Part of the USA Today Network

Is it honestly Abe?

The vast public holdings of the U. S. government include thousands of vintage photographs from the Civil War. At least six of them show Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania, and are credited to the Mathew Brady studio in Washington, D.C. They were misidentified for years as being Hanover Junction, Virginia, but in the 1950s a York Countian, Russell Bowman, notified a clerk in the archives of the mistake and she agreed.

The government obtained the six images from various sources, including some from the Mathew Brady Collection. Others were a gift of Colonel Godwin S. Ordway, Jr. in 1948. The negatives are currently held in the National Archives; the prints are in the photographic collection of the Library of Congress. Some of the prints are in the form of stereo cards, with twin images that are slightly offset as captured by side-by-side lenses. Four of the images (taken while looking northward) show vintage trains and people at Hanover Junction; one shows just a crowd of people on the porch; and the final one (looking east) shows a few men standing on the temporary bridge over the Codorus Creek. Confederate cavalrymen from Virginia and Maryland had burned the bridge and 30 others in York County during the Gettysburg Campaign; the U. S, Military Railroad rebuilt them.

Since the mid-1950s, Civil War, railroad, photographic, and presidential buffs and historians have debated if this series shows President Abraham Lincoln and his travel party on their way to Gettysburg on November 18, 1863, to attend the dedication of the new National Cemetery. There, Lincoln was to deliver a few remarks that have come down in history to us as the Gettysburg Address.

Do the Hanover Junction photos show Lincoln as he waited to change trains that long-ago afternoon? Maybe. Maybe not.

Here are the known facts:

A blow-up of one of the images shows a tall, bearded man wearing a top hat, a characteristic long associated with Abraham Lincoln. He is carrying an umbrella and standing with a group of men and women that include Union soldiers and civilians, many of which appear well dressed as if going to something important.

Say, for instance, the social event of the season — the formal dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg.

In three of the six images, a steam locomotive is shown on the tracks of the Hanover Branch Railroad (left), which ran west to Hanover and then on through New Oxford to its terminus in Gettysburg (it was unfinished west of town, although cuts had been made in the ridges to facilitate the later laying of track and ties). In one image, the train has departed (or has not yet arrived).

So, what do we know about Abraham Lincoln’s visit to York County:

  1. Among the northbound trains that came to Hanover Junction on November 17, 1863, was one from Baltimore that contained Lincoln’s bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, and several members of the press, including John W. Forney of the Philadelphia Press. Two photographers, David Woodbury and Anthony Berger, from the Mathew Brady studio in Washington may have been on board. Lamon went ahead of Lincoln to make sure that everything was all set for the president’s visit.
  2. The following day, Lincoln arrived at Hanover Junction in a special 5-car Northern Central train (he had left Washington earlier that day on the Baltimore & Ohio RR). Passengers included Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of the Interior John Usher, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, several invited guests including military personnel from Italy and France, the fancily uniformed U. S. Marine Band (including the father of composer John Philips Sousa), a ladies choir from Baltimore, the 2nd U.S. Artillery Band (which also joined the entourage in Baltimore), and many others including Lincoln’s black barber and personal servant William Johnson. Lincoln’s secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay were also on the train, as were the mayor of Boston and other dignitaries including well-known artist Francis Carpenter.
  3. The train left Baltimore shortly at 1:10 p.m. and arrived at Hanover Junction shortly after 3:30 p.m. Huge crowds were there to greet the president. Newspaper reporters in the throng later mentioned that there were many pickpockets intermingled with the group, and a large pile of empty wallets was later found along the tracks.
  4. The passengers waited at Hanover Junction for the anticipated arrival of “the governors’ train” which was due from Harrisburg with the governors of Pennsylvania and several other Northern states. It was delayed by an accident and would not arrive until much later. Lincoln’s train then departed, sans the governors, and steamed into Gettysburg before 6:30 p.m. There, Lincoln stayed at the home of David Wills overnight before returning through Hanover Junction late on the 19th. He was ill on the return trip and did not make any public appearances.
  5. Lincoln did not change trains at all. He used the same rail cars from Washington to Gettysburg and back (all the same gauge track; he did change locomotives in Baltimore).
  6. On Lincoln’s return trip, his train did not stop at Hanover Junction. It was nighttime (not conducive for photography) and he was not feeling well. The train steamed through Hanover Junction and went straight down to Baltimore before heading back in Washington.

Local lore, backed by a few scattered 20th-century newspaper reports, suggests that Lincoln while waiting on Governor Curtin’s train stepped off into the crowd and chatted with several onlookers. Someone (likely Brady’s two employees) took several photos. One local man said that as a little boy he heard the boom, boom, boom of the flash firing.

There are several problems, however, with these local accounts, and with the photos if they honestly show Abe Lincoln.

