The Weight of a Year

Working on the layout for Bert Dunkerly’s upcoming To the Bitter End, I was searching for a photo of President Lincoln from 1865. As I sorted through the Library of Congress’s stash, I came across a pair of photos taken almost a year apart–the first on February 9, 1864, and the second taken 150 years ago today on February 5, 1865.


I have seen before/after photos of Lincoln from the start of the war to the end, and it never fails to move me. But this particular pair of photos, taken just a year apart, stunned me.

One year.

One year has drawn in his cheeks and deflated his chest. His face is gaunt, his hair unkempt. The lines crease his face more deeply. His tie hangs akimbo.

In 1864, he sits confident in the chair, formal yet comfortable. In 1865, his sits more upright, like he has settled onto the chair with the effort of a man whose bones are tired and his muscles sore.

His right hand is a blur. He’s winding down, wasting away, yet still in motion. Yet it’s hard not to think the hand in motion looks ghostly.

Even the quality of the prints themselves makes him look more faded, as though he’s being erased from his accustomed black into something more transparent.

Two months to the day after the second photo was taken, Robert E. Lee would surrender at Appomattox. Five days later, Lincoln would be shot by Booth. The president would die the day following, April 15, 1865.

I wonder, looking at these photos, how much of him was left by then?

8 Responses to The Weight of a Year

  1. It’s great to see these two photos side by side. It’s almost as if he was hustled into the frame, and then hustled back out again, and led into solving the next problem between the states. In the first, like you said, he looks composed, confident, and unhurried. Such a difference!

  2. Thanks for these “before” and “after.” I first became aware of how the presidency wears away at the occupant the day JFK was killed. TV was showing pictures of the young, confident Kennedy of two years before and I was stunned.

    And Kennedy did not have half the problems Lincoln had. How AL managed to survive the horrors of the War is unimaginable! I believe it was to John Hay that Lincoln remarked, asking how it was that he, who growing up on a farm could not so much as cut off the head of a chicken, but was now in the midst of all this blood of young men.

    1. Those pics of Kennedy are, indeed, shocking. We remember him as young and charismatic, but he bore a heavy burden during his years in office. I’ve always admired his official portrait, where he’s looking down–it’s a great reflection of how conscious he was of the troubles he carried.

  3. Thanks, Chris Mackowski and other authors for making the Civil War come alive. A favorite quote of mine is from William Faulkner, ” The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” I’ve been receiving these posts for about a year now and they enrich my life and understanding of our past. Keep up the good work.

    Norman Vickers
    Pensacola, FL

    1. Thanks, Norman, for the kind words. It is a privilege to be able to share these stories and remember the work and sacrifices of those who came before us. I am so glad we’re helping you connect with those stories. Thanks for reading!

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