A Lincoln Photograph – and a Mystery

Washington, Nov. 6, 1860

There is no photograph of Lincoln from the day he was elected president – nor any of voters lining up to cast their ballots, nor of citizens hearing the results of a contest that would change their country forever. Newspapers did not run pictures in those days, and what we think of as photo reportage was still in its infancy, difficult to achieve with fragile, cumbersome, long-exposure cameras.

In fact, the respected Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer – author of the books “The Lincoln Image” and “Lincoln President-Elect,” among others – recently told me that he knew of not a single photograph of any kind taken on one of the most momentous days in American history, Nov. 6, 1860.

But I think I’ve found two – and they’re of Lincoln. Well, almost.

A few months ago, I was poking around in the vast picture collections at the Library of Congress, researching images to use in my forthcoming book, when I came across one I’d never seen reproduced in any history of Lincoln or the Civil War. It shows a group of men in front of the Capitol, about to raise an enormous stone column into place. And it’s dated, right on the photograph itself:

The photo comes from an album kept by Benjamin Brown French, commissioner of public buildings in Washington during the 1850s and ’60s. (The original is now in the collection of the Architect of the Capitol.) In the album there’s another intriguing note accompanying this photograph: “The ‘Lincoln column,’ first monolith raised, Nov. 1860, Pres’l election, being S. column of connecting corridor.”

Like the nation itself, the Capitol was a work-in-progress as the Civil War began. Several years earlier, a forward-thinking Southern statesman had overseen the start of an ambitious expansion project, raising the dome and spreading the marble wings across the hilltop, ready to encompass all the delegations and committees, offices and bureaus, that the rapidly growing Union might require. That statesman was Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who of course would soon set his hand to slicing up the Union rather than enlarging it. A further irony: slave laborers almost certainly worked on the building known as America’s “Temple of Liberty,” as they had when it was first constructed a half-century earlier. (The Library of Congress’s catalog entry suggests that some of the workmen in the Lincoln Column photo are African-American, but I don’t see it; I suspect it’s just that they’re blurry and the picture is dark.)

Construction was clearly in full swing on Election Day. Someone present at the column-raising on Nov. 6 – probably French himself, a staunch Republican – apparently decided to name it in commemoration of Lincoln’s victory that day. But the name didn’t stick. William C. Allen, chief historian in the Architect of the Capitol’s office for the past 28 years and author of the definitive book on the building’s history, told me in an e-mail that he’d never heard it before.

I began to wonder: is the long-forgotten Lincoln Column still there?

Yesterday morning, accompanied by my friend Abbie Kowalewski, a historian in the Office of History and Preservation of the House of Representatives, I went over to the Capitol to take a look. We quickly found what seemed to be the very spot the 1860 photo was taken. It was on the East Front of the Capitol, the recessed part of the facade toward the left-hand side of this picture:

With help from Abbie, I took a picture from an angle as similar to the 1860 one as I could get. I think they’re pretty close. A Capitol Police officer saw us shooting frame after frame of the same nondescript spot and came over to ask, rather menacingly, what we were up to. (Um, sorry – just taking exterior photos of the most famous public building in America. Clearly we must be terrorists.)

The Benjamin French album says that the Lincoln Column was the southernmost on the connecting corridor – that is, the far left-hand one. I was curious to know whether there might be any other period photographs showing the column after it was installed. So I went back across the street to the Library of Congress and quickly turned up another from the album. It, too, was inscribed “Nov. 6, 1860.” So now I had not one but two pictures taken on Election Day, 1860. This one must have been taken a few minutes after the first, and strongly suggests that the column was being lifted into the left-hand spot:

Success! I was certain I’d pinpointed it. I imagined Capitol tour guides for generations to come sharing the results of my research with curious visitors: “And that’s the famous ‘Lincoln Column,’ installed on the very day that Honest Abe was elected president.”

And how cool was it that Lincoln was sworn in on the same side of the building just a few months later, a stone’s throw from his eponymous column? I wondered if anyone had pointed it out to him.

Then I received an e-mail from the Architect of the Capitol’s office. Back in the Eisenhower era, Mr. Allen reminded me, the building had been enlarged again. All the 1860s columns were taken down and put in storage. They were reinstalled a few years later – but not in their original order. Nobody had recorded which one, of a hundred, had gone where. The Lincoln Column is still part of the Capitol, but no one knows where.

Well, at least we have the photographs.

Harold Holzer, “Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861”; Harold Holzer, Gabor Boritt and Mark E. Neely Jr., “The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln and the Popular Print”; Lloyd Ostendorf, “Lincoln’s Photographs: A Complete Album”; William C. Allen, “History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics”; Benjamin Brown French, “Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, 1828-1870.”

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


Full article and photos: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/05/a-lincoln-photograph-and-a-mystery