Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C., April 10, 1865

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Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C., April 10, 1865
Alexander Gardner
Chicago History Museum

Alexander Gardner took this photograph the day after the Civil War ended, and only four days before Abraham Lincoln would be assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln looks very tired—he had aged a great deal since he took office. Yet he also appears relieved, almost happy. No photograph of Lincoln exists that shows him smiling—that would not have been appropriate for photographs taken at this time—but this one comes very close. His face seems to say, “At long last, the terrible conflict is over!”  The war had started almost exactly four years before, on April 12, 1861. No one expected the fighting to be so cruel or last so long, or that it would end slavery in America. Yet the Emancipation Proclamation, Thirteenth Amendment, and Union victory had done just that.

The Civil War wrought a new future for America, one that Lincoln would discuss the evening after this photo was made, April 11, in a prepared speech from the White House balcony. In his remarks, Lincoln acknowledged the great difficulty of restoring the Union and challenged Americans to consider extending equal voting rights to some African Americans, particularly “the very intelligent, and . . . those who serve our cause as soldiers.” No American president had publicly endorsed even limited black suffrage before and, at the time, only six northern states allowed black men to vote. Thus, Lincoln put America on its century-long course to become a bi-racial democracy. John Wilkes Booth became so enraged by the speech that he plotted to murder the President.

1. How does this photograph compare to the 1860 life mask by Leonard Volk?

2. Though Lincoln posed for dozens of photographs, he didn’t seem to care about how his hair or clothes looked. What do you think that says about him as a person? Or about the ways that people understood posing for photographs?

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