,” over 100 students and I spent several years modeling Lincoln in digital 3D, then animating him delivering the Gettysburg Address.
What led you to research where Lincoln was standing?
Our initial plan was to animate Lincoln delivering his Gettysburg Address against a gray, neutral background. But as the project progressed, I decided to put Lincoln in the Soldier’s National Cemetery (now Gettysburg National Cemetery), since he was in Gettysburg to consecrate it.
However, my first foray into what the scene looked like revealed that Lincoln probably was standing in neighboring Evergreen Cemetery when he delivered his remarks. We wanted our depiction of Lincoln delivering the address to be as accurate as possible, and I realized there was a great deal more digging to be done.
I told the students to continue developing the tech, while I did the research on the location, shape and size of the speaker’s platform. Little did I know this would add years to the project!
Which photographs at the Library did you use?
There are only six known photographs of the actual dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863. Experts attribute them to three photographers: Alexander Gardner, Peter Weaver and David Bachrach.
Three of the photos are attributed to Gardner, two to Weaver and one to Bachrach. Bachrach’s is the most famous because, when you zoom in, you can clearly see Lincoln seated on the speaker’s platform. But all six photographs were absolutely critical to the success of my research.
We needed each of them in Maya, combined with Civil War-era maps, Google maps and 3D geographical information system topological maps, to determine definitively where the speaker’s platform was located.
One other Library photograph also played a crucial role. We know that Weaver took the photo held by the Library from the second floor of Evergreen Cemetery’s iconic gatehouse. But the other photograph attributed to Weaver (the one in the private collection) was taken from the attic of the house of local resident William Duttera. The house is no longer standing, and no photographs of it were known to exist, which made it difficult to place Weaver’s location with certainty.
I had a Civil War-era map that indicated the location and footprint of the Duttera house, but I didn’t know what it looked like. I spent a few days looking through the Library’s online Gettysburg photograph collection in hopes of catching a glimpse of it.
In a turn-of-the-20th-century photograph, I found a structure that matched the footprint and was situated exactly where the map indicated the Duttera house was. If not for the photo’s availability on the Library’s website, I would never have been able to confirm that Weaver took his photo from the attic of the Duttera house.
Different locations have been suggested. How did you reach a conclusion?
The written record and eyewitness accounts of where the speaker’s platform stood vary wildly.
In Maya, you can create something called an image plane, which sits in front of the software’s digital camera lens. By loading each Gettysburg photograph into this plane, you can move the camera around in a digital re-creation of the cemetery until what the computer sees exactly matches the photograph.
When you do this for each photograph, you get a highly accurate map of where each photographer stood and what their angles of view were. And because the three photographers were triangulating each other, you can determine the size, shape and location of anything within their views.
We determined the size, shape, and location of our digital platform by how it matched the photographers’ views through our image planes.
If we moved the digital platform just a few inches in any direction that wasn’t correct, it didn’t match any of the views. The same is true for the platform’s size and shape. We also added digital people into our re-creation and placed them according to the photographs, and they match.
What value does the platform’s location add to the historical record?
For well over 150 years, its size, shape and location have been hotly debated. According to the National Park Service, the most-asked question among Gettysburg visitors is about where Lincoln stood.
For the past four decades, scholarship has placed the speaker’s platform — and therefore Lincoln — entirely within Evergreen Cemetery. My research reveals that the speaker’s platform straddled Evergreen and Soldier’s National cemeteries and that Lincoln stood well within the Soldier’s National.
So, for the first time in 40 years, Lincoln is back to where he was actually supposed to be — standing near the graves of the fallen soldiers.
For visitors to Gettysburg, knowing you are standing on the very spot where Lincoln delivered his immortal address transports you in time. In your imagination, you can become a living witness to the event.
View a lecture Oakley delivered about his research at the Lincoln Forum last fall.