Turning your back on history


These boys staring at a camera in 1863 don’t seem aware that history is taking place right behind them. They should turn around and pay attention.

The photograph was taken on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the monument at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. What these boys turned their back on was Abraham Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address, the single most important speech in US history:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…


One of the blurry heads at the top of that distant rise near the centre is President Lincoln, but it’s impossible to say which head. Could it be the man in the stovepipe hat that I’ve circled? Lincoln did wear such hats and he was a tall man.


The photograph was taking by the great Alexander Gardner, then working for Matthew Brady. Gardner covered events in the Civil War before becoming a landscape photographer documenting, among other things, the Yosemite Valley, long before Ansel Adams made it his calling card.

The badly damaged image is from a wet plate negative, emulsion on glass, hence the flaking bits. It’s curious how we have a photographic record of this mythical event, yet at the same time records how ordinary it all was. Photography is a time machine.

You can see it here at Shorpy.com.


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