Josephine Cobb’s Discovery of a Lifetime

March is Women’s History Month! Visit National Archives News to see how we’re celebrating. Today’s post comes from Michael Hancock in the National Archives History Office.

According to the old saying, a picture is worth a thousand words. But in the case of Josephine Cobb and her 1952 discovery in a Civil War–era photograph, it’s worth exactly 272.

Josephine Cobb was hired by the National Archives in 1936 and became chief of the Still Photo Section. She took on the project of enlarging the photographs in a Civil War collection, and in a rare moment when a revelation of historic significance was made, she became as much a part of the narrative as the subject itself.

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Archivist Josephine Cobb with a Mathew Brady negative of Abraham Lincoln, 5/25/1949. (National Archives Identifier 12167664)

Josephine Cobb and Mathew Brady never met—they were generations apart from each other. Brady’s Civil War photographs contribute greatly to our understanding of that conflict, and Cobb focused on examining his work. In 1952, while studying a glass plate negative from November 19, 1863, she was well aware that this was the date when President Abraham Lincoln delivered the words that constitute the Gettysburg Address—all 272 of them.

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Crowd of citizens, soldiers, and Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863. (National Archives Identifier 529085)

Correctly surmising that the photograph was taken around noon, she worked on the supposition that it was quite possible Lincoln could be among the crowd. The time was significant because it was just after Lincoln arrived at the site, before former Massachusetts Governor Edward Everett’s arrival, and some three hours before Lincoln’s speech.

After a meticulous examination of the negative, a figure struck her as resembling the President. After identifying Lincoln’s bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon and calculating the crowd’s position and the direction they seemed to be fixing on, Josephine Cobb confirmed her suspicion. Abraham Lincoln was, in fact, among those in the picture, and it is quite possibly the only photographic documentation of President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. Her discovery opened up a whole new frontier for Civil War historians—with the advent of digital technology contemporary scholars, can now examine photographs with a greater sense of scrutiny.  

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Crowd of citizens, soldiers, and Abraham Lincoln (circled) at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863 (enlarged and cropped). (National Archives Identifier 529085)

Brady’s colleague, photographer Alexander Gardner, documented the event as well. Among his collection, some have argued that a series of negatives reveal what could be Lincoln amid a procession, but studies have proved inconclusive.

Josephine Cobb’s discovery eventually found its way into the popular Ken Burns Civil War documentary. Burns made great use of the image, and he benefited substantially from her tireless work. Fusing history with entertainment, her contribution provides a rich texture of that notable day and brings a greater clarity to the portrait of the Great Emancipator’s timeless oratory.  

Her work earned her national recognition: she received the National Abraham Lincoln award from the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia and the Abraham Lincoln Award of the Philadelphia Round Table and was president of the former in 1970 and 1971.

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Josephine Cobb, Archivist in the charge of the Still Picture Branch at the National Archives, holding a photograph by Mathew B. Brady of the 20th Main Infantry Regiment. Brady Photographs of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin appear in the background. (National Archives Identifier 12169321)

She also trained the librarians who worked at the Presidential Libraries, including those at Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F Kennedy. After her retirement from the National Archives, she settled in Maine and continued her historical work with state organizations like the Maine Historical Society and the Maine Old Cemetery Association.

Josephine Cobb and her fascination with Abraham Lincoln transcended her work at the National Archives, and her discovery forever links her legacy to his. Because of her inquisitive nature and attention to detail, she secured her place among some of the most exceptional women in the field of history.

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