  1. Not a single person on Lincoln’s November 18 train who left accounts of the trip ever mentioned that anyone got off the train, including the president. Artist Francis Carpenter specifically states that Lincoln was tired and excused himself to his private room. Lincoln supposedly joshed with Secretary of State Seward, a well-known lover of fine poetry, that he go out and recite some verses.
  2. Another local account tells of a little boy who peered into the car and reportedly saw Lincoln seated, hat in his lap, scribbling on some paper.
  3. If we assume that the reporters and passengers on the train are wrong, and the president and his party got off, then we are left with several other problems. Not a single person in any photograph is wearing the distinctive uniform of the 28-member Marine Band. Secretary Seward, who loved being photographed and talking with the public, is not in any photograph. None. Not one. Neither are the other two cabinet members, Usher and Blair. The president’s military escort, Brigadier General James Fry, does not appear. Neither does Frederick Lincoln, the mayor of Boston. None of these people got off to stretch their legs? And what about Major General Robert Schenck, like me a graduate of Miami University at Oxford, Ohio? He’s not in any photo. I have read through his extensive papers in the archives at Mother Miami and he does not mention anything about Hanover Junction or getting off the train.
  4. Some folks believe that John Hay and John Nicolay are in the photos. Read their accounts, which they recorded. Neither one mentioned getting off the train at Hanover Junction for photos. They do talk about going out on the town at Gettysburg drinking later that day.
  5. Francis Carpenter stated that “a large concourse of people” were at Hanover Junction but Lincoln did not get off to greet them. Newspaper accounts, as earlier mentioned, agree that a vast throng awaited the train. Now, look again at the Brady images. That’s not “a large concourse of people” awaiting the train, which carried the president and more than 100 others.
  6. When Governor Curtin’s train finally arrived, convalescing Union Captain Azor Nickerson of the 8th Ohio, waiting to get on board after coming up from Washington, stated that there were so many people at the station clamoring for a look at the politicians that they had to put armed guards on duty to deny access.

So, we are left with what the photos show us — about 30 to 35 people at Hanover Junction (certainly not a crowd large enough to threaten to storm the governors’ train nor enough people to support the term “a vast concourse of people,” so many, in fact, that pickpockets collected “a large pile” of wallets they later discarded).

We are left with the distinct possibility that this is not, in fact, Lincoln’s train. Some have speculated that it was a later reenactment, or perhaps a small ceremony of the Hanover Branch celebrating a new engine or some other event. I don’t think so.

I think this is the press train on November 17, 1863. If you blow up the images and look carefully, one man stands out as looking a lot like Ward Hill Lamon. He’s wearing the same suit and is the same rough shape and build as a known photo of Lamon taken at Antietam in October 1862. His train was delayed for several hours at Hanover Junction, according to passengers. It fits. Obscure train at an out-of-the-way train station in southern York County. About 30 to 35 passengers get off to await the repairs so they can get going. Bored, and to practice their craft in preparation for the big event at Gettysburg, the photographers take a series of six test shots from various angles and distances, showing the bridge and people.

This deceptively low ridgeline is to the east of Codorus Creek and Hanover Junction. It is much higher than it appears.

Not exactly a “vast concourse of people,” is it? And, oh yes, the “Lincoln” in the top hat and carrying the umbrella has moved off to one side, by the NCRY tracks. And, in this image, the locomotive is gone, having departed (or perhaps, it had yet to arrive; the exact sequence of the images remains uncertain).

Here is the last of the six images in question. Some accounts say the two dandies at the left are John Hay and John Nicolay, while the seated gentleman with the cane and handkerchief is General-in-Chief of the Army Winfield Scott and his four daughters. There are problems here, too. Winfield Scott, in bad health, was in New York City at the time. In fact, a letter from him was read at the dedication at Gettysburg in his absence. While some descendants say that the two men are the president’s secretaries, others say no way. And, some folks say the man leaning on the column to the right is industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Others disagree.

We do know that Lincoln did make a short speech later during a brief stop at Hanover some nine miles west of Hanover Junction (he did not want to do so, but the crowd urged him to come out on the car’s platform to greet them). I think that some of the accounts of him interacting with the people at Hanover Junction may actually be referring to the events later that afternoon at Hanover.

So, for now, until some smoking gun appears, we are left with a mystery. Is this Lincoln’s party? If so, way too many important people cannot be identified in the images who should be there. Where are the vast crowds that greeted the president? Why did not a single person on the train ever mention getting off, or that Abe got off? Are there such accounts that have yet to be discovered, however?

What do you think?

A video with my analysis in detail plays on a continual loop inside the Hanover Junction depot museum often when it is open. Stop by and have a listen, and look at my slides, and then make your own decision.

Or, pick up a copy of my recent book on the subject.