02/18/2008 03:43 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Lesson on Presidents' Day From Lincoln's Second Inaugural

I've been lax in contributing to HuffPost's readers of late because I'm working on a book, so I asked my older daughter Kitty, a senior producer at National Public Radio, to fill in for me. Here's her post, which proves she's the best writer in the family:


There was a time some two decades ago when I could have told you not only what photographs of President Lincoln existed in the Library of Congress, but probably could have cited all the negative numbers they were filed under. It was the first war to be widely photographed, and Lincoln the first president to understand the power of photography.

I was producing the PBS Civil War series with Ken Burns, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that our crew spent literally months poring over and filming the photos of the Civil War. I spent a lot of time in those years, wearing white cotton gloves, pulling dusty photos out of filing cabinets and making notes, while Ken and the cameraman filmed. Then I'd return to the library as we edited the series to order prints of pictures we needed for more footage.

So learning that there were new photos, long unseen photos, of Lincoln's last great speech, at his Second Inaugural, it was a little like being a detective who comes across key evidence in a case that's long been closed. I had to take a look.

At the library's Prints and Photographs Division, Carol Johnson, the curator of 19th century photography, pulled out a familiar file, filled with photos of the historic inaugural ceremony on March 4, 1865. But the new photos were glass-plate negatives that weren't in the cabinet when we were filming at the Library. They'd been stored elsewhere, and they'd been filed under President Grant.

Johnson explained that the Library had received a large collection of Civil War photographs in the 1940s, with handwritten logs. Some of the writing was hard to make out. "Over time, the caption for these photos had been misplaced, and it just never made it into our records," she said.

The library recently put its photographic images online, and a researcher in Colorado spotted the error. Johnson says it was an amazing discovery.

"One of the photos was labeled as Grant's Inauguration; the other one was labeled as the Grand Army of the Republic parade," she said. Johnson showed me the log book, and, indeed, a researcher had placed two question marks beside the photo -- "1869?" it read. "1865?"

The pictures do show the Union Army parading, and they do indeed look grand. But they were there for Lincoln, not Grant. They stand at attention, awaiting Lincoln's speech in parade dress -- rows of soldiers in buttoned uniforms with hats, horses, rifles and caissons, and regimental flags. They had marched from the White House to the Capitol that day, and you can see from one moment to the next, the crowd part to make room for the president's carriage.

You can also see how wet the ground looks, because it had rained for days before the inauguration. Johnson said that's one way she knew this was from Lincoln's era: "I love how the ground looks just a few days before the inauguration, and when you read accounts of the inauguration, people talked about how muddy they got," she said.

Muddy, but exuberant. The war is nearly over. And this crowd seems to know it. A few have arms raised, as if cheering the speech. There were several military bands and a huge drum right behind the carriage. Lincoln has even taken his hat off!

And there was another discovery, which I don't remember having noticed before. This was the first time that African-American troops had marched in an inauguration. And you can see them, if you look closely, in the very front row.

Of course, what I know when you look in these faces is what this crowd does not. That in one month, the war will be finished. But five days after that, Lincoln himself will be dead, at an assassin's hand.

It's almost impossible to see these photos, without that knowledge shadowing the view. It's a poignant backdrop against which to read the immortal speech Lincoln gave for his second Inaugural: He instructs this crowd -- and his fellow citizens -- for the tasks that lie ahead, after the war has ended. To bind the nation's wounds. To care for the veterans, the widows, the orphans. With malice toward none, with charity for all. Those are generous words and they're worth remembering today.

I'm glad to be reminded of a moment that meant so much such a long time ago, and still plays out in my own life. And I'll spend this Presidents Day thinking about what it means to govern during a time of war, and what the duty of the living is to the dead